“When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. … Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the Beloved. Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
These words from Henri Nouwen circle my heart every time I walk with someone who is struggling to break free from the yoke of self-rejection. The hard knocks of life have a way of infiltrating our core identity in destructive ways. I see it too often in my ministry. Each time I encounter it in a sister or brother I find myself reflecting on my own path with this insidious, hissing voice of Satan, lying in wait for our death-dealing allegiance.
For a quarter of a century, I lived with a deep call to priestly ministry in a church institution that blatantly denied that possibility, still today. Living an ontological reality out of sync with what the church considered “revealed truth” made me run the gamut of responses: from denial of and flight from the call, to feeling the strong pull of self-rejection, depression and anger, feeling victimized by the church’s prohibition, to finally letting the priestly charism/call form my personhood in Christ alone and grow my ministerial journey even without the Church’s formal blessing.
We are always passionate about the challenges that affect our own lives most directly. But we each engage challenges in different ways. While I readily acknowledge the need and importance of working for justice both in and outside the church, I never joined the ranks of lobbying Rome to ordain women. My call was more in living deeply and fully, fruitfully and faithfully the ecclesial and spiritual tensions which God’s priestly call created in my mind, heart and spirit. Thus I opted for the spiritual route, pleading with God to help me stay clear of the traps of victimization and excessive anger or depression.
This route, it now turns out, was the best choice. For many years I lived my priestly call intentionally and fruitfully in a non-ordained capacity inside Roman Catholic structural constraints. I learnt to unmask and courageously mock the cunning voice of self-rejection. In turn the spiritual practices produced unimaginable fruits which I continue to reap in abundance today, now as an ordained Anglican priest, with an abiding affection for my ecclesial family of origin intact.
However, dodging the outside voices of rejection was no small matter, and the dodging never ends. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the father of spiritual direction, reminds us that the better we get at dodging, the more subtle the deceiving voices become to trap us. Fortunately I had a secure and loving childhood to draw from; a sheer luck of the draw I think. I found solid spiritual mentors on the journey, and my husband believed in me. These elements turned out to be vital in honing the necessary spiritual disciplines. The hard lessons from the refiner’s fire of life have deeply shaped my mental maps and the ways I engage challenging realities today.
The way we navigate our inner path with God has a direct effect on the outer path we tread in the world. In other words, not grounding our identity solidly in God’s love through Jesus (the only safe ground) will make us exact from the world (even from the church) an affirmation and recognition which cannot be delivered by fallible and imperfect human beings. Without a courageous claiming of our identity as God’s beloved we become easy prey for self-rejection.
I’d like to think that those who disagree with us are not always unjust and unenlightened. Each of us is the product of multiple experiences, encounters and belief systems. Each of us also carries unhealed wounds and emotional baggage. Not to make space for this woundedness and diversity with respect and gentleness, to dismiss opponents as merely narrow-minded conversation stoppers, to turn them into problems or obstructions of justice, could run the risk of a new type of fundamentalism or doctrinal orthodoxy that disregards another’s history, freedom and conscience, resulting in a free pass for intolerance.
Frances Lee addressed this very phenomenon a couple of years ago on CBC Radio, calling some activist circles breeding grounds for a culture of victimhood. Lee’s essay sparked a public conversation about what social movements lose when valuing being right over being kind. Lee wrote: As an intersectional activist who is concerned about the future of our movements, I’m really worried that social justice activism in the West is stuck in a dangerous state of disrepair. Ideological purity has become the norm. Social justice movements, which were originally about freeing marginalized people from oppressive institutions and social structures, have become imbued with their own narrow framework of morality.
The spiritual challenge is always and only to “love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us” (Luke 6:27) and let God do the rest: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (Romans 12:20). That is why the spirituality of reconciliation is so compelling, and can guide and sustain all relationships in God’s household. That is why the things that damage bonds of affection can feel more painful than holding onto rigid positions at the expense of those bonds. God is clearly not finished with any of us yet.
It’s hard work to keep the ears of our hearts open when listening to different perspectives. I still cave in at times. But I am also trying to apply the above lessons to other difficult situations now. Henri Nouwen is right: being God’s beloved and living from that center truly does set us free to live in joy and peace and communion with all despite disagreement and difference. Such freedom gives no power whatsoever to opponents to define or hurt us, personal or ecclesial. This freedom is truly out of this world, and even out of this church.
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