Friday, October 21, 2011


St Paul famously described the internal spiritual struggle he had in this passage, including the insight “The good that I would [do], I do not do; that which I do not want [to do], that is what I do” (Rom 7:19). How many of us have not felt this same conflict (not necessarily reducing it to the trivial level of “The devil made me do it”)? What is this alternate law in the body that is seemingly so diametrically opposed to spiritual growth?

The 14th century Dominican spiritual master John Tauler had a fundamental insight: “Our nature looks to self in everything. …[M]an is inclined to love himself more than anything else…even more than God… And this evil tendency is rooted so deep in us, that its traces baffle the search of all the wise men in the world. All the industry of man cannot correct this innate weakness. …It often happens, that when we fancied God alone was our motive, it turned out that…we were but seeking self in everything.”
The more modern buzz-word for this propensity (from 12-Step programs) is “self-centeredness.” Ironically, the less we see this tendency in ourselves, the more likely it is deeply rooted in our hearts—it is the master-teacher of the exercise of rationalization, by which we can justify whatever we wish to do, in the name of the principle that declares, “This is wrong for everyone, all the time—except for me, this time.”

How can we put to death this cause of spiritual death? How can we break out of the prison of self-centeredness? Surely it must be a step-by-step process (so long as we truly continue to take the next steps)—what act of outreach, of generosity, will I engage in today that I otherwise would choose to avoid? Can I look into another’s eyes and see the other as a true other, rather than just a reflection of (or extension of) myself? So hard…

It seems to me that the precise meaning of Matt 5:48 (“You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”) is the complete transformation of the person from self-centeredness to other-openness—it makes us heavenly creatures rather than hellish ones (those who, by definition, are utterly wrapped in self). The final letting go may be difficult—even painful: here is the beginning of the practical theology of purgatory—but utterly essential.

Who is willing to make today “the first day of the real ‘rest of your life’”?


  1. Before reading this very welcome blog, I was meditating on the content of your homily this morning. Harmony with others - getting along. But more in depth than that, tackling the divisions within myself. The strength of conscience being whittled down so quickly and falling into the "me" syndrome. It reminds me of the counter-culture of the secular which stresses 'whatever turns you on'. How much time has been spent supposedly dreaming harmless thoughts which are not at all related to spiritual growth......then whisking oneself away to a less egocentric train of thought. With regrets that the 'pressures' of the secular have imposed themselves on me once again. It is with great admiration and comprehension that the lives of the saints are enormous feats of acceptance of God's graces. The study of lives of favorite saints can be ever so helpful a prop to fight our selfish tendencies.

  2. "The theosis of the believer is initiated when God bestows on the believer God's essential properties; that is, what God gives of himself to humans is nothing separate from God himself.

    "Before God gives himself to a person . . . he performs his 'nihilizing work' - he makes the person 'empty' and 'nothing.' This . . . does not imply a total annihilation of the person. It refers only to the destruction of the individual's constant effort to make himself god and to justify himself.

    "One must pass through this agony and, ultimately, through the cross in order to achieve a true cognitio sui. . . .

    "Luther's concept of theosis, then, is understood correctly only in connection with his theology of the cross. The participation that is a real part of his theology is hidden under its opposite, the passio through which one is emptied. It is not grasped in rational knowledge but only in faith . . ." -Tuomo Mannermaa, "Why is Luther So Fascinating," in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Eerdmans, 1998), 10.

  3. The second part of this citation is clear and true enough, as is obvious, but I think I question the first part, from the point of view of Luther's own theology: is there room in any view of soteriology/anthropology for such 'nihilizing' and any residual tendencies that justify the phrae 'simul justus et peccator'?