As a Catholic priest and spiritual director, I listened to a lot of people’s genuine desires to better themselves in Christ Jesus. Many of them want to grow and deepen their spiritual lives while some just want to do something spiritual so that they can receive some type of “favor” from God. The first group will find peace and contentment while the latter will end up frustrated when they do not find things their way. Even though the first group of genuine disciples will struggle at times because it is not easy to grow and love ourselves as we truly are in Christ, the latter will easily give up as seekers of benefits and transactional exchanges that only seek Him when they need something. As we are about to end another year, I would like to propose some reflections on how we can personally choose to mature and deepen our relationship with God and love ourselves wholeheartedly in this new year.
The typical phrase “becoming a better version of yourself” is often heard from inspirational and motivational speakers nowadays! Nevertheless, the error that I have seen over and over again, especially in my own priestly ministry, is that people are not actually willing to become and grow in the depth of their genuine selves! Too oftentimes, people ended up becoming a version that they think will be liked by others or resentfully avoided becoming someone that they do not like. Both are unrealistic and not genuine ways to become who we truly are as created in the image and likeness of God, especially as ones whom He especially made and endowed with certain gifts and blessings.
First of all, we will ultimately fail our very own selves when we try to become someone we are not. We can lie to others and win the hearts of people who are around us with a certain persona, but we will come to hate or resent our very own selves if we are not genuine with who we are. People who are attracted to the appealing persona really do not care for us, and to live our lives to win their approval only leaves us shallow, empty, and vain. We can build our outer self to be whoever is attractive, appealing, or like other popular figures, and perhaps we will be successful in marketing and presenting that persona as such, but at the end of the day that is nothing but a shell. We might be able to look good, polish it well, and make it very appealing; but that is nothing more than a mask for others to see and like, and we will end up so empty and hopeless deep from within. Why? When we live for other people’s approval and liking, we will constantly have to change and become what we think they want from us, but also take things very personally when people disapprove of what we have worked hard to present ourselves for them. Also, we will feel tired, empty, and resentful toward others, especially those who are jealous and envious of us, because we feel that we are never good enough in such a competitive and cutthroat environment.
Sadly, but true, in an environment with many people who are trying to fight for the approval of others, we end up with many backstabbing, vicious, and self-centered people. Since everyone in that particular culture wants to win the hearts of their audience, they become resentful and loathful and do things that are against charity to put themselves above and upfront. They might seem to have it all on the outside, but they have no interior joy and happiness because they have no substance. One cannot truly be content and at peace with one’s self if one does not know who one is and is willing to embrace him or herself as he or she is deep from within! Unfortunately, our society judges success based on vain, empty, appealing, worldly appeals, objectification, and quantity. The irony that I often see as a priest is that the people who are envied by others and seem to have it all are sometimes the most pitiful, saddest, and resentful people because they have nothing real to live for. When one’s life and goal are founded on vanity, one remains vain and empty without anything much to really love and embrace because he or she just likes to become what other people find appealing.
Unfortunately, I have seen the other side as well, because there are many people who are trying very hard to not become someone that they disliked, disowned, or think that “I’ll never become someone like them!” The greatest irony has always been found in us becoming someone that we try to avoid or try so hard to prove ourselves to be better than them! Running away or proving one’s self is never a good combination because they are a dishonest approach to denying who we truly are deep from within, and our souls know it, and we will subconsciously be resentful, dislike, and not want to love our very own selves because of that decision. I have seen so many people who pushed people away because they deemed them to be imperfect, not good enough, ineffective, and contradictory to their self-centered goal of becoming or not becoming someone they want to be!
When we think that we will not become like our parents, family members, or whoever we deemed to be outdated, incompatible, or not worthy of us being like them, we often forget that our past relationships with them do bear and made significant marks deep within our souls. The only true freedom is found through a personal acceptance and embrace of all the blessings and imperfections of those relationships. The real depth of growth comes when we recognize that everyone falls short, even when they have tried their best, and we have to personally choose to care, love, and forgive them for their failures, shortcomings, and brokenness just like God has done for us through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The greatest healing comes from the acceptance of our past and all its imperfections, not simply denying, avoiding, or running away! It is so hard to explain, but what we try to escape and push away will always come back to haunt us until we finally accept them as they are, learn to deal and grow from them.
We are who we are today, not because we are perfect or worthy of love, or because of what we think have made for ourselves. We are loved by God because He has created us out of love and for love. We are continually being transformed with His grace, not because we are worthy and earned it, but because He sees and knows the fullest potentiality that is in us even though we think we want or need something else to be happy. His grace is always at work, just like the sun and its radiance rays, but we have to be disposed to its efficacious transformation through a life of humble, genuine, and loving conversion.
Our Catholic understanding of the human person, vocation, and destiny does not deprive us of our personal gifts, blessings, treasures, beauties, and vast richness endowed to us by our Creator. What is beautiful is that we are created with different gifts and talents (not simply the same for everyone), as to build up the Kingdom of God. From the richness of the Creator’s love and providence, we are able to complement one another, and with our free will, willingly and personally choose to love God in return and serve Him in our entirety.
We easily get agitated, frustrated, and hopeless when things fall out of order, do not go our way, or do as we would have liked. Human failures, imperfections, and especially unkindness and betrayal, really affect people and make them think that things are falling apart, out of control, and meaningless! Nevertheless, it is important to always remind ourselves that we do not always get what we want, even if we worked hard for them, but that God can draw straight from crooked lines, perfect and sanctify us through what is imperfect and failing. We kicked and screamed, and tend to give up right away, especially when we deemed something not worthwhile, failing, or do not go our way! But, look back and see how much we grew and matured when we chose to turn the seemed-to-be obstacles and failures into opportunities and lessons of life?!?
We cannot and are not called to change the whole world or to become who we are not. We cannot think that somehow things will be better through politics, ideological, social changes, or revolutions. Those things really do not leave lasting results because they do not affect and change the hearts of people. If we really want our society and the world at large to be genuinely loving, caring, respecting, defending, and treasuring life from the moment of conception until natural death, from each and every person of every step of life, we should choose to invest our time, give ourselves, and choose to love in personal, intimate, and loving ways because real change begins with us.
When we really know who we are and are able to live in freedom as children of God, we are able to keep our attention on what is truly life-giving, deter from empty promises and vain glories, come back to the Lord if we get distracted or lose our attention, and able to purify, transform, and detach ourselves from the hopeless lies of this passing world. The life of discipleship and pursuit of the truth is not something we would naturally want to seek because the allurements and temptations of this world are real; therefore, we have to personally choose to discipline, conform, and be changed by His loving grace. We have to choose to open ourselves up to His loving grace deep from within, finding the opportunities to rest, pray, reflect, pray, discern, and receive Him in silence, docility, transparency, and genuineness of heart. Only when we order our lives in His truth can true peace comes and gives us rest deep from within the innermost being, the most intimate and loving heart of heart, the meeting ground of our soul with God who loved us into being and the One who we truly desire.
Therefore, for this new year, do not try to become someone that you are not or try to run away from something that you think does not fit how you would like to present yourself! We are called to be genuine in humbling ourselves to understand who we are deep from within, to accept the blessings and hurts that come from our past, to learn from our own gifts and limitations, to be mindful of our brokenness and the false desire to prove ourselves as someone else in order to be transparent in giving who we are truly are as God‘s loving instruments of peace. When we become cooperative with His loving grace and see ourselves as instrumental in His salvific, redemptive, and grace-filled plan for the world, we free ourselves from insignificant comparisons and envies because each and every one of us is endowed with different gifts to complete His providential plan. When we no longer care for our particular goods and benefits above others, we recognize the freedom to be who we truly are without trying so hard to stand out, compete, and become someone who only worries about our own fragile egos.
So, I would like to invite you to see your fullest potential as you truly are! Do not be afraid of genuinely accepting who you are with all of your blessings and limitations, turning to God to humbly ask Him to perfect you in His love. I hope each and every one of us can come to prayer, not demanding and expecting things to do our way and as we like them to be, but to simply trust and open ourselves to be formed, transformed, and conform our lives to His will. We might not have it all, have life to be perfect like we like it to be, but nothing has to be perfect and as we expected in order to be good and full of grace. Therefore, I would like to wish you a blessed new year of being more genuine, transparent, humble, and trusting that God is at work and He can bring so much unimaginable goodness and transformation in your and my lives if we continue to embrace and accept who we truly are in Him who loves us beyond measures.