Forgotten self

Taken from

Re-post from 2013

Seeking one’s self in God is to seek for comfort and refreshment from God; that is contrary to the pure love of God. Seek rather seek God and love Him with a pure love … Do you think that such persons will love none and delight in none save God? No; they will love others much more than they did, with a more genuine love, with greater passion and with a love which brings more profit; that, in a word, is what love really is. And such souls are always much fonder of giving than of receiving, even in their relations with the Creator Himself. — St. Teresa of Avila

I was speaking with a woman recently about her own spiritual journey over the last twenty years, and as we talked about our common love for the “Jesus Prayer” she shared with me a truly extraordinary story that revealed profound insights into the nature of conversion and what it means to pray, and not just say, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” I will attempt to accurately summarize what she said, blending it with what she later emailed me. I am grateful that, for others’ benefit, she was open to having the general story-line shared.

I grew up in a high-achievement family where we were all expected to prove our worth by achievements in school, sports, and music. And it wasn’t just that my parents wanted me to be successful and reach my potential, but the clear message was: we value you inasmuch as you earn that value. Once I left college and began working in a successful and ascending career, I began to suffer from anxiety and depression, and got involved in relationships that were destructive; where I felt compelled to ‘perform’ for the men I dated and felt a failure if I didn’t meet their demands. It all fell apart in my early thirties, and I ended up coming back to my faith with a vengeance. It was liberating in ways that I cannot express.

But I was still who I was, and even if Jesus had come and given me new hope I still operated in the prove-my-worth mode. But now, my compulsion was spiritualized, and I began to be obsessed with being an Über-Catholic who gained the admiration of my Catholic peers. I found myself constantly finding subtle and not-so-subtle ways to make known to my Catholic peers my dedication to prayer that made me feel a mystic; to make known the trials and tribulations of my life that made me feel a martyr; to make known the simplicity of my life that made me feel a veritable nun; to make known the goodness of my deeds that made me feel a Mother Teresa; and to make known the orthodoxy of my thought that made me not-like-those-half-baked-Catholics who just weren’t up to my level of radical-ness. And at the core of it all, un-admitted, there was seething anger that drove me; lots of anger; anger that no one really measured up, and that I never measured up. And that God’s face toward me was a mostly a grimace.

Then it all came crashing down again as I suffered from a fresh bout of anxiety from all the pent-up anger, from trying to be what I was not, and failing to feed sufficiently my voracious, though well-cloaked appetite for others’ approval. And from the midst of this real suffering and this real poverty, in my breakdown, I suddenly faced who I was: a weak, needy and fragile woman who was ready to surrender my anger and say, in the secret of my heart, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”

And it was undoubtedly the first time I ever really meant it, that I meant those words I always said to causally at Mass; and maybe it was even the first time I had ever really prayed.

After that, my anger withered and I lost my compulsive need to seek others’ attention, approval, admiration; I lost my need to be a saint for others and without God; and I gained a new — so new! — desire to seek not God’s admiration or applause, but his mercy. And it was all like a second birth, a second conversion, and it set me free from me. My anxiety melted away, and though I flirt now and again with these old habits and patterns, there’s something new in me that makes it all different.

And I remember the first time after this all happened that I knew I was different. I met up with one of my Catholic friends, and for the first time in my life I felt that my interest in being with her wasn’t about me. I forgot I was there, and I didn’t even think about what she thought of me.

My favorite song became the spiritual, “Freedom.” That’s my song.

In ways great or small, O Lord, deliver us all likewise. Listen here:


16 comments on “Forgotten self

  1. […] I was speaking with a woman here in New Orleans about her own spiritual journey, and as we talked about our common love for the “Jesus Prayer” she shared with me a really extraordinary story and insight into what it means to really, truly say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on Source: Neal Obstat Theological Opining   […]

  2. paige_lacour says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I very much enjoyed this woman’s insight and the beautiful video. Great post, Dr. N!

  3. Br Patrick says:

    Thanks so much for posting! I think this will resound with the current college student! So grateful this woman let you recount her story!

  4. Jennifer says:

    “I lost my need to be a saint for others and without God; and I gained a new — so new! — desire to seek not God’s admiration or applause, but his mercy. And it was all like a second birth, a second conversion, and it set me free from me.” awesome!

  5. Oneview says:

    I remember this post from 2013, and I needed to read it again, thank you!

  6. WoopieCushion says:

    The movement she describes from the spiritualization of pride’s broken self-image breaking down and mercy infilling to remake the new-self-image in and by Him is so holy…and I’d like to experience more of this in the way I need with my family of faith in these most holy days.

  7. LP says:

    Thank you Dr Neal and the lady who conveyed her story to you. I am new to your blog but find it tremendously helpful, challenging, inspiring, moving … and most every other adjective I can think of.

    I too come from a family who demanded straight As in school, perfect behaviour etc but never once said “I love you” or hugged us. When I dated someone my father thought inappropriate, he told me to break it off or he would have a heart attack and die. Needless to say, when he did have a heart attack, although 20 years later, I did feel the guilt. I had a breakdown near the end of my college years and tried to commit suicide. The counsellors said the immediate cause was the break-off of my engagement (he said his mother did not like me). However, the greater cause was the sexual abuse (although only one time I remember), physical punishment (to make me behave) and the emotional demands from childhood and teen years. Even as an adult, I could not remain alone with my father; I was too afraid.

    Once out of hospital, I began a very sinful life, stopped going to church – it was really bad. Eventually I calmed down somewhat, met a lovely man after my first marriage broke down and have been married for 28 years. In 1995, I was diagnosed with 3rd stage malignant melanoma and decided it was time to make my peace with God. I sought reconciliation from my local priest and it felt terrific – like a great weight being lifted – I was the prodigal daughter and felt so special.

    But since then, I have continued to feel so unworthy of love and forgiveness. I cannot believe in the Father’s love for me after all I have done and experienced. I can identify with the lady whose story was told – I went overboard on religion but much of it was a front to hide who I really was. I often feel like a fraud as I struggle with my faith or lack of it.

    Over the last 20 years, I have been blessed with friends religious who help me see the way and I now have a marvellous spiritual director who helps me greatly. But somehow, I am still searching and praying to know the Trinity – really know them so I can continue my pilgrimage in their company and believe in their love and forgiveness. Prayer is difficult and I often forget my saints and Blessed Mother but I am determined to keep going.

    Dr Tom, your blog has been a special gift to me from God. May He bless you always. LJP

    • LP:
      I am overwhelmed by your words, your honesty, your journey toward wholeness. How beautiful your words show you to be! May I share a story that came to mind as I read your comment? I don’t have time so I will try to say what I want in short…
      A Jesuit priest who had ministered in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide gave lecture at my graduate school in 2004. He had ministered mostly to widows – mothers of orphans – many of whom had been raped even as their husbands were brutally murdered before them. He, and other trained professionals with him, had come to do “speech therapy” with (Catholic) women who suffered from what he called “post-traumatic mutism.” They could not speak. He would always carry a Crucifix with him and would use it to speak them about God’s tender compassion, His solidarity with them, saying that, in Jesus, God is a Victim and not a Victimizer. Then he would lead them over weeks, or even months, through a guided meditation — from Mark 15:37 (“And Jesus uttered a loud cry”) to Mark 15:34 (“E’lo-i, E’lo-i, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?”) to Mark 14:36 (“Abba, Father”) to Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”). After they were able to transition from inarticulate groaning and crying and screaming out their pain to voicing their sense of being abandoned to calling on God as a loving “Abba” to – how astounding – asking the Father to forgive those who did they grave harm – he would complete the weeks of group therapy with a communal recitation of the “Our Father.”
      He said at the end of his lecture: “Many of the women were unable to show any affection to their children after the genocide, but I found that once these mothers were able to express their pain as prayer and internalize that sense of being loved by a God who suffered with them – who came to heal them as a Wounded Healer – only THEN they were freed to again be able to show love. To give love. You can’t give what you have not received. This is the beauty that saves the world.”
      May it be so for you. Every day anew. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” — Lamentations 3:23
      Thank you.
      In Christ,
      Dr. Tom

      • LP says:

        Dear Dr Tom

        I can barely reply given the tears streaming down my face. What a blessed gift you have given me this Easter. I appreciate the time taken from your never ending responsibilities. You also reminded me of St Paul’s words of Jesus crying aloud and in silent tears…

        A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a Parish Mission at my spiritual director’s parish. It was celebrated by a group of Sisters and Brothers, Franciscans of the Spiritual Renewal. A number of them have come to Europe from their base in New York and both sisters and brothers are now active near Leeds GB. As a transplanted Wisconsin-ite of 30 years, I appreciated their US, yet universal, outlook and joy. You reminded me that I created a mantra of sorts, taking a word from the theme of each of the 4 days of the mission – Love, Mercy, Healing, Jesus. I will concentrate on those words and your wisdom over the next days of our Redemption.

        I will continue to be inspired by your blog and will pray for your special ministry and those who are dear to you. Thank you.

        with love, prayers, admiration and gratitude, LP

        PS I keep hoping that I will find a book written by you but so far, no success. Till then, your blog will suffice.

    • Jennifer says:

      Dear LP,

      When unconditional love is not an idea you’d ever associate with your upbringing, it is really hard to fathom that our perfectly good God could love you so perfectly. But, can I just say how much God does love you! You are not alone in your struggles, sweet sister, and the Lord will never, never forsake you, even if you don’t feel it, or you feel anxious, or unworthy, he loves you, and his mercy is for you! You know, if any of us were worthy of love and forgiveness by our own doing, then it wouldn’t be mercy, it would be our due. We wouldn’t need a saviour.

      I think that when you pray though it is difficult, your prayers are only heard that much louder and more valiantly. Are you familiar with the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the great feast of Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter? There is a Novena that begins tomorrow, Good Friday and ends on Divine Mercy Sunday. I can only tell you from my life, which sounds very similar to yours in many ways, that it was really through studying the message of Divine Mercy and also turning to Mary as my mother (o, sweet, beautiful mother!) has radically helped me to understand our Father’s immeasurable love. I want you to know that I will be praying for you too as I pray this Novena and I encourage you to never give up turning back to him. His love endures forever! He never tires of giving us another chance to abide in him. He, who is love, loves YOU!

      Your sister in Christ


      • LP says:

        Dear Jennifer

        Thank you so much for your thoughts and prayers. I have appreciated your wisdom shared with other pilgrims and consider myself blessed that you took the time to help me. I will search out the Divine Mercy and think of you and pray for you on that Sunday.

        As a Wisconsin-ite transplanted to the UK 30 years ago, I appreciate your love that spreads throughout the world via Dr Tom’s inspiring blog.

        May God continue to bless your ministry to all of us wayfaring pilgrims.

        with love, gratitude and prayers, LP

  8. numberonesinner says:

    Sage advice oh sister from the north ,J. LJP,I WISH I were with you to give you huge hug and wet your shoulder with tears of joy. What a witness to the virtues of faith hope and love. J. is spot on about our blessed mother Mary. I love the memorare , I shall ask our beautiful mother to bring your petition to her baby boy. May your easter weekend be blessed with the awareness of the trinitys love for you and yours. N.O.S.

    PS. HUGS and. HUGS and HUGS to you LJP.

    • LP says:

      Thank you numberonesinner. However, the love you have shown me makes me believe that name is not warranted.

      I transplanted myself from Wisconsin to Great Britain 30 years ago. It is a more reserved country so I greatly appreciate the warmth of your hugs. Thank you so much.

      • Jennifer says:

        thank you nos and lp for your kind words. may you (and everyone here) all have a blessed Easter!

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