Spiritual self-help

Earlier this week I was reading over some of daily reflections for Lent that various groups offer. I was particularly struck by an Ash Wednesday reflection from Loyola Press. The author begins:

“’Self-help’ books are very popular. They tell us how to improve ourselves. We turn to them for advice on how to have a more appealing personality, to become better business people, or to grow in personal relationships. In these books we find a set of disciplines which promise the reader success in life. All it takes is belief in yourself and commitment to the process.”

The author goes on to say that all too often we are tempted to treat our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms giving as a “spiritual self-help” process – I plead guilty to giving in to this temptation.

Today’s first reading makes it very easy for me to fall into this self-help trap. Isaiah says “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday . . . (the Lord) will renew your strength, and you shall be like a watered garden.” It seems so easy. All I have to do is follow the simple steps of loving God and serving my neighbor, and I will attain a perfect spiritual life and relationship with God. I can do it all on my own – “belief in yourself and commitment to the process.”

This self-help thinking brought to mind another article that I read some time ago. It discussed the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees. The writer maintained that at the heart of the conflict between Jesus and these religious leaders was the simple fact that the Pharisees saw no need for Jesus or for salvation from God since they could save themselves by observing the Law, the Torah. They totally bought into the self-help theory that a person can accomplish anything if only he or she has confidence in themselves and a commitment to following the recommended disciplines.

The Gospel reading today contradicts this self-help philosophy and puts the first reading into perspective. What enabled Levi to leave everything and follow Jesus? For me the answer is found in the final lines of the reading: “Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” Levi knew that he was “sick,” a sinner, and that he could not heal himself. Through the call of Jesus, however, he experienced God’s love and acceptance, the healing he desired, and ran after it. The banquet he throws is in response to the healing he received.

The insight I received from the scripture today was that self-help only goes so far. I can’t make God love me, but I can discover God’s love already present in my life. And I can respond to that love through prayer, fasting, and alms giving. Thus, for me, Lent is not so much a time to practice “spiritual self-help” as it is to discover again the truth Ignatius pointed out – that I am a sinner loved by God – and to respond to that love through service to others.

Author: Wally Sidney, S.J., Superior of the Gonzaga Community


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