Narcissism, Narcissism Everywhere

This isn’t a post about this past weekend’s tax collector. I think he was alright. First, Jesus talked about him as an illustration, and not as a real human being.

So a question: can a guilty person be a narcissist?

The online Ignatian retreat delves deeper into sinfulness, and I find it difficult to sort through old feelings of guilt, new feelings of guilt, and what the point of the Spiritual Exercises might be.

From this week’s guide, the author invites us to delve deep into the not-seen recesses of our house, where we dare not invite guests:

But in every house — in every life — there is a basement (or attic or garage) where the less than presentable stuff is kept. This week, we can imagine going down into that basement, even if there has been a lock on that door and I haven’t visited it in a long time. I need not be afraid, because I’m going to go down there, accompanied by Jesus, who will show me all the stuff that is there. There’s old stuff there I wouldn’t want to show anybody else. There’s embarrassing stuff there, in hiding. As I walk around it all, I can imagine Jesus telling me he loves me here, in this place. I can hear him tell me he loves all of me — the whole me.

Don’t avoid this week for fear that it will be negative. That would avoid a tremendous grace. A check we can use throughout the week is to ask whether I am growing in a sense of God’s love, in a sense of gratitude for that love, in a sense of myself as a loved sinner. Then the focus won’t be on ourselves, but on the one who desires to fill our restless hearts.

I’ve long been a skeptic on the meme that the modern Roman Rite is somehow more narcissistic and self-centered and not God-focused enough. I think that self-centeredness is a quality of persons, not of the liturgy. Saying the black and doing the red may well be an exercise in self-congratulation. Fine vestments may be for the man, and not for Christ. And wonderful music may just be a concert disguised as a celebration of Holy Mass. I got into trouble last week at the Café for suggesting this. But I stand by my premise that any human being can take a good thing, like Mass or like an attitude of penitence, and turn it into a “me” thing rather than something for God.

Does it further my relationship with God to attempt that focus on God’s great mercy? As the sins of my life pile up one on the other, God still loves me, it seems. So is that boundless mercy something to which I should be attuned?

Weeks six and seven seem to invite a balance I don’t think I’ve had in my life. I wonder about the story of Saint Ignatius, and his own experiences with all this. His first efforts at living in poverty and squalor, crushed by his sins, that laundry list that took three days to confess, as legend has it. He acknowledged he was a sinner. He also picked himself up and retained a balance in life that kept his status in focus, and pointed everything to Jesus. And he managed to inspire a whole company of others, Jesuits as well as laity and clergy and religious, to probe deeply. And to probe without thought of letting it become a personal pity party of guilt. And narcissism.

It seems like we can be tempted wherever we are, and however we try to escape from sin. Yet God’s grace is also before us, wherever we go.

The wisdom of Psalm 139 comes to mind:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:11-12)

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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