Father Michael F.X. Hinkley
Life is enriched with a profound sense of joy once the believer knows and responds to the particular grace: “I am loved for who I am.”
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta would often say to her novices that joy was the hallmark of an authentic vocation. Here, joy as a fruit of the Holy Spirit is part of one’s new vocational life in Christ (Gal 5:22-26). Built into this simple but profound insight is the wisdom that the beloved disciple is at once loved and valued by God. It can form the foundation of any enduring vocation and authentic self-identity.
As primal as this grace is to a healthy spiritual and moral life, it isn’t all that easy for most of us. Take the example of the rich young man in the Gospels. He is the perfect example of a disciple who understands himself as trying to do and be good, yet he departs from the Lord with a fallen spirit and doesn’t follow the call of the Lord. Any confessor of a few years in the ministry knows well that a devout penitent has a real struggle ahead when he or she proclaims: “I don’t know what to confess. But, I believe I’m a good person.”
Really, then, why did Jesus die for you? Isn’t it true that only a sinner needs saving? Or, again, aren’t saints those wonderful souls who courageously turn from their sin and set their hearts firmly in the knowledge that God loves them for who they are as reconciled individuals?
The familiar story of the rich young man depicts the basic human need to transcend ourselves and arrive at a self-knowledge that we are loved for who we are and not for who we claim to be, desire to be or think we need to be for others. The young man believed himself to be a holy and righteous man by the law, “[h]aving observed all the commands since his youth.” This young man was trying hard to be the man he thought he should be. It’s important to note that the Scripture records that Jesus loved him and then challenged him to go further and address the deepest and most personal parts of himself. Christ asked him to correct his false attachments to wealth and station and “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” But the young man fails to allow those deep attachments to see the light of Christ’s grace and falls forlorn into himself. He tragically chooses to cling to what he knows and walks away from the fulfilling joy of Christ’s call (Mk 10:17-31).
There was a part of this young man that he either was afraid of or unable to freely address because of his image of himself. It’s important for each of us to realize that there is a real difference between the image the young man had for himself, and the image that Jesus had of him. The rich young man wasn’t free to see how limiting his attachments were; however, Christ saw them for what they had become. This young man clung to his need for riches and ended up finding himself spiritually bankrupt. He was unable to freely respond to Christ’s call. If the young man had been able to turn around and be free of everything, not only would we know his name, but there would probably be churches and cathedrals named for him as a great disciple of Jesus Christ.
Psychology teaches us that human beings need to experience being loved in order to grow and fully employ their personal gifts and talents. This enables Christian believers to become ever more effective, joyful members of Christ’s body and to take a vocational stand in the plan of salvation. However, before this development can become the foundation of their lives, the people must come to terms with themselves in relationship to God. Our example above would indicate that the young man was unable or unwilling to move in the direction of life according to Jesus Christ and understand who he is in relationship to God. Instead of following the loving call of Christ, he chose the familiar, the safe and the known securities of his own toil, and leaves behind the love of God.
For the purposes of this reflection, regarding the joy born of God’s love, let us first address the fundamental questions of man regarding himself and the Creator. We have seen in the story of the rich young man that it isn’t always easy to accept the love of God, and so we come to the primordial question: “Who am I?”
This seemingly simply question carries with it a profound importance in psychology and can evoke true bewilderment as a philosophical question. The philosopher Martin Heidegger found a crippling angst (dread) for man in this question. Many people find this question of self-identity a great burden and are riddled with self-doubt and insecurities. The sorrow of the rich young man as he leaves Christ is a tragic testimony to how hard this question can be. Even with such a struggle for self-understanding, Jesus looks at the rich young man, as he does for everyone, with the great merciful love of God. That merciful gaze is a comfort for us all as we continue to accept ourselves and heed the call to love.