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Facing the Fears about Dying to Self

One of our CFP members shared the following thoughts in an email:

As I clean out my physical arena, excess clothing, jewelry, sundry possessions, I have had to face the fact that underneath all my love of Christ is a great fear. I thought it was small, because I never heard it loudly or clearly, and because I keep so busy praying and attending to family and dealing with pain that I haven't paid attention to it. But the fear is of Death and more to the point, dying. Discovering this fear lurking under my thoughts is displacing. I feel displaced, disoriented, when I think of it.


Me, of all people, afraid of death when dying is actually what I desire (in the longer run) as it brings me closer to God! Whenever I attend funerals I have trouble looking sad because I know, I KNOW, that God is merciful and wants us with Him. 

It's not just that I want to live long enough to see my children grown well, or that I get to do the few activities that I would love to do (like getting to Italy!). I find that I am afraid that I will not get as close to God as I want...this is embarrassing! It sounds conceited, or presumptuous. But I look around me and at what I accomplish daily, and at how many times I miss an opportunity, and I want one more day, one more chance to pray better, to for my children or husband better--dear Lord! There is SO MUCH ROOM for improvement!

At the service this evening, Father asked about how much we love one another--if you would die on the Cross for your spouse, your children, your friends. I often think I would die for my family, but would I allow myself to be crucified? Wow. 


I so want to drown, float, dance, leap with Jesus. Just mesh with Him. 

But then I think that so many events, so many persons, get in the way of "my" prayer life. I met with my spiritual director and I expressed my frustration that I always see the children and other people as interfering with my relationship with God. Now I have read the Opus Dei teachings about daily work being our sanctification. I take to heart Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing." I know that the children and my husband (indeed, each human being) are GIFTS directly from God, but I couldn't figure out how to be balanced and accepting about it all. It seems easy to compartmentalize life and not see how it all flows together. 


Father said that it is NOT at all an interruption. That dealing with family and friends--interruptions--is the 2nd commandment (Christ gave us). Love your neighbor as yourself for the love of God. It is how I react to each "interruption" that then makes that relationship an "active prayer" and not the schism that I have perceived it to be. 

So that seems much like what Mother Teresa of Calcutta focused serve the Christ in everyone...but I think this goes one step further for me, to not only serve the Christ in each person, but that my response is a prayer, and it can be a contemplative response, a praise response, a questioning, hopeful response, even angry, righteous indignation. But just like uniting the pain to the foot of the Cross makes it intercessory prayer--prayer warfare--so does the attitude in my heart make all interactions prayer, not interruptions.

Two Deaths

This penitent is not far from Christ. In fact, she is much closer than she imagines herself to be. You see, recognizing that we are down right frightened about dying is admitting that we are just as scared of dying to self. Death of the body is, after all, the ultimate death of our self will, isn't it? When we physically die, we have lost total control of everything, everyone, and of ourselves. 

Recognizing our fear of dying to self is the biggest step to actually doing it. When we admit our fear about giving up our own will and our own way and our own privacy, then we hear the little voice of God saying to us in our hearts, "Do you really want to die so that I can live within you?" We have to think about that, wrestle with it, admit like this penitent did that we don't really want it, and then the Holy Spirit backs off for a bit and says, "When you do really want it, let Me know." 

The question will return, from time to time, "Are you willing to die for love of Me?" And we will wrestle some more and hem and haw, and the question will persist as we struggle with it. Then God will make things easier for us. He will give us something that we do not want but cannot escape, something that will break down our will for us, because we do want to die to self for Him, on an intellectual level at least. Haven't we prayed, "Lord, let me be all Yours?" So now He will show us how to become truly His alone.

We will be plunged into a new and unanticipated situation, crammed with confusion and frustration. We won't be able to turn to our own way, to the left or the right. "Follow Me," He will beckon, and we will cry, "Where, Lord? I can't even seen You!" 

"Just keep going," He will say. "I am with You." 


"That's great," we will say, "but it would help if You gave me a little light." 


"In the dark, you are to hold My Hand," He instructs. Since there is nothing else to hold, we grab for Him.

Sanctifying Interruptions

Our penitent of the email sees this dying to self coming up in the dichotomy between how she wants to serve the Lord and how she actually has to serve Him in her family. Her spiritual director has given her superb advice in telling her to sanctify each moment and let the interruptions be the basis for prayer. What better model have we than Our Lord Whose public life seems to have been one constant interruption? Jesus goes to the Jordan to be baptized and begin His public ministry where John acknowledges Him to all present. As Jesus went forth into the desert for His forty days of fast, people who heard John must have stopped Him and said, "Who are You?" When He was in the desert, Jesus could not even pray in peace for satan was there with Him, to tempt Him. Then, when he returned to select His apostles and attend the wedding at Cana, His Mother interrupted Him, pointing out that the wine was in low supply. In Jesus's life, things went down hill, interruption wise, from then on. He couldn't even get away to pray or sleep in a boat or preach without someone coming up to be healed.

Scripture says an amazing thing about Jesus: "Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 5:8-10)

If Jesus learned obedience through suffering, who are we to think we are going to learn it any other way? If we are truly going to die to self and live for God, then we are going to do it through suffering. This is because our wills are resilient and if we mow them down one day, they are going to sprout up again the next. The only way to attack self will is to dig out the root. If you have ever tried to dig out a very deeply rooted weed like burdock or dandelion or an overgrown bush, you know what hard work it is to get down to all those roots. Our self will is even more deeply rooted. So getting rid of it is a constant battle. Thank God we have God helping shovel!

Battling Discouragement

The sneaky danger in this frontal attack on our self will is discouragement. Our penitent seems to struggle with that herself. We have to remember one thing, which St. Francis de Sales pointed out most forcefully to his own penitents. We aren't going to be perfect in this life; we are going to fall, and we must not get discouraged. Satan uses discouragement to make us give up the struggle, and then we fall into greater acts of self will than ever. As long as we are getting up and attacking our self will again, we are making progress. 

We eventually learn that "our time" isn't ours at all. It's God's time, as my spiritual director said to me. So we ought not be surprised when He takes it to use as He will. In the same way, our bodies aren't ours--they're His. Same with our minds, our talents, our possessions, our loved ones. The only things that really are ours, St. Francis of Assisi noted, are our sins. We can claim those! But everything else belongs to the One Who gave us life in the first place. We die to self when we can truly give it all back to Him. Over and over we will do this, like children who play the game of hot potato--tossing the hot potato back and forth between their hands until the music stops and we see who ends up with the spud. Mine, Yours, mine, Yours, mine, Yours. When we can look at all the things we are, do, and have and say, "Yours. Yours. Yours" and always and only "Yours" we will have arrived at total dying to self. For most of us, that moment won't come until our physical deaths when all we'll cart away with us, all that we will really possess, are those sins of ours. But even if we can't die to self perfectly or completely before we die once and for all, we have to keep trying.

I take heart from St. Frances of Rome. A nobleman's wife and mother of three children, she was very devout and devoted to works of charity. Alban Butler relates this of her in his Lives of the Saints:

When she was at her prayers, if summoned by Lorenzo (her husband) or asked to give orders about the house, she laid all aside to respond to the call of that duty. "It is most laudable in a married woman to be devout," she was wont to say, "but she must never forget that she is a housewife. And sometimes she must leave God at the altar to find Him in her housekeeping." Her biographers relate that once when she was reading our Lady's office, a page was sent to fetch her. "Madonna, my master begs you to come to him," said the lad. She immediately closed the book and went. Three more times this interruption happened; but when at last she opened the book for the fifth time she found the words of the antiphon were written in gold.

So let us take heart from the trials we undergo and the falls we may take during them. We aren't made holier only through praying and attending Mass. The holiness comes in doing God's Will, moment by moment, as He unfolds it in our lives. What's happening to us is, indeed, HIS WILL, either by His permission or by His action. So however horribly things are going, God is at work to somehow bring good out of them. We may not know what that good completely consists of. But we can be certain of this: God is making us obedient through suffering. When we are perfected, we will then live for Him alone. Until that time, with God's grace to help us, we will keep digging away at the root of self will until we can answer with a resounding "yes" the question, "Do you really want to be Mine alone?"

Oh, Lord, give us the grace to answer "Yes!"

Madeline Pecora Nugent

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