Faith & Thought

Experiencing the Loud Thoughts of Self-Rejection

While I am strongly recommending Henri J.M. Nouwen’s “Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World” (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1962, pp. 156, $17.95) to many friends and to readers of this weekly column, there was one section of the book that I had to read several times to catch Nouwen’s point. 

He states that in the contemporary world there are many voices telling us that we are no good, worthless, insignificant unless we can prove the opposite. In other words we are frequently told either directly or indirectly that we have to prove our value as persons. 

I guess I never realized that previous to reading Nouwen. Or at least it was not as clear to me as it is now. It is not just other voices that tell us we have to prove ourselves, but we often tell ourselves this. I am finding that Nouwen’s thoughts about us as the Beloved of God sheds light on just about everything that Catholics believe about God. Nouwen writes the following: 

“These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That’s the great trap. It is the trap of self-rejection. Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, and power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can, indeed, present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. … Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved” (pp. 31, 33). 

Nouwen suggests that even arrogance can best be understood as a way of handling self-rejection. He sees arrogance as a way, an unfortunate way, of trying to handle feelings of worthlessness. I confess I have never thought of self-rejection as the great problem in the spiritual life, but I find Nouwen’s comments especially illuminating when self-rejection is looked upon as the exact opposite of how we should look at ourselves if we are God’s Beloved. No one ever lives up completely to his or her potential. Further growth is always possible, and so everyone can be tempted to self-rejection. 

There is a philosophy course at St. John’s in which I discuss self-rejection with the students, though I have never been happy with my presentation. Now after reading Nouwen I hope to do a better job in leading the discussion. I hope I can communicate to the students what I think I have learned from Nouwen. 

I have been trying to think of examples which might shed light on the temptation to self-rejection. Imagine people who very much want to be married but who never meet someone with whom they think they could happily spend their life with, or if they meet someone with whom they think they could be happily married, their love is not returned. Imagine a priest who for various reasons is not happy being a priest. For some reason his life as a priest has been a disappointment to him. Imagine people who cannot find any significant meaning in their work. All of these examples could be ones in which self-rejection becomes a serious temptation. 

If the most important truth about every person is that the person is God’s Beloved then self-rejection is a direct attack on the most important truth about everyone. Self-rejection is the great lie. I can imagine that Satan uses it to frustrate our genuine growth as persons. Central to self-rejection is that the individual thinks that somehow he or she has failed in life. Stressing that self-rejection is a great danger, Nouwen confesses that he became aware how much he had been influenced by it in the past. He writes: 

“I am putting this so directly and so simply because though the experience of being the Beloved has never been completely absent from my life, I never claimed it as my core truth. I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. It was as if I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being and says: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’ 

“That voice has always been there, but it seems that I was so much more eager to listen to other louder voices saying: ‘Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire.’ Meanwhile, the soft gentle voice that speaks in the silence and solitude of my heart remained unheard or, at least, unconvincing” (pp. 33-34). 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.