By Susan Muto
Our life, from infancy to old age, is an invitation to be our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers (Gn 4:9). We never feel alone in the world when we walk together with Christ at our side. To follow him is to bestow on others the love God bestows on us.
To become givers as well as receivers of care, our love has to be purified of self-gratifying passions. Our promise to the Lord is to treat all people with compassion, be they young or old, healthy or infirm.
A fellow parishioner extends a sign of Christ’s peace, and we acknowledge it warmly. A woman lowers the window on the driver’s side of her car and asks us for directions; we pull over and take the time to draw her a map. A passenger next to us on a plane asks if we will change seats with him because the window side makes him nervous, and we oblige with a smile.
Encounters like these, however nondescript, are life-giving. They exemplify respect for our mutual, God-given dignity. As members of Christ’s Mystical Body, as participants in the life of the Trinity, we try our best to clothe ourselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:12).
Such loving care heals the fractured relations that result when vice prevails over virtue, when division replaces respect for diversity, when indifference triumphs over addressing neighborly needs. Despite our desire to be in communion with the Lord, our arrogant, isolated “I” sometimes prevails over the needs of those God calls us to serve.
The words “me, my, and mine” crop up in casual conversations, in the media, and on countless magazine covers. We hear someone say almost on a daily basis, “What’s in it for me?” Despite our advice to a friend to downsize, she protests, “But what will I do without my shoes that match my outfits for every season?”
To speak of self-denial, when there is so much emphasis on self-gratification, is not easy. Daily dying may be the last discipline that interests us, even though to lose ourselves that “[we] may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8) is the essence of discipleship.
Denial of self, that is to say of our own willful ego, is a necessary condition for finding our true identity in Christ. St. Paul says we must “exercise self-control in all things” (1 Cor 9:25) and never “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition” (Phil 1:17).
Denying ourselves happens in daily life whether we pay attention to this mortification or not. Look at it this way: To shop, cook, and set the table for dinner means that we have to “die” to whatever else we may like to do instead.
When the time comes to gather our thoughts, go to our desk, and answer our emails, we have to “deny” our desire to test a new recipe in the kitchen. We simply cannot be everywhere with everyone at the same time.
Given the many times our best laid plans go astray, is it any wonder why we need to practice self-denial not occasionally but every day? This is the spiritual discipline that awakens the truth of our dependence on God. It curtails selfishness and leads to other-centered love.
Examples might be smiling kindly at someone who irritates us, even when we have a headache, or lowering the volume on our favorite television program when a friend comes to see us and needs to talk, or making a promise to be punctual and keeping it. Actions like these invite us to sacrifice our personal preferences and place others’ needs before our own.
Every time we die to self, we rise with Christ. Far from being a hindrance to our progress in the spiritual life, self-denial prevents us from being trapped in the illusion of self-sufficiency. It teaches us that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).
The paradox Jesus wants us to understand is that we need to become “obedient to the point of death” (Phil 2:8) if we want to rise with him. Self-denial offers us the blessing of decreasing that Christ may increase (see Jn 3:30). It moderates willfulness and saves us from making decisions not in keeping with the Gospel.
Both ordinary events and extraordinary afflictions remind us that adversity either plunges us into despair or advances our aspiration to be with the Lord. There is no shame in the admission that we depend on God for the air we breathe and that in truth we are not in control of anything. The Father holds us in being, the Son is our strength, the Spirit gives us life.
Susan Muto, Ph.D. is Dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality