Dear Souls and Hearts Members,
Recap: Proper self-love is indispensable
In last week’s reflection, titled St. Thomas Aquinas: You Must Love You. First., I laid out the arguments from our Angelic Doctor about why proper self-love is essential to being able to love your neighbor.
But not everyone agrees…
Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his book The Nature of Love, describes “the dreadful error…of trying to derive love from self-love.” (p. 162). Dietrich von Hildebrand is very critical of Aquinas’s position of the necessity of self-love, without mentioning Aquinas directly in this section. Von Hildebrand writes:
Since it is frequently assumed that self-love is the origin of all love, and that the solidarity one has with oneself is the expression of this love, it is therefore thought permissible to conclude that love is grounded in union. One loves oneself because one is identical with oneself, and love extends naturally to everything that in some way belongs to me, that constitutes a unity with me. It is thought evident that one loves oneself, and that self-love is fully intelligible, and indeed precisely an account of the unity with oneself. This unity is the root and source of love, and it proceeds – so one says – from the fact that I love the country to which I belong, that I love my family, my relatives, and so on. Everywhere it is unity, the belonging to me that founds love, since after all love for others is merely an extension of self-love. (p. 6).
I’m not sure that von Hildebrand deeply understands Aquinas’s argument – he seems to be talking past Aquinas (if indeed my assumption that he is addressing Aquinas is true), and mischaracterizing how Aquinas understands self-love.
As a phenomenologist, von Hildebrand appeals to lived experience as the basis of his argument, devaluing the “philosophical analysis of love from vague and personal ‘analogies’ that are not immediately given to us, instead of starting from the personal act of love which is given to us immediately as such.” (p. 4).
And again, von Hildebrand writes “Here we would like to call attention to a particular error that stems from the reluctance to take seriously personal and spiritual acts as experienced, and to discover in them their meaning and value.” (p. 5-6).
For von Hildebrand, as for all the phenomenologists, there is a reliance on the evidence of personal experience. As a clinical psychologist, I appreciate this emphasis, particularly in deepening our understanding of love.
Imagine a researcher, who has read all the studies of love from all the disciplines (philosophy, theology, metaphysics, psychology, sociology, neurology, etc.), all the theory, all the seminal works, grasps the conceptualizations of great thinkers in this area – but who has never had a love relationship. What does that researcher really know about love? Von Hildebrand has a point about learning from one’s own experience.
Nevertheless, the reliance on subjective experience demanded by von Hildebrand and other phenomenologists can lead us astray, unless it is tempered and considered within a broader philosophical and theological realm. Why? Because our internal experience can be deceiving. Our understanding of our experience may not correspond to the deeper, latent meaning, and that is exactly what happens when we have internal fragmentation, a lack of internal unity.
As much as I admire Dietrich von Hildebrand, and as much as his work as been helpful to me (see my September 21, 2022 weekly reflection The Deepest Human Formation Work A Catholic Can Do for how von Hildebrand came to my aid in a recent homesteading crisis), I can’t side with him on his position regarding self-love and what I consider to be an overreliance on subjective experience with regard to self-love.
Objections to the necessity of self-love from the pastoral side…
A more compelling counterargument comes from Carmelite priest and spiritual director Marc Foley, OCD, who wrote the best psychobiography of a saint I have ever encountered in his book The Context of Holiness: Psychological and Spiritual Reflections on the Life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Revised Edition).
In that book, more so than any other author in my extensive library on the Little Flower, he described her psychological difficulties (particularly her insecure attachment to her mother), as well as the emotional and relational difficulties of her parents, St. Zelie and St. Louis, in compelling detail.
Then, I experienced the blessing of Fr. Foley joining a small group of Catholic psychologists to discuss his book, and he emphasized how we do not have to have anything like perfect psychological health in order to be holy or to love God. In that meeting, Fr. Foley described how God uses our psychological imperfections and emotional wounds, our unresolved traumas and even our difficulties in loving ourselves to invite us into deeper relationship with Him. Romans 8:28 applies even here: We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. I came away from that meeting with the understanding that I should not underestimate God’s capacity to work with us and invite us into a loving union, even with our woundedness and our interior fragmentation.
So, I conclude from this that there is still room to think about self-love and to consider it from various angles, and I am open to new understandings.
Importance of interior integration for union with God.
I am absolutely convinced from both my study of the topic (hat tip to Aquinas) and my personal experience (hat tip to von Hildebrand) that internal integration facilitates ordered self-love, which, in turn, fosters our capacity to love others and to love God.
Catholic philosopher Eleonore Stump in her excellent and readable tome Wandering in Darkness (which focuses on the problem of suffering) writes:
I have tried to show some of the conditions necessary for one person to be close to another, and I have argued that internal psychological integration is one of them. Union in love requires mutual closeness and rich shared attention, and so it also requires that each of those united in love be internally integrated in this way. (If this is what Aquinas has in mind in claiming that love of another is predicated first on love of oneself, then he seems to me right.) p.125
In an interesting contribution to the discussion we have been having in these weekly reflections, Stump asserts that one can love another unilaterally, but that is not a love based in union or in friendship. For example, Stump notes that “The internal fragmentation of the human person cannot keep God from exercising his providential care to work that person’s good and to bring that person to union with God.” (p. 127).
However, God’s love for a person does not imply a union with that person or a closeness. Stump notes that according to Aquinas, “… a person can be integrated only around the good. Since union requires mutual closeness, on Aquinas’s views, union is possible only among persons each of whom is integrated in goodness.” (p. 127). There can be no internal integration within a person centered around anything other than the good, according to Aquinas. Stump continues: “To the extent to which the human person is not integrated in the good, then to that extent even God cannot be present to him in significant personal presence or be close to him with the closeness ingredient in union.” (p. 128).
The upshot of this is that while God can and does love a fragmented and internally fractured person, the fragmentation hinder the development of union between her and God. And this makes so much sense to me. It is not that God chooses not to be in greater union with anyone who is fragmented inside. It is just that the internal fragmentation limits God in His capacity to connect with the person.
That is why I emphasize internal integration – that is the reason that my podcast is called Interior Integration for Catholics. That is why this human formation at the natural level is so important. Doing our human formation work is like learning the natural-level arithmetic that we will need for spiritual algebra. At the same time, it is important to remember that God does everything possible to connect with us, and His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts (cf. Isaiah 55:8).
In His wisdom, power, perfection and love for us, God has ways of drawing us to Him, even when we are a “hot mess” inside and not capable of union (as I was a few hours ago, to be honest with you all — and to dispel any illusions that I effortlessly glide from one pinnacle of human functioning to a higher summit of perfection, all the time – it’s not like that).
And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10)
And Jesus responded that we need to share our possessions, treat others honestly and with dignity, speak the truth, and be content with what we have. But what are we to do about our internal fragmentation? How do we overcome the fractures within ourselves, the disconnects inside, the lack of interior integration that compromises our capacity for union in love with God and with others?
Let us lay out some ideas to help you foster your own interior integration:
- Ask for interior integration. Pray for it. Ask for it by name. This involves the humility of recognizing that you need interior integration. What God will give you is probably not a miraculous integration, but opportunities to integrate, primarily in your relationships.
- Commit to wholeheartedly seeking God, who is our ultimate good. You will fail in this commitment frequently and badly at times. Make the commitment anyway. Thy will be done. Fr. Jacques Philippe describes this as a “strong and constant determination to obey God in everything, big or little, without any exception (In the School of the Holy Spirit. p. 30). We need to place the good – in big things and little things — at the very center of our internal integration, or we will not become integrated.
- Set aside time for your human formation, for you to get to know you, not just in the spiritual plane, but also in the natural plane. Ultimately, what we spend our time on defines what we value most. Words are cheap. Carving out a space in the schedule of our busy lives matters much more and is meritorious.
- In that human formation time, reflect in a journal, putting down your thoughts, feelings, body sensations, your attitudes, your assumptions, your conflicts inside, the disconnects – all of it. You cannot think about something unless you can put it into words – you cannot think about something unless you can symbolize it in language. Be curious about your experience. Experiment with what is going on inside.
- Bring those experiences into relationship with someone who can help you sort through them. It might be God, or a saint, a friend, your spouse, or a coach. It should not be a bartender. Just saying…
- If you are running into a lot of internal intensity that seems overwhelming when you try to go inside – emotional flooding or shutting down, or dissociation that numbs you out, or other blocks – get professional help. Seriously. Do it. Don’t make excuses. Don’t know how to find a good Catholic therapist? No worries, we got you covered. Check out Souls and Heart’s our free 90-minute video course titled “A Catholic’s Guide to Selecting a Therapist.” It has all our tips and recommendations for finding a therapist. Don’t hesitate to ask for the help you need to do this work.
- Remember that if you seek, you will find (cf. Matthew 7:7). Trust in that.
- Also, if you want to go with me on a pilgrimage toward greater interior integration, better human formation with more than 200 other Catholics, consider joining the Resilient Catholics Community. We have the content, we have the structure, we have the companionship, we have the community to support you in your journey. No money to join? No worries. We will make it happen for you, because our Lord told us in Matthew 10:42: “And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” Because we believe these words of our Lord, we never turn anyone away from the RCC because of a lack of ability to pay. There can be no financial excuse for you to avoid the human formation work in the RCC. I will pay your way so that you need not be left behind. Sign up on our landing page.
Now here’s where I ask you for prayers and money…
First, please pray for Souls and Hearts. Pray for the human formation of each member of our Souls and Hearts community.
And please pray for me, that I be guided by the Holy Spirit and our Lady in writing these weekly reflections, in doing the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, in leading the Resilient Catholics Community and the Interior Therapist Community, and in responding to so much correspondence from those with human formation needs. And doing this with all my limitations and weaknesses. So please pray for me.
Second please consider donating. If these reflections have been important in your life, if they have helped you with your human formation, please give something back, something that can help others. Can you shoulder my financial burden with me? Souls and Hearts is not yet profitable, we have not yet broken even, and Dr. Gerry and I (and our families) have made sacrifices of money and time so that you can have what Souls and Hearts offers.
Use this link to choose a one-time donation of $10, $25, $50 or to name your own one-time amount. Nothing is too small. (Well, actually, 5¢ is too small. We would get more charges from our credit card processor to accept that nickel than the nickel is worth.)
For a higher level of generosity and commitment, consider a monthly donation of $5, $10 or $25, or name your own amount at the same link. And thank you.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,
P.S. Don’t forget to check out the Litanies of the Heart if you haven’t done so – we’ve given so many copies of these away and gotten really beautiful feedback.
P.P.S. And if you haven’t listened to the most recent podcast episode titled Self-Love: What Catholics Need to Know, be sure to check it out. The Interior Integration for Catholics podcast is on all the major podcast platforms.
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P.P.P.P.S. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me with questions or comments about this weekly reflection or any other weekly reflections or the IIC podcast. You will get a more rapid response by calling me on my cell (317.567.9594) during my conversation hours from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern Time every Tuesday and Thursday. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.