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Catholic Spiritual Direction

What exactly is meant by “self-gift”?

Dear Father John, I’ve always understood the term “self-gift” in the context of relationships with people, especially a spouse.   Recently I learned it is also similar to abandonment, surrender and humility – self-gift to God.   Evidently I’ve missed out on something very basic to our faith.  I’d sure appreciate an explanation of what exactly self-gift is and what can be found in the writings of St. Frances DeSales (or others) about it.

I don’t think you have missed out on something very basic to our faith.  Instead, I think we are dealing with a simple issue of terminology.  Self-gift, or self-giving, is basically a synonym for Christlike love, also known as Christian charity.  This is how Jesus defined it during the Last Supper.  After he gave us the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us, he explained pretty clearly what he meant by the word love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).  Self-giving is another way to say “laying down one’s life” for another.  And so, when Jesus taught that the whole Law can be summarized in the double commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor, this is what he was referring to: giving of ourselves, and thereby giving ourselves, to God and to others.

All the other virtues, all the other commandments, are just variations on this theme; they are all connected to self-giving, either by helping us achieve a level of spiritual maturity where we are freed from attachments that inhibit self-giving (e.g., the virtue of temperance frees us from being enslaved to pleasures), or by directing our capacity for love in an appropriate manner (e.g., the virtue familial piety, by which we give priority of affection and attention to our family members, in accordance with the Fourth Commandment).  Similarly, all sin is a variation on the theme of self-indulgence or self-aggrandizement; as inordinate self-love or self-attachment, sin is the contrary of self-gift.

St. Augustine famously summarized this core vision of Christian spirituality by describing the whole human family as being divided into two groups, or cities.  Each city is defined by one of two loves.  The city of man is populated by those whose self-love is strong that it excludes love for God (and neighbor); the city of God is populated by those whose love for God is so strong that they are willing to deny or sacrifice themselves (this is “self-giving”) for God’s sake.  In this sense, Christlike love, or Christian charity, can be referred to by other synonyms too: self-forgetful love (Blessed Mother Teresa’s favorite), self-sacrificial love, self-denial…

So your discovery of new applications of the term self-gift is not actually a discovery of some new element of the faith, but rather an enriching of your understanding of the key, foundational element that you have always known about: love.

We could continue discussing this idea from a dizzying variety of perspectives:  the mutual self-giving of the Trinity as the origin of all love; the difference between the virtue of self-giving and the feeling of love; the challenges to love; the means to grow in love… Maybe it would be best, though, simply to remember the relationship between self-gift and the Cross.

In this fallen world, burdened as we are by our fallen human nature, true self-giving is always, in some way, painful and difficult.  Our fallen nature has a built-in tendency to self-indulgence.  This clashes with our natural vocation to mirror God’s goodness through self-giving.  So we experience in ourselves a desire to be heroic in our love for God and others, but at the same time we experience a strong internal resistance to let go of our own self-centered attitudes and habits.  To succeed in obeying our higher calling, whether by being patient in traffic jams or by forgiving our spouse, we have to overcome that resistance; we have to crucify a part of our selves, denying our fallen nature one of its strong desires.  Sometimes this fallen nature yells and screams in rebellion, like a little child throwing a tantrum.  Usually, however, when we do what it right, what is truly in harmony with our authentic nature as God’s children, the momentary pain of self-denial is quickly overshadowed by a deeper interior joy.  We experience the truth of what Jesus taught us: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).  As we grow in grace and virtue, we begin to experience less resistance, and we even begin to look forward to the Cross, as a way of showing God that we really do love him, that we really do want to give ourselves instead of indulge ourselves.  But even then, each act of self-giving also includes, at least at the beginning, an often painful act of self-denial.  The Cross ever remains that gateway to the Resurrection.

You asked where St. Francis de Sales speaks of this.  His most revered work of spiritual theology is entirely dedicated to an exploration of the nature of Christlike love and how to live it more deeply.  It is entitled: Treatise on the Love of God.  But his other classic work, Introduction to the Devout Life, explains the many manifestations of Christlike love as they appear in one’s efforts to be a faithful follower of the Lord in the midst of daily life.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • totus2us

    Would you please talk about the difference between apophatic and katophatic spirituality?

    Thank you.

    • danburke

      Though I have distinct opinions on the matter, this is a challenging and potentially abstract or esoteric subject for our readers. What do you think the benefit would be to our average reader?

      • Joan

        I would like to see a post on this as well. You bloggers excel at presenting these types of concepts in a palatable and concrete form. This keeps us from wandering down dead-end roads by mis-applying spiritual ideas in our ignorance (ok, maybe just me!). Even if some readers are unfamiliar with those terms, I think knowing the ideas is useful. Plus, I would like to hear your distinct opinions.

        • danburke

          Joan – Because of the limitations of the software I use I can't see what you are reacting to. What is it that you are looking for further comment on?

          • joan

            A comment (totus2us) requesting a post on apophatic/katophatic spirituality under the “self-gift” post of 7/12/10, and your reply to that comment.

          • danburke

            Well – I am generally not convinced that this should be a post so I will respond briefly here. I think that these distinctions (as with infused versus acquired contemplation) often serve to make things less clear and to provide unnecessary distractions for the pilgrim seeking to know and love Christ. If you hold to the magisterium of the Church, and the teachings of the doctors of the Church, particularly those saints associated with mysticism, you would also find it difficult to follow the path of those who emphasize apophatic prayer. St. Teresa actually mocks those who seek to empty their minds etc. The church has also condemned much of this thinking when it suppressed Michael Molinos and other quietists. The wrong question is, “which approach should I use.” The right question is, “how can I better know, love, and serve Christ?” Then, following the path of the katophatic way along with ascetic practices, we eventually will attain to the state where we are best disposed to experience something like an apophatic dimension of prayer but it would then have nothing to do our will – we are in the infused category of activity that is solely governed and distributed by God. So, any question that has an answer that has us somehow choosing or exercising a method to achieve the apophatic state is a problematic question. This, in my opinion is the fundamental deception found in most so called “Centering Prayer” practices… so – that is my short answer for your consideration…

          • joan

            As always, edifying, even though your references exceed my knowledge! Thank you for taking the time.

          • danburke

            You are welcome Joan – thank you for your obvious desire to pursue Christ.

          • Totus2us

            Thank you danburke. I was kind of hoping you would also talk a little bit about how not all can, or are “led,” to do “imaginary” prayer, how not all can image Jesus or Mary, etc. I'm not talking about substituting centering prayer for this. I'm just talking about the graces God gives to be able to do something like the Ignatian exercises. I think great harm can be done by directors who push directees to do something they can't do. What would be an alternative approach to direction in this case?

          • danburke

            Yes – St. Teresa herself indicated that she struggled with what is called katophatic prayer – the approach encouraged by St. Ignatius and others including imagination and exploration of the scenes of Jesus life. She indicated that this approach is good, but that some rather may need to use something like lectio divina or spiritual reading to draw themselves into prayer. I personally use both approaches depending on how distracted or disposed I am to effective prayer. So, to answer your question, if someone struggled with using their imagination I would still gently explore attempts to do this over time. As well, I would advise them to find scripture texts or spiritual reading that compelled them to express their affection toward Christ. The liturgy of the hours can sometimes be helpful here. This is essentially mental prayer using a text and then departing from the text whenever prompted to engage with God regarding what has stirred our hearts toward him. If someone is in a more advanced state (late purgative or beyond) I would talk with them about simply placing themselves in the presence of God and expressing their love to him… All this gets very personalized depending on the state of a person's soul and their experience in prayer etc. Does this help?

          • Totus2us

            Thank you so much. This is very helpful and confirms what I have long suspected. God bless you.