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Taking Care of Ourselves
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 9, 2012
Isaiah 35:4-10 Mark 7:24-37 Psalm 125
This morning’s Bible readings are about healing. In our reading from Isaiah, we heard about healing people:
The eyes of the blind shall be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a dear,
and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy (35:5-6).
And we heard about healing the earth:
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs (vs. 7).
And in our reading from Mark, Jesus healed a little girl possessed by an unclean spirit, and he healed a man of deafness and gave him speech.
Caring for our health is both a spiritual and a natural concern. We need to care for ourselves in order to be of service to others and ultimately to be of service to God. For Jesus tells us that, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Caring for ourselves is a healthy form of self love, I think. And this includes caring for our bodies, and living a healthy natural life in the world.
We need to care for our bodies because our bodies serve our mind and spirit. We are essentially what we think and love. And our body acts to serve our thinking and desires to bring them into act. Swedenborg tells us,
It is known that every one’s quality is determined by the quality of his understanding and will; and it can also be known that his earthly body is formed to serve the understanding and the will in the world, and to skillfully accomplish their uses in the outmost sphere of nature. For this reason the body by itself can do nothing, but is moved always in entire subservience to the bidding of the understanding and will, even to the extent that whatever a man thinks he speaks with his tongue and lips, and whatever he wills he does kith his body and limbs, and thus the understanding and the bill are what act, while the body by itself does nothing. Evidently, then, the things of the understanding and will are what make man; and as these act into the minutest particulars of the body (HH 60).
So we will want a healthy body in order for it to serve our soul’s wishes. We need a healthy body to serve a healthy mind. So we can take pleasure in good and healthy food, in order to nourish our bodies, which in turn serve our souls.
One who is in merely external pleasures, makes much of himself, indulges his stomach, loves to live sumptuously, and makes the height of pleasure to consist in eatables and drinkables. One who is in internal things also finds pleasure in these things, but his ruling affection is to nourish his body with food pleasurably for the sake of its health, to the end that he may have a sound mind in a sound body, thus chiefly for the sake of the health of the mind, to which the health of the body serves as a means (AC 4459).
In Swedenborg’s system of Biblical symbolism, the vision of renewing the desert that we heard about in Isaiah refers to renewing the outer level of our personality. It means bringing healthy modes of life into our day-to-day relationships. For the land signifies our behaviors and the emotions of our lives. Renewing the land signifies letting God’s Spirit into our minds and hearts and bringing spiritual life to the desert of our lower nature, or natural level. This also is what Jesus’ healings mean. Jesus’ healings showed His love for the human race. It is God’s nature to relieve human suffering. But the healings also depict healing the human soul of the infirmities that would block God’s inflowing love and life.
To all appearances, we are the agents of this renewal. Although it is God alone who heals, renews, and regenerates, we need to act with God in this process. Even as God comes to us, and regenerates us, so we need to turn to God and make room for His Holy Spirit. We need to act in accordance with God’s promptings in order to care for our soul’s health. So I’ll call this process showing love for ourselves for the sake of God.
Taking care of ourselves in a spiritual sense makes our souls a home for God. We love God when we live in a Godly fashion. God is loving, gentle, and kind. And so when we follow God, we treat ourselves lovingly, gently, and kindly. So we can love ourselves, and treat ourselves well as temples in which God’s Spark dwells.
St. Bernard wrote a treatise on Loving God that revolves around self-love. He describes a four-stage process by which we come into relationship with God. In the first stage, we love ourselves. Like Swedenborg, Bernard says that we begin our spiritual life by caring about ourselves only. But this is not seen as wicked or evil, but rather as a first stage in a four-step journey. So Bernard tells us,
But nature is so frail and weak that necessity compels her to love herself first; and this is
carnal love, wherewith man loves himself first and selfishly, as it is written, ‘That was not first which is spiritual but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual’ (1 Corinthians 15:46).
But very quickly, this love expands to include our neighbor.
‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’. And this is right: for he who shares our nature should share our love, itself the fruit of nature.
And Bernard allows us to enjoy and celebrate who we are, provided we extend the same privileges to our neighbor,
He may cherish himself as tenderly as he chooses, if only he remembers to show the same indulgence to his neighbor.
This seems to me a good interpretation of the injunction to love our neighbor “as ourselves.” As we cherish ourselves, so we cherish our neighbor. This is all included in the first stage of love.
In the second stage we begin to love God because we need God’s help. We are hit with afflictions and calamities in life, and we turn to God for help.
So when man’s strength fails and God comes to his aid, it is meet and right that man, rescued by God’s hand, should glorify Him, as it is written, ‘Call upon Me in the time of trouble; so will I hear thee, and thou shalt praise Me’ (Psalm 50:15). In such wise man, animal and carnal by nature, and loving only himself, begins to love God by reason of that very self-love; since he learns that in God he can accomplish all things that are good, and that without God he can do nothing.
So our self-love causes us to turn to God. And God is faithful and gracious to us, giving us what our soul needs.
In the third stage we begin to love God because of who God is. We come to know God’s graciousness through the many prayers we pray in times of distress. Our experience of God teaches us about God’s nature. And we come to love God for who God is.
But when tribulations, recurring again and again, constrain him to turn to God for unfailing help, would not even a heart as hard as iron, as cold as marble, be softened by the goodness of such a Savior, so that he would love God not altogether selfishly, but because He is God? Let frequent troubles drive us to frequent supplications; and surely, tasting, we must see how gracious the Lord is (Psalm 34:8). Thereupon His goodness once realized draws us to love Him unselfishly, yet more than our own needs impel us to love Him selfishly.
In this third stage, we love God not out of necessity anymore. Bernard says, “No longer do we love God because of our necessity, but because we have tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is.”
But the fourth stage is most remarkable. And this brings us back to our topic this Sunday. In the fourth stage, we love ourselves for the sake of God. In a sense, we lose ourselves in God. But this causes us to view ourselves in an entirely different way. We love ourselves in God. Bernard talks about both losing ourselves in God and also loving ourselves in God. In the fourth stage of love, a person “does not even love self save for God’s sake.”
Swedenborg seems to agree with this final stage of spiritual attainment. We are all here for the sake of serving our neighbor and for serving God. And self-care means bringing ourselves into a condition whereby we can serve others and serve God. Our self-care is for God’s sake and for our neighbor’s sake. And for their sake we love ourselves, our health, and our souls.
One who is a spiritual man . . . regards the health of the mind or soul as a means for the acquisition of intelligence and wisdom–not for the sake of reputation, honors, and gain, but for the sake of the life after death. One who is spiritual in a more interior degree regards intelligence and wisdom as a mediate end having for its object that he may serve as a useful member in the Lord’s kingdom; and one who is a celestial man, that he may serve the Lord (AC 4459).
Although it is only God who gives us our natural and spiritual life and health, we need to join God in co-creating our spirit. In this sense, we are the custodians of our well-being. In this sense, we are the ones who need care for our spiritual well-being and our natural health. We need to love ourselves in order to keep ourselves a holy temple in which God can dwell. Then we will be truly happy in God and with ourselves.
Dear Lord, help us to be good stewards of the gifts you have given us. May we take care of ourselves as well as we do others. And may we care for our neighbors with the same concern and solicitude with which we care for ourselves. You have told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. May we be given to love ourselves so that we may care for your divine spark that dwells in the depths of our being. And may we be given to care for our neighbor as well, for whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to you.