“It is just as much a sin to deprive the body without discernment of what it really needs as it is to over-indulge.”
So said Saint Francis of Assisi to his band of brothers in the 1220’s, as recorded by his biographer, Thomas of Celano.
This is the same Francis who embraced radical poverty, including austere fasting and prayer vigils. He frequently meditated on the sufferings of Christ, and desired to be one with Jesus on the Cross. But Francis was known above all else for his radiant joy – a heart bursting with praise and gratitude.
The daily invitation of Jesus was imprinted in Francis’ heart: to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow him (Luke 9:23). How, then, can we make sense of his admonition not to deprive ourselves of what we really need?
During my doctoral studies in Rome, I had the opportunity to travel to Assisi and Greccio – special places in the life of Saint Francis. I was stunned at the beauty all around. Francis was immersed in beauty and delight, not deprived of it. The difference is that he never grasped at it. He refused to possess and refused to be possessed by anyone or anything. He freely and willingly gave it all back to God.
With his marvelous grasp of the human heart, Francis understood intuitively what contemporary research proves consistently: there is a connection between unmet human needs and unfree behavior. Whenever we human beings are chronically deprived of connection, understanding, safety, nurture, play, rest, or meaningful purpose in life, it is only a matter of time before we start acting out with entitled behaviors.
Deprivation feeds entitlement. Entitlement then seizes. Our grasping attitude may not be far from that of Sméogol in Lord of the Rings: “We wants it, we needs it! Must have the precious! They stole it from us!” Most of us easily resonate with the words of the apostle Paul, “The good I desire I do not do, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19).
We who are diocesan priests easily deprive ourselves of things that we genuinely need to flourish as human beings. There is always more work to do. There are people all around us who genuinely need the kind of love that we are capable of giving. There is an impossible influx of emails and phone calls. If we indiscriminately say “yes” and call it sacrifice, we will eventually find ourselves in a hard place.
That has happened to me many times during my 20 years of priesthood. I remember those early years as a high school chaplain and teacher, and the many activities I plunged into. I was well-liked by many students and staff, and gave generously of my time – too generously. My prayer life took a back seat far too often. Three years into priesthood, I made my annual retreat, and was pierced through by my reading of Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s Soul of the Apostolate. No amount of activism on my part will generate lasting fruitfulness, unless I am abiding on the vine. As I walked the fields around me that week, I noticed the startling difference between the crops that were surrounded by weeds and those in good soil receiving full nutrition. The plants bore silent testimony against my repeated deprivation of my spiritual needs. In trying so hard not to miss out on anything, I was missing out on so much!
Of course, I was not yet aware or not yet willing to look at my other relational and emotional needs. That would require another crisis. When I returned from Rome in 2012, I found myself pastoring two parishes and a Hispanic community. I was one pastor where there had previously been two. I was effectively serving three separate communities, each of which expected me to be present to them as though they were the only one. My workaholism kicked into overdrive. Conveniently, the rise of the smart phone gave me ways to stay “productive” no matter where I was. I wasn’t keeping count, but during those first couple of years I was working over 90 hours a week. And still it was never enough to “catch up. I still frequently felt like I was disappointing the expectations of others – even though they were often unrealistic and unsympathetic. Neither they nor I were giving me permission to be human, and I was swimming in shame.
I barely noticed how isolated I was becoming. In my exhaustion, those precious moments of time off were more likely to be spent in a disembodied or disconnected way, “vegging out” rather than really delighting in something. Addictions crept in as substitutes for authentic human relationships. They were also the closest thing I had to being more fully alive and connected – a cry from within me to pay attention to the many needs I was so cruelly ignoring. Thankfully, after four years of “trying harder” with discipline, I recognized that my own best efforts had failed. I sought professional help. I was stunned to see all the authentic needs I was ignoring: being understood, being nurtured and cared for, feeling safe, resting, playing, having meaning and purpose, and belonging in healthy community. At the center of all that self-neglect was the lie that my dignity doesn’t matter as much as all the other people around me.
For years, I tended to see any talk of “needs” or “self-care” as psychobabble or selfishness. I guess I had to experience (repeatedly) how unfree I am when I deprive myself of those needs. I become less than human and incapable of joyful and fruitful self-gift.
My hesitancy wasn’t entirely wrong. There are many schools of thought today that focus exclusively on self-fulfillment, ignoring what Saint John Paul II the Great called the “Law of Gift.” Yes, it’s important to receive all that I need and to become a whole person living wholeheartedly – precisely so that I can willingly and freely become the grain of wheat that goes into the ground, dies, and bears abundant fruit.
In Theology of the Body (48:5), John Paul reminds us that eros (spontaneous human desire) is not something to be stifled, but to be directed by an ethos. By becoming authentically human, we arrive at a “deeper and more mature spontaneity of the heart” – one that “does not suffocate its noble desires and aspirations, but liberates and helps them.” Then, when God invites us (not just because we “have to “or “should”) we can freely and joyfully say “yes” and make a fruitful gift of self. We can discern the difference by noticing whether our “yes” or “no” can be said with joy and freedom – whether we are laying our life down freely or whether it feels like our people are taking it from us.
We often forget that Jesus did not go around sacrificing for 33 years of his life. Early and often, he received in those areas of human need – not from most people, but from a few who mattered most. He experienced nurture, connection, care, understanding, safety, rest, play, and meaningful work. His public ministry was less than 10% of his lifespan. Even then, he allowed himself time with his Father or with his friends at Bethany. Before is hour came, he was quite skillful and cunning in saying “no” or eluding the unrealistic demands of others. All this allowed his “yes” to be superabundantly fruitful.
Discernment is the key. Are we aware of what we really need? Are we aware of what God is really asking of us? Are we saying “yes” because we are fully alive in the present moment, noticing and discerning. Or are we reacting to our fear and shame that tells us we “have to”?
Little by little, Jesus can help us reclaim all the fragmented parts and pieces we tend to ignore – the ones that are crying out like a little boy, clamoring for us to pay attention. We need much help from others in that process of human integration, which the Catechism describes as a long and exacting labor, requiring apprenticeship, and needing to be renewed at every stage of life (CCC nn. 2338-2442).
Receiving that care is so worth it. The more authentically human we become, humbly recognizing and respecting our needs, all the more fruitful our “yes” becomes when God calls on us to give. We truly become another Christ.