The Compassionate Way of Self-Care


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 18, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.

The Gospel Reading is according to Luke 12:16-21

I want to put in a plug for our Orthodox Witness Program going on right now. It meets on Thursday evenings at Sayidna John’s house and periodically here at St. Mary’s for a Practicum based on the IFS Model of Therapy led by Dr. Popa. Yesterday’s practicum was exceptional in helping us look deeper into our own lives and into the holy scripture in a refreshing and illuminating way. Think about signing up when the opportunity comes again next year.

Today’s Gospel of the Rich Man and his escalating riches didn’t come up yesterday and it certainly could have. For metaphorically the Lord in that parable reveals the futility of our attempts to create a world in which there is no suffering. The rich man’s growing wealth and his multiplying barns are metaphors for his (and our) defenses against death. But death came for him and is coming for us and before that suffering and this we cannot avoid.

No matter how hard we try, we suffer. Sometimes it even seems like the more we try the more we suffer. Resistance is futile and resist we still do! Suffering is a part of life and to deny that is to miss a good portion of it. It comes in small ways and big ones. For example, when we turn on a lamp in the dark, the light pierces our eyes. There is pain for a moment as our eyes adjust. We don’t think of it as suffering because it is so brief. Kidney stones, well, that’s another thing altogether. Trust me! We all have our prime examples.

And what of our internal suffering? The nagging depression or anxiety, the difficult memories that, after long years, still cut like a sharp knife, the way we act with anger or disgust involuntarily like a reflex without wanting to. St. Paul wrote of this in Romans, lamenting that the things he did not want to do he ended up doing. He was speaking of a common human experience.

Since this is true, we need to learn how to care for ourselves in healthy ways that acknowledge the whole of life, both inside and out. I know that our society teaches that self-care is selfish and not worth our time. It is for us often a sign of weakness and vulnerability. Denial seems better because that way no one sees our hidden wounds and we can keep up our perfect appearances. But self-care, according to good theology and healthy spiritual practice is not selfish; it is necessary. Here’s a quote from Parker Palmer’s excellent book, LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK.

“…self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, and was put on this earth to offer to others.”

And, of course, there is St. Seraphim’s admonition to “make peace in your heart and thousands around you will be saved.”

So, self-care is important and, as it turns out, is also the care of others. Loving neighbor as self begins with self-care.

What then of these weak and sinful and shameful parts of ourselves we try to ignore, deny, or lock away. What does Christ tell us to do with them? Love them. Embrace them.

These sad, hurt, and lonely parts appears as metaphors in scripture. They are the uninvited, the least of the brethren, and sometimes demons (for we demonize them), and cast them into the outer darkness of our consciousness. They appear as the sick and possessed and dispossessed that Christ heals, exorcizes, and welcomes, the Blind Man, the Gadarene, the Phoenician and the Samaritan Women. All represent more than what they appear to be.

Underneath the hurt and wounded and noisy brethren lies the peaceful and dynamic center of our being, the Lord himself, who longs to awaken us to his presence and who longs to show us that our entire being is enfolded already in his divine radiance. But first we must become aware of this eternal truth and offer as a living sacrifice all that we discover inside and out to the Lover and Healer of our souls.

There is something else we need to know and another myth that must be dispelled. We do not have to do anything except let go of our attempts to make ourselves appear perfect and invulnerable. Palmer has something wonderful to say about this, as well.

“The God I was told about in church, and still hear about…runs about like an anxious schoolmaster measuring people’s behavior with a moral yardstick. But the God I know is the source of reality rather than morality, the source of what is rather than what ought to be.”

We cannot be healed by super-imposing a veneer of morality over our suffering. God wants to touch our wounds, so it is better that we not try to hide them like Adam and Eve who hid their nakedness from the Lord in the Garden. So, we must come to God as we are without defense.

I was leading a small group at a retreat in an Orthodox Church once. In my group was an old Greek yia yia who spoke up when the time for questions and answers arrived. “I haven’t received Holy Communion for a very long time.” “How long?” I asked. “Decades,” she replied. “I gently said, “That’s a very long time. Would you feel comfortable to tell us why?” “Yes,” she said and she told this story.

She had been a little girl living in Athens when World War II was raging. She lived in a neighborhood that was largely Jewish and so her playmates were the Jewish children who lived there. One morning she woke up and all of them were gone. The Nazis had come and taken them all away in the night to exterminate.Then she said, “I have such anger in my heart that I have never felt worthy to approach the chalice. What should I do?”

My reply? “I recommend that the next time you have an opportunity, approach the chalice with your arms over your heart and pray, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but if I do not, how can I be healed?’ I have no doubt that the Lord will receive you if you come to him acknowledging your broken heart.” I don’t know if she ever did, but I sincerely hope so.

It would be wonderful if we all did bringing our glorious and unique brokenness to the Lover of our Being.