Godly Self-Care, Necessary to Maintaining Peace in our Relationship with God

St. Ignatius Women’s Retreat - Living Prayer

Mother Magdalena from the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA, was the speaker at a Fall retreat at St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN. She spoke on prayer and life in the monastery.

November 2012

Godly Self-Care, Necessary to Maintaining Peace in our Relationship with God

The 4th talk is about peace: being in a right relationship with God, myself, others and all of creation.

November 21, 2012 Length: 26:33





The first talk that we gave was about prayer as a way of life, which encompasses everything. Prayer is a means to make Christ the center of our lives at all times, no matter how insignificant whatever is happening or how all-encompassing whatever is happening, that he is the center of that. Prayer is knowing we’re never alone and inviting him to be present in the little day-to-day tasks as well as in the times of great happiness and grief.

I had this question a couple of times, just to catch up on that. Prayer does not necessarily mean saying prayers that are written in a prayerbook. Any time you’re talking to God in any kind of a way, it’s a prayer. It’s as simple as that. It’s a conversation; it’s the name of a conversation. So now we’re going to move into this afternoon the topic: the peace that passes understanding. The foundation of peace is to be in a right relationship with our Creator, with ourselves, with myself, with other people, with all of creation. To understand who I am and who all those others are and to be in right relationship with all of them.

Today the focus is, since we’ve been talking about relationship the whole time, the focus is going to be on our relationships with God and with ourselves. This talk has two parts, both of which address the question: How do I work against myself? How do I undermine myself, these relationships; and in that undermining compromise my own peace, the peace in my heart, that I want to have in my heart? And not only in my heart, but also in my mind, my soul, and my body.

Most of the time when we’re doing this, this undermining, this process that we do, it’s unconscious. We don’t know we’re doing it. We wish we didn’t, but we don’t quite see it. So sometimes you have to name it. Again, we talked earlier before: you have to name the disease in order to be able to cure it, so we’re going to work at naming some of these things today so that we can know how to move beyond them.

Since we’re all good church ladies and we all go to church, we read the Bible, a lot of us for our whole lives have, we know the saying that Jesus said that we have to love others as we love ourselves. Anybody here who has not heard this? [Laughter] Okay. That’s like central, right? Someone said recently that in our day and age perhaps what we really need to learn how to do is to love ourselves as we love others, that we might have more of a problem with that than we do with the “loving of the other” part, that part.

We’re going to have a pretty strong focus in this talk on godly self-care: how do we take care of ourselves in an appropriate way and how do we let God take care of us. Godly self-care is an essential component in being in this right relationship with God and with ourselves, allowing God to love us—because sometimes we don’t; we don’t allow him to—and, sometimes even more difficult, allowing ourselves to love ourselves. There’s an ancient Father—I think it was St. Isaac the Syrian—[who] said, “To see myself as I really am is a greater miracle than raising the dead.” What does this mean, to see myself as I really am? We’re going to focus on that, and I would add to that saying, after my 21 years in the monastic life, that part of the miracle is not only seeing myself as I really am, but accepting myself as I really am.

First of all, in the first part of this talk, we’re going to look at a couple of areas of misunderstanding of the teachings of the Church that can get us into trouble. So this section has to do with perspectives, with understanding. The second part of the talk is going to be a lot more on what we can do, the mechanics of sin.

The first part, anyway, things that the Church teaches that we can not understand, and in not understanding them, get ourselves in trouble. We hear things in Orthodox writings as well as in the liturgical services that sometimes we get presented with opposites, and the Church says one thing and then they say the other thing, and it’s like: What do they want? What is the Church asking me to do? Is it this or is it that? Sometimes our Church teaches in paradoxes. A paradox, that’s two opposite poles; that’s two things that are opposite. The way the Church likes us to approach these things is that, instead of trying to make them so that the two poles disappear and we only have something in the middle, we have to live with both of those poles at the same time. Now, this sounds heady. Stick with me; I’m getting there.

We have to live, instead of trying to find some way to make those two poles conform to each other, we have to live in both of them simultaneously and paying attention to each one, because if we focus only on one side, we’re going to get mixed up, and we either end up in despair and not liking ourselves or we end up impossible to live with because we like ourselves a little too much, or we try to live in the middle and end up making these things and it just comes out mush. So to live these paradoxes in a healthy way, each one has to be temperate and formed by the other. Living with this tension keeps us from pride and despair, and that’s what brings peace.

The paradox that I want to talk about today—there are various ones; I’m going to focus on one—involves three words. The words that it involves are—I’m having trouble keeping my papers; here we go—“worthless,” “unworthy,” and “worthy.” Sometimes I have the opportunity to speak with women at the monastery. They come for a little word of spiritual counsel. This theme comes up again and again, and it comes up especially with women who are committed to the Church, who listen to the services, who read Orthodox books, read the ascetic Fathers. They can cause a great deal of confusion in terms of this right relationship that we’re aiming for with God and with ourselves.

On one side of the paradox, first of all, the words “unworthy” and “worthless” get mixed up when they get translated into English. They are often used as interchangeable, but really those two words mean something very, very different. “Worthless” means precisely that: I have no value. I’m an unredeemable sinner that has nothing good in me, and there’s no help in sight: I am worthless. Sometimes we even sing this. Sometimes I’m singing along: “I’m a worthless sinner.” Anyway, it’s not… You end up in this pit of despair that you never get out of. I see this happening, even though you might be very good at covering it up. You act nice and cheerful and happy and all that kind of stuff, but inside there’s this pit, this darkness, and you can’t get out of it. No matter how much you go to church or how many pierogies you make or if you sit on the council, you do Sunday school, you do all this sort of stuff, and there’s still inside of you this dark and heavy thing.

This is a decidedly wrong understanding of the teaching of the Church, and that’s a translation that’s less than helpful. Now, the word that is helpful, that works, is “unworthy.” So I am not worthless, but I am unworthy. What “unworthy” means is—this is a clear teaching of the Church—that I have never done, nor can I ever do, anything to earn God’s grace. I can’t… salvation… I can never do anything that would require of him that he should die for me. That was completely and totally a gift. Nevertheless, he did die for me, even though he is not indebted to me in any kind of a way. So the gifts that he gives are given freely from him, and I have not earned them in any way. That’s one pole of the paradox. Nothing that’s around have I done anything to deserve.

The third word—and then this is the other side of the paradox—the word is “worthy.” Now, the Church also teaches clearly that I most certainly am worthy, because Christ made me so. He came to redeem me. We talked this morning about each one of us being deliberately particularly created, and he came to create and to give me his good gifts. So I’m not worthless, but I am rather worth the broken body and the spilled blood of my Lord Christ. He came for me. And it is the teaching of the Church that if I were the only person who ever lived, he still would have come and died for me. That is what we are worth.

So we are unworthy—we haven’t done anything to earn it—but what we are worth is his body and his blood. So you see, now I’m talking about two opposites, how you have to hold those in tension with each other? I’m worth not only his death but also life with him for all eternity so that I can sit at the right hand with him, with his Father in heaven, always.

Now, neither end of this paradox is easy to live with. It’s not pleasant to see my nothingness and my inability to fix myself. As I said, the monastic life, that’s part of what the monastic life does: it teaches you to see your sins, all the time. That’s not easy to live with, especially because the One that is my Bridegroom never sins. I’m always the one that’s at fault. [Laughter] Sometimes you want him to be at fault. [Laughter] It doesn’t work that way.

To see myself… If I focus on that place of being the miserable sinner, then all I’m going to end up doing is being unhappy. But also, to think on the other hand, if I focus just on the other one, to think that I somehow deserve God’s gifts, it’s going to make me stuck up. But to try to live in the middle ground, in some ways this is even worse. If you try to make those two poles come together, then you kind of end up with this mush that says, “I’m not so bad. I’m okay. Yeah, I sin a little bit. Yeah, I judged here and I was a little proud there, and I binged just a little bit, just a little bit—but those things don’t really matter. It’s okay. It’s just life; it’s just human nature.”

Then you can console yourself. You can say, “Well, I go to church and I give alms, and Christ has to be pleased with me about that.” It’s all this lukewarm sort of stuff, and it’s not a very satisfying place to live in, because you’ve got to think it’s got to be bitter somehow. Christ is distant somehow. Like: “I’ll see him when I die, but he doesn’t have a strong presence in my life. When I die, he’ll find a place for me in heaven. It might be in the suburbs, but, enh, that’s okay.” [Laughter] In some ways, I kind of like it that way. I’d like to keep him a little bit distant, because God only knows what he’s going to ask of me. Life’s comfortable now; it’s okay. Don’t rock my boat. I don’t want him too close.

But really, that’s not a very satisfying place to live either. So the Church wants me to simultaneously know that the Lord created me and will sustain me in such a way that I can enter eternal life and that I can do nothing of my own accord to earn that life; it’s a total gift of God. So in right relationship to God, I see myself with that deep self-honesty that at one and the same time I acknowledge my sins—I see them, I see that nothing…  I see that—and at the same time, putting myself in his love so that his grace can fill me and transform me.

This brings with it a really great peace of mind. It sounds funny, but it does. The more I know my unworthiness and my nothingness, the more I know peace, because what do I have? I have nothing to prove, then. I don’t have to… It’s like I can stop trying to fool myself. I don’t have to fool myself that I’m okay. I don’t have to fool my God; I don’t have to fool anybody else. It’s just like: I’m not okay; I’m just nothing.

Some of us, we have that kind of relationship where we can reveal ourselves to other people, and Christ wants to be like that for us. I don’t have to scramble on my own to try to fix myself. I don’t have to sort of jump through hoops. I just have to put myself in Christ’s hands, and if I stick with him he’ll take care of that. He’ll fix me without my even realizing it. I don’t have to run that gerbil wheel around and around and around of constantly looking over my shoulder, trying to figure out what people think about me and how they hold me, how they perceive me. I don’t have to have that continuous disappointment that’s kind of under the surface, that life’s just not quite the way I would like it to be. Can’t it be a little bit better than this? You know when you get up in the morning, you put the make-up on, the false persona, the false face you put on to go out and face the world? You don’t have to do that any more. When you’re living in that sense of nothingness, and you know you’re loved anyway. Thank God, my abbess is that kind of person, so no matter what I throw at her, whatever, she just simply loves me. Having her in my life in that way has helped me to see how Christ can be in my life in that way. That’s another one of those things that we can kind of do for each other.

So that’s the first thing in the sense of teachings that we have. If we just kind of take them as a slogan kind of thing, they’re not going to get us anywhere. We have to think; we have to use our discernment and think. If something doesn’t sound right, it might not be right.

The second area that I want to talk to you about the way we get confused, this is not so much a paradox as we were talking about as it’s a mix-up in translation of the words, and the word that gets mixed up is the word “body.” When it gets translated from Hebrew to Greek to English, not only is the problem with the word itself, but it’s the problem with the concept that goes behind the word. This can mix us up in how we deal with our bodies, with our self as a body. Because St. Paul, he’ll say things like, “We have to kill the flesh.” He says, “Nothing good dwells in my flesh. With my flesh I serve the law of sin. If you live according to the flesh you will die.” That’s all pretty negative kind of stuff. On the other hand, in St. Paul we also read, “Do you not know that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit?” He tells us, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, because our bodies are a temple of the Lord. They’re members of Christ.” So how do we understand this? Do we have a body that’s supposed to be destroyed or are bodies supposed to be sanctified? What do we do?

When we talk about godly self-care, it’s essential to understand what a healthy relationship with my body is. Do we take a stand on mortifying the flesh, killing the flesh, taking on ascetic efforts that are not appropriate for our way of life? A good example of this is—I don’t know; as a nun I’m not supposed to talk about this, but anyhow, this is just a really good example. It goes around, and I’ve heard it; I’ve been hearing it for a while. There’s a sort of strain of teaching in this country that’s being taught, and it’s unfortunately by another monastic so I’ve had to do some damage control. The example of that is that if married couples want to receive communion regularly, they should only have intercourse once a year. I mean, I’ve actually had a parish be told this, and that is definitely a wrong understanding of our bodies. [Laughter] Actually, it’s a heresy as well.

This kind of goes along with that, and I can’t even believe I heard this, but I really did. “If you are going to be intimate with your husband, go ahead: try not to enjoy it so much!” [Laughter] I know, it’s like—duh? Excuse me? Ahem. It’s out there; it’s in the ether. Or again, on the side, moving out of that relationship a little bit, on the side of ascetic practices, you can be… Like, monasticism is seen to be the greatest thing, and monastics do things like they fast from meat; they never eat meat. Sometimes they sleep on the floor, or they have other ascetic practices: hair shirts, that kind of thing. Those are taken on. In the monastic life, those make sense; in the life of monastic obedience those kind of things can make sense. Without that monastic obedience they don’t necessarily, so they should be not taken on easily or without a blessing. Then the other extreme, of course, is what we do instead of mortifying our body is we pamper it. We either pamper it by dressing excessively, make up and all that sort of stuff that is not appropriate or clothes that are not appropriate, or, what is worse, we end up trashing our bodies: we put too much food, too much drugs. We work too hard, too much stress, and we end up trashing ourselves.

The source of this particular problem, in the words in the Bible, there are words that are sometimes translated “flesh” and sometimes translated “body.” Now, in the Hebrew there was only one word; the word was basar, and it meant the entire person, body and soul together. They did not separate out body and soul. You were just… you are basar; you were one entity. When it got translated into Greek, the Greeks have that dichotomy between body and soul because the Greek philosophy—Aristotle and Plato—they have the dualistic philosophy that your body was something that is a cage for the soul and that what you wanted to do was you wanted to free the soul, so you look forward to death because then your soul could live in pure philosophy. So when in the Bible some of that got mixed up, some of that dualism started to enter into Christian thought, too.

In Greek there’s actually two words that are used to explain how we’re put together, what our body is. One of these words is sarx and one is soma. The word sarx is usually translated as “flesh,” and it generally relates to unaided human effort. In other words, decisions that originate from the self, what we would call the worldly self, the fallen self, the self without God. So it’s not necessarily even the body, but it’s the flesh that is the carnal flesh: the being in its fallen nature, the old man in us that does not want to be redeemed and never intends to be redeemed. When St. Paul talks about killing the flesh, this is what he’s talking about. He’s not talking about killing this thumb; he’s talking about killing the fleshly part in me, the carnal part in me. Then the word soma, that has to do much more with the actual physical body. It not only is the physical body, but it’s the body of all the celestial bodies and the bodies of the… So it’s “body” in a bigger word.

Because most of us don’t know Greek and we don’t read things in the original Greek nor in the original Hebrew, when we read these two words it’s like they get mixed up. So the Fathers of the Church are very clear that we were created body and soul together, and we will be saved body and soul together. Think about the sacraments. Every single sacrament cannot be received unless you have a body. How are you going to get baptized without a body? How are you going to receive Communion without a body? You can go through all of them, and it’s the same for all of them. So that’s a very clear statement on the Church’s part that when the sacraments were given to us, they were given to us body and soul, that we are that one unity.

A saint, someone we called a saint, that person is somebody whose body and soul is imbued with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has come to live in that person in such a way that even when they die, in their relics the Holy Spirit remains, in that bone. We have relics at the monastery, pieces of bone; those are imbued with the Holy Spirit, even though there has been that death that’s happened. The physical body is essential for us. Then the ultimate is, of course, Christ, being incarnate in a real physical body, not a semblance of one. His real physical body died, so we see him. He valued that part of us enough that that’s the way he came to earth.

So godly self-care means valuing the part our physical body plays in our salvation and then treating it—I have “it” down here, but it’s not really an “it”: it’s me—treating me appropriately in all ways: eating, dressing, activity, exercise, rest—all of those ways, there’s a godly way to do them. I’ve had young girls come to me, and they want to look nice, but can they wear pretty clothes? Does wearing pretty clothes mean that I’m going to be sinning in some kind of a way? Well, no, because beauty is one of the attributes of God, and if what you’re doing is allowing that beauty… If you’re putting yourself in a position where you are beautiful, then that’s no sin to do that. If you’re going to, as St. Paul says, overdo it, then, well, maybe you’ve walked across a line.

The Fathers teach that, as far as the body goes, the royal way is moderation, middle ground, the middle road; that’s the royal way. So if you fast to the extent that your body is harmed, that’s a sin. Mother Christophora, at the beginning of every fast, at Lent, she says, “Don’t get sick. Don’t fast to the point where you’re getting sick.” So that’s our guideline. Each one of us has a different way of being able to fast in order to achieve that. Likewise, to overindulge: that’s probably more obvious to us, how that’s a sin, but if we are overindulging and hurting our bodies, then likewise our bodies are going to suffer. Our self, our whole self is going to suffer because of that.

You don’t have to dress like nuns, although I like this habit. [Laughter] It’s very handy. It does a lot. That’s another question, but it does a lot.

When I’ve talked to our confessor, he says that when we take care of our medical needs… Because there’s a thing in monasticism where you don’t… if you’re sick, you just pray to God and that’s all you do, and that’s definitely part of the tradition, but what our confessor says is that if you’re sick and you take care of yourself, then that’s an act of love for your community, because if you’re sick and you don’t take care of yourself where you could, then somebody else is taking care of you, so you’ve put the burden… They have to take care of you and then they have to do your work, too. So we take care of ourselves as an act of love for all those around us.

This is the first part of this talk. You can see what I’m trying to get at is some understandings of ourselves that make a difference in what we call this relationship with God: who exactly it is we are and what we are and how to hold that, because those things all result in what we do and how we live out our lives.

So I want to have a little stretch break—two minutes, please—and then we will go on to another part of the subject.

« Back