Spirituality of Self-Care

            On January 1, 2021, Pope Francis, in a message for the 54th World Day of Peace, pinned the letter, A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace.[1] In this letter, Pope Francis reflects on the year prior and the dueling pandemics of COVID-19 and racism. In 2020, the world experienced interrelated crises that affected humanity in intimately personal and profoundly communal ways. Families unexpectedly grieved the death of loved ones and struggled to maintain financial stability. Societies grappled with the sins of racism and xenophobia while contending with global conflicts and climate change. In a matter of months, “fragile and disoriented,” humanity became conscious of how each person is “important and needed” in our collective responsibility to cultivate a culture of care and peace.[2] While we work together as a collective whole, we must individually examine “how our hearts can be converted, and our ways of thinking changed, in order to work for true peace in solidarity and fraternity.”[3] As collective caregivers, each human person needs to understand their inherent worth and “never simply as a means to be valued only for his or her usefulness.”[4] If we want to care for others and bring about peace in the world, we must begin with caring for and bringing about peace within ourselves. We need a spirituality of self-care.

            The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) provides a reflective framework for a spirituality of self-care. As the parable begins, an “expert of the law” tests Jesus, asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”[5] Jesus returns the question to the Pharisee, who responds with a prescriptive answer, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and will all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”[6] This “correct answer” promises the eternal life written in the law, but the Pharisee challenges Jesus further, asking him to clarify, “Who is my neighbor?”[7] Drawing from common life experiences, Jesus details a story about a man who is beaten, robbed, and left for dead along the side of a road. As the man waits in agony, a priest and a Levite—people considered high moral authority—pass by without helping. Then a Samaritan—a person deemed immoral—sees the man, attends to his needs, helps him to safety, provides him the necessary means to fully recover, and returns later to make sure the man is fully healed. Revisiting the earlier question, Jesus asks the Pharisee, “Who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”[8] Answering correctly, the Pharisee responds, “the one who showed mercy,” and Jesus then instructs, “Go and do likewise.”[9]

            When many people listen to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, they often imagine themselves in the role of the Samaritan. They picture themselves stopping to “help the injured man, binding his wounds and caring for him.”[10] There is honor in assuming the hero-Samaritan role, taking pity on those who failed to offer support, and imagining yourself helping those in need. The story even implies such interpretation with Jesus encouraging the Pharisee “to go and do like the one who showed mercy.” However, in light of a need for a spirituality of care, I want to invite an alternative interpretation, one that invites you to assume the role of the beaten and robbed person.

            Imagine for a moment. You are walking alone, caught off-guard, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Missing all of your possession, you witness two people you thought you could trust walk by without even glancing at your mangled body. You feel even more helpless and alone. An unassuming character approaches you, bandages your wounds, brings you to an unknown place, and leaves you with a stranger who agrees to help you recover. Can you see yourself in the role of the injured person? 

            As we reflect on our lives and the experiences of 2020, I invite you to engage more fully into the ways your life has been beaten, robbed, overlooked, and left with unassuming characters. 

  • Beaten: In 2020, the sins of racism and xenophobia surfaced. The reality of the lives of those who have been systematically beaten and oppressed became apparent. Male and female, black and white, gay and straight, cis and trans, each person has had to take inventory of their lives and consider how they have been beaten by oppressive forces that outnumber our individual lives.
  • Robbed: As COVID-19 isolated the globe, every person has been forced to struggle with the theft of their heath, the loss of loved ones, and memories that were taken away too soon. No person has been safe from the effects of the coronavirus, and generations of people will forever be masked by the pain of these months.
  • Overlooked: Beyond the walls of our cloisters, time passed and seasons changed, and still we remained locked down and locked out. While some followed with diligence to the mandates and listened attentively to the no-longer-silent voices, others mocked the science, scoffed at the truth, and denied the broken bodies in the streets. 

It is difficult to shift away from assuming the role of the hero-Samaritan. In our Christian-Western culture, we are baited to follow the example of the strong protagonist. However, the realities of our lives and the truths of our experiences tell a different story. We are broken people in need of healing.

            “There is much grief and pain in our lives,” but as Henri Nouwen reminds us, it is a blessing “when we do not have to live our grief and pain alone.”[11] When we fail to “listen to our own needs and wants,” whatever care we attempt to provide springs from bitter, resentful duty and not from a “well of love.”[12] Without a spirituality of self-care, without an invitation to process your own wounds, without offering yourself the love that you wish to give to others, your life and your caregiving will become a burden, an impediment to those you encounter.[13]

            Pope Francis remarks that a culture of care “calls for a common, supportive and inclusive commitment to protecting and promoting the dignity and good of all.”[14] This culture of care is only possible with a spirituality of self-care. Without the ability to foster care and peace within and for yourself, then it is impossible to manifest care and peace for the world. “We are not at peace with others,” Thomas Merton is noted saying, “because we are not at peace with ourselves.”[15] The parable of the Good Samaritan is profound because the injured personal allowed themselves to be “served out of honor for God.”[16]

            If we want to care for others and bring about peace in the world, we must begin with caring for and bringing about peace within ourselves. We need peacemakers “prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing.”[17] We need a spirituality of self-care. Let us take the first step on the road towards care and peace, and let it begin with me. 

            Let there be peace on Earth
                        And let it begin with me.
            Let there be peace on Earth
                        The peace that was meant to be.
            With God as our Caretaker,
                        Blessings all are we
            Let me walk to recover
                        A perfect harmony.
            Let care begin with me
                        Let this be my moment now.
            With every step I take,
                        Let care be my solemn vow.
            To care each moment and live
                        Each moment in peace eternally.
            Let there be peace on Earth
                        And let it begin with me.[18]

[1] Pope Francis, “A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace,” Vatican, January 1, 2021, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/peace/documents/papa-francesco_20201208_messaggio-54giornatamondiale-pace2021.html.

[2] Pope Francis, “A Culture of Care,” §6.

[3] Pope Francis, “A Culture of Care,” §7.

[4] Pope Francis, “A Culture of Care,” §6.

[5] Luke 10:25.

[6] Luke 10:27.

[7] Luke 10:29.

[8] Luke 10:36.

[9] Luke 10:37.

[10] Pope Francis, “A Culture of Care,” §4.

[11] Henri J. M. Nouwen, A Spirituality of Caregiving (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2011), 20. 

[12] Nouwen, Spirituality of Caregiving, 26.

[13] Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, trans. George Demacopoulos (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007), I.1-2.

[14] Pope Francis, “A Culture of Care,” §9.

[15] Quote attributed to Thomas Merton in numerous books and writings about Merton, but I have been unable to find a direct source linking this quote to one of his many writings. 

[16] Benedict, Saint, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (hereafter RB), ed. Timothy Fry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1981), RB 36.4.

[17] Pope Francis, “A Culture of Care,” §9, quoting from Fratelli Tutti (3 October 2020), § 225.

[18] Adapted from Jill Jackson and Sy Miller, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” (1955).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.