“Religion without love is like breathing without oxygen…God is love.” – Carl McColman

In October, 2015, The Only Love Project’s Bill Murphy (BM) spent an enjoyable and fascinating hour on the phone with author and columnist Carl McColman (CM) CarlMcColman whose latest book Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality will be released on November 20th, according to Amazon.

Carl has written over a dozen books on spirituality, blogs regularly on the popular Patheos web site, and is a seemingly inexhaustible source for both encouragement and information – all presented with self-deprecating humor and keen wit.

Many thanks to Carl for his time and insight!

BM: The first question is, “Briefly tell us your background. What would you like others to know about you?”

CM: How do I do this briefly? That’s the tricky part. I think you could call me a seeker.  I was raised in a Lutheran home, and I in my mid-50’s now. Over the last 40 years I have really kind of wandered. I got involved in Charismatic spirituality for a while. In college, I gave up on Christianity and did sex, drugs and rock and roll for a few years. Yes, you can quote that. It’s a little embarrassing, but there it is. Then I washed up on the shore of the Episcopal church and was an Episcopalian for a decade. I have been interested in interfaith dialog since I was in high school and from the Episcopal church I went and spent several years exploring Neopaganism, and did that for seven or eight years until that path ran out of gas for me, and then I revisited something that I had also been interested in since high school — the contemplative tradition of the Christian faith which for me really meant connecting with Catholicism. So I was received into the Catholic church in 2005.  It’s been over ten years now, and I am still a Catholic. Like many Catholics, I do struggle with being a Catholic, but I love being a Catholic so that’s where I am. In 2007, I entered into formation as a Lay Cistercian and made my life promises in 2012 which means that I am under the spiritual direction of Trappist monks and am part of a community of lay people who follow the spirituality of the Trappists and apply it to our lives outside the cloister. I am still very interfaith. I hang out with Buddhists a lot. I hang out with Muslims. I am very involved with the Atlanta interfaith community, but I am grounded in the Christian tradition. I guess I could call myself a contemplative. I think there is a little bit of pride in doing that. Let’s just say I am a student of the contemplative path. That is a humbler way to put it.

BM: Yeah.

CM: I am also very much committed to engage in the spirit of Vatican II, to engaging people of other traditions to learn from them, to be their friends, and hopefully to work together to build a better society, so that’s it in a nutshell — and I am an author and a blogger, so people should all go visit my blog.

BM: Absolutely, and I will link to it. I will link to not only your website but your blog as well. [Which I did in my introduction above.]

CM: Yeah.

BM: So the second question I pretty much believe we have covered, but “Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?”  [Laughs.]

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 11.48.25 AMCM: Well, you know, that’s kind of a loaded question.  As you know there is a kind of a big phrase out nowadays: “I am spiritual but I am not religious.”

BM: Yeah.

CM: And that’s not me. I am very comfortable having identity as a religious person, so I have a narrow definition of spirituality. For me spirituality means that as a follower of the Christian faith, I take the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life seriously.

BM: Uh-huh.

CM: And I am not a fundamentalist Christian. I don’t subscribe to the idea that only Christians go to heaven, you know, and that only Catholics only go – or any of that kind of nonsense. I think the Holy Spirit touches people in many, many different ways and shows up in many, many different guises or names if you will. Earlier today I was writing about George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. George Fox talks about how there is something “that is of God” in every person.

BM: Oh, yeah.

CM: And I believe that. In that sense, I am a bit of a Quaker, and so I guess my definition then of spiritual person would be somebody who tends to “that which is of God” in them, and who seeks it in others, and again, recognizing that not everybody is going to call that God or even call that Spirit, and that’s fine. You know, the New Testament very bluntly says God is love, so maybe to be a spiritual person means that you are somebody who takes love seriously. So yeah, you can call me spiritual person. That’s fine. I have no objection to it.

BM: “Most religious traditions” – this is Question 3 – “speak of the power and value of love.  For example, the Buddhist tradition teaches, only love dispels hate. The Christian tradition, a new commandment I give to you that you love one another; Jewish tradition, love your neighbor as yourself. What, if anything, do those words mean to you?”

CM: Well, here is what I would say. Religion without love is like breathing without oxygen.  And I am somebody who is grounded in the Christian tradition so it’s really hard for me to speak about other traditions, but it seems to me that any creative religious or spiritual or wisdom tradition – and I do think there are some that are dysfunctional, but that is a whole other conversation – but any creative or life-affirming tradition is going to have love, compassion, charity, caritas to use the Latin term, at its heart.

BM: Uh-huh.

CM: I personally think it’s non-negotiable, and I think that to the extent that we engage in the project of religion or spirituality without making love and compassion the center, we are missing the mark which is what sin originally was defined as. The Greek word for sin it comes from archery, you know, like shooting your arrow and it doesn’t hit the target. It’s a mistake. It’s missing the mark, and so religion without love I think is a sinful religion in the original sense of the word; not in the juridical sense that has emerged in recent centuries on breaking God’s law. Maybe you are breaking God’s law, but on a more existential level you are missing the mark. So love is really, really essential, and again, the New Testament is very blunt: God is love.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 11.49.42 AMC.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves [1960] which was based on Greek words for love which I think is a lovely book, but I prefer Jesus’ four loves. I think they are even more foundational. Jesus basically said, love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. That is love number one. Love your neighbors, that’s love number two. As you love yourself, that is love number three, and then just to show that he really wanted to make it easy, there’s number four: love your enemies.

BM:  [Laughs.]

CM:  Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, love enemies. Frankly, that’s a lifetime assignment right there.

BM: Yeah, and that doesn’t it pretty much cover everybody?

CM: [Laughs.] Well, I love what G.K. Chesterton said: Jesus told us to love our neighbors and to love our enemies because they are very often the same people.

[Both laugh.]

CM: Here’s another way to think of it. Your neighbors, or the people that you are comfortable with, they are your tribe, and then your enemies are the people that are outside of your tribe. Are you familiar with spiral dynamics or integral theory or any of those kinds of ideas? The idea is that we are at this point in the ethical evolution of humankind that we are moving out of tribal consciousness and into global consciousness.

BM: Sure.

CM: And I think – look at the ISIS. There you have tribal consciousness at its worst.

BM: Yes.

CM: And certainly they aren’t the only ones. They are just the ones that are happening to do it right now that get the headlines, but you can also look at Northern Ireland 40 years ago or 30 years ago, and you had the Protestant tribe and the Catholic tribe or the Unionist tribe and the Republican tribe, however you want to define it. When you have that tribal consciousness, you kill the outsider.

BM: Yeah.

CM: But Jesus busted that. Jesus said that is obsolete that now. We are no longer playing that game. Now, we love the outsider, and here it is 2000 years later, and obviously a lot of us still haven’t gotten the memo, so there is a lot of work to be done, but that’s really the call. That is kind of the heart of the Gospel at least as I understand it.

BM: Wow. Question 4 is, “What role can love play in the world today?”

CM: That gets into how do we define love, and I would define love as the fundamental recognition that God is present in everybody in some way, shape or form; that every person has at least the capacity to love and certainly the capacity to be loved, and that is not to say that there aren’t people who profoundly ill, mentally ill; they have been wounded, you know, they are very toxic. Obviously, Hitler leaps to mind, Osama bin Laden, certainly there have been people who have done a tremendous job at trying to short-circuit their own innate capacity to love.

BM: Yes.

CM: But I think that they are the ones that are off track, the default setting is a God-given capacity to love and be loved, and that is true of everybody. Think of mothers – the Syrian mothers in ISIS love their babies just like a suburban Republican housewife in the United States loves her baby. It’s across the board. Granted, one of the great mysteries of life is that we do hurt one another and we do terrible things to one another, in defiance of the four loves. We do terrible things to ourselves, to our neighbors, to our enemies, and I believe that when you do terrible things to any one of those three, you are doing terrible things to God. So we do resist love. It’s a mystery. Every one of us does it in one way, shape or form, but every one of us also has the God-given capacity within us, the capacity to love. Genesis explicitly states that we are created in the image and likeness of God.  Again, God is love. We are created in the image and likeness of love, so how can love make a difference in the world today? I think first of all, can we teach ourselves and our children to learn to recognize love, beginning in our own hearts; that we do have the capacity to love and be loved and that we want to love and be loved.

BM: I agree.

CM: Even the worst, most evil, most heinous ISIS terrorist who gets off on beheading people and blowing up ancient relics and all of these things that appall us, way deep down inside that person is a vulnerable person that wants to be loved, and because they want to be loved I believe they want to love. But their strategy for living has gone terribly wrong, and we may even have to use violence to stop them. It’s a very complex issue, and while I am basically committed to nonviolence, I also am not dogmatic about it. Sometimes you just got to stop people from doing the evil they are hell-bent on doing, so it’s a very complex issue. We have to begin with being true to our values, and ask does it mean to try to build a society that is a godly society? Well, I don’t think that means everybody in the society is a Southern Baptist or everybody is a Catholic or everybody is an Episcopalian or whatever or even everybody is a Christian or a Jew which was kind of the post-World War II myth, you know, in the United States.

BM: Yes.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 11.49.12 AMCM: But I think we have a society with a shared commitment to compassion and to love and to kindness and to working together with people, and that means we have to set boundaries. We have people who become violent and there has to be a way to stop them and people who become mentally ill, who need appropriate care. I don’t think selling more guns is the answer which seems to be what many people think is solution. We need as a society to be able to identify people who are disturbed and people who are angry and people who are self-destructive or are other-destructive. We need to look for what are meaningful and appropriate ways to address such problems. And then, obviously, on a more global scale how do we as nations learn to play nice with one another?  It’s a huge issue, and as I am speaking I realize I sound like some sort of hippy dippy John Lennon “Imagine there is No Heaven” kind of liberal, and I certainly have a big slice of that in me, but I also recognize that because we are all – I am going to use the Christian language – fallen, sometimes we have set boundaries and sometimes people have to be incarcerated and sometimes we might have to use force to stop greater evil, but I also think that maybe we live in a society now where we are incarcerating too many people, and we rely on force too much, so I think we have some re-calibrating to do.

BM: You know I have never found a better definition of love than 1 Corinthians 13, 4-7.  The problem I may have if I try to put that forth as “the” definition is where it comes from might turn people off who aren’t Christian perhaps, but I have never found a more sublime, passionate – I don’t know – selfless definition of love than in 1 Corinthians 13. That seems to surpass all for me.

CM: Yeah. Well, you know, I think some of that is branding. I mean, the Christian brand is so damaged.

BM: You are right.

CM: And we have nobody but ourselves to blame, and that’s a whole other conversation, but I think you are right. If we can somehow take that text out of its context and just say can you just let this text be an invitation? And one of the things I love to do with that text is to replace the word love with other words — for example, “God is patient, God is kind,” and so forth.

BM: Yeah.

CM: Or the really tricky one, “I am patient, I am kind”… well, am I?

BM: That becomes aspirational. That is not a bad aspirational prayer.

CM: It does become aspirational because nobody scores a perfect hundred, but thank God that we can be aspirational and we can see that as this is kind of a benchmark here that we are going to try to reach. I love it that you just quoted the Dharma to me. I think that Christians perhaps need to become willing to receive statements about love and compassion from other wisdom traditions to the extent that we can demonstrate to the world that we are willing to listen to their wisdom, then maybe our wisdom can be received by others, so I think that is some of the work that needs to be done.

BM: Question #5 is kind of the $64,000 one: “What stops people from being more loving and compassionate?”

CM: That’s a mystery. The easy kind of glib answer is sin, but then, well, what is sin?  I mean, the Buddhists talk about ignorance and craving. The Christians chalk it up to some sort of kind of existential disobedience. Those are narratives. They are stories that we have told, and I think maybe there is some wisdom in the stories and maybe some limitations in the stories. But it does seem to me that there is kind of a complex of issues. I mean, we get wounded very early in life, even those of us who grow up in the lap of luxury can get wounded in our relationships. We don’t always learn skillful ways to deal with disappointment, to deal with loss. I told you I am a student of Buddhism, you know, and of course, the First Noble Truth is that suffering happens.

BM: Indeed it does.

CM: Well, what causes suffering? I think there are eight reasons that the Buddha gives, and I don’t know if I can remember all eight of them, but illness is one. Death is one. Loss is one — the loss of people we love, you know, the separation from people we love because they die or because they go away or because the relationship breaks down or whatever. Engagement with that which we don’t love, being in a relationship that is conflicted or being in a toxic situation so those – and there is two or three others. So there is all these different kind of factors that create our own suffering. It may not always be our own doing. I do think sometimes we bring it on ourselves, too.

BM: Absolutely.

CM: But there does seem to be this kind of existential reality that we live in a world where we suffer. None of us escapes that, and maybe so much of the American obsession with financial security and material wealth is at root a strategy to minimize suffering. But such strategies merely introduce different dynamics of suffering, so it’s kind of a quixotic kind of solution. It doesn’t really solve the problem, but it is like, Gee, I am still suffering but at least I have all the potato chips I want.

[Both laugh.]

CM: That’s our cultural strategy right now, but the reality is because we suffer, then we are more prone to create suffering. I think that is where sin comes in.

BM: Yeah.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 12.00.34 PMCM: We can define sin as the things we do that create suffering. So it’s a cycle and the cycle just keeps going. A neglectful mother or an abusive father inflicts suffering on their children and then the children inflict suffering on one another and other classmates and then they grow up and they become greedy you-know-whats in the business world, and on and on and on and on it goes. So it is a profound, profound problem, and I don’t think that there is kind if of handy solution. If every single person suddenly became a Catholic or a Southern Baptist, suffering would not go away. If every single person became a Mahayana Buddhist, suffering would not go away. Every new generation has to discover for itself what can we do both to assuage our own suffering but then, in the spirit of the Bodhisattva, what can we do to alleviate the suffering of others?

We are presented with these fundamental life questions. First: is the universe a safe place or not? And then, am I going to try to make this a better place or not? And the first question is ultimately the question, do you believe in God or not? And again, I have a mystical understanding of God. God is not the old man that looks like George Burns.  God is a profound mystery. God is the nexus – well, I do believe that God has eyes.  When I gaze into love, love gazes back, so in that sense I guess I am a convinced theist, but I have pretty mystical understanding of what that really means. The bottom line is, the universe is a safe place no matter what it throws at me, no matter how much I suffer.  I believe that beneath all the suffering, there is a fundamental safety. So if I can say yes to that, then the next question is, okay, well, what am I going to do about it? How am I going to respond? I believe the universe is a safe place, but I also acknowledge that there is such profound suffering here, and I think ultimately the call to receive love and to love, is the call to be love. We say, okay, God is love, love exists, love happens, you know, yeah; the First Noble Truth is suffering happens, but the corollary to that is love happens. So then the next question becomes, am I going to be a channel for more suffering, or am I going to be a channel for compassion and love?

BM: Uh-huh.

CM: And that is a question that each and every one of us has to answer, and the mystery is that there will be people who will say, no, I am in it for suffering. I hurt and I am going to make other people hurt, too.

BM: Well, this is the killer question then that follows all this up. Okay, let’s accept that as a fact, and I believe you are correct, Question # 6 is, “Do you have recommendations regarding how someone might cultivate a spirit of love over the long term but also put love into action right now so that he or she can make a positive difference right away?”

CM: Again, I think the first question is, Do you love yourself? Are you willing to believe that you are loveable? That you deserve to be loved? That you get to be loved? I struggle with these questions, and I had a “Leave it to Beaver” childhood. My parents were not perfect, we had our family issues, but I had a nice suburban upbringing. My dad was a military officer so we had a nice income, middle class, back when there really was such a thing as a middle class, so I had this really very gentle childhood. I know for a lot of people, that is not their story. Their story is really quite horrifying.

BM: I agree.

CM: And the amazing thing is that some of those people put me to shame in their capacity to love. You follow me?

BM: Yes.

CM: I mean, every one of us can find suffering in our story, and for some of us it’s a much bigger theme than others. But we have all suffered to a greater or lesser extent, so then the question becomes something like this: do I believe that, despite all the suffering that has been dealt to me, that I deserve love? That I deserve to receive love and that there is something in the universe that loves me regardless? Call it God; call it The Force; call it Love with a capital L. However you want to say it — or if you just want to be an absolute humanist about it, call it the indomitable human spirit. Hey, I will work with that. Whatever you call the source of love, that’s what we have to begin with, because if we don’t really truly love ourselves, then sooner or later we are going to short-circuit all the other dimensions of love that are asked of us — because ultimately love will ask us to suffer for the sake of love. Now, this is a different kind of suffering. The capacity to suffer for the sake of love is a different kind of suffering, but it requires that we have within us that fundamental resource, that fundamental recognition that, hey, I am okay; I am loved; God loves me; God created me in the image and likeness of God. Shambhala Buddhists call this the basic dignity of being human or our basic goodness, and I think the Judeo-Christian corollary is that we are created in the image and likeness of God. It just blows my mind that so many Christians fixate on original sin which is not in the Bible, by the way.  Saint Augustine cooked that up in the 5th Century, whereas the Bible talks image and likeness of God.

BM: Uh-huh.

CM: We start with image and likeness of God and then we can talk about sin and we can say, oops it went off the rail.

BM: Yeah.

CM: But there is something there that is basically valuable, basically good and basically it’s worth trying to fix it because there is something there worth being fixed. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux had this idea of the four degrees of love. In the first degree of love, “I love myself for my sake,” which we tend to sneer at that and we say that’s narcissism but I think Bernard is right. You know that is the foundation of love. Hey, I am taking care of me.  There was a book that was a big bestseller back in the 1970s, Looking out for Number 1.  That’s Bernard’s first degree.

BM: Yeah.

CM: And the reality is that God does not condemn that love. God just invites us beyond it.  God says don’t drop anchor there. There is more. There is more. So then the second degree of love is, “I love God for my sake.” This is the kind of spirituality we associate with born-again Christianity. You know, the question “If you died tonight would you go to heaven or would you go to hell?” — this kind of thing. The second degree thinks, okay, I am going to love God because I want to save my soul, because I don’t want to go to hell.  I don’t want to be punished, and Bernard says, hey, that’s the entry point.  A lot of people bow down before God to save their own skin. That’s fine. At least at that point you are not totally narcissistic. You have kind of expanded your sphere a little and said, okay, in addition to loving me, I am going to love God, and I am going to love God because I want God to love me.

BM: Yeah.

CM: If you are really serious about that, then you realize you are called to the third degree of love which is “to love God for God’s sake,” and at that point, you begin to realize, this really isn’t about me. This is really about God, and that God is love, God is supremely loveable; therefore, I love God because I want to love love, and at that point you are really beginning to move beyond narcissism, you begin to recognize, wait a minute, there is more to life than me. It’s not all about me. But then the fourth degree of love is “to love yourself for God’s sake.” If you look at Christian history, a lot of our great saints never got to that point.  Think about the stories of the saints who would whip themselves or wear hair shirts or cilices, those horrible things that would cut into their flesh, as a form of self-chastisement. It’s this idea of punishing myself because I am such a foul sinner.  Those people have not made it to the fourth degree of love. The fourth degree of love is this recognition that I take must good care of myself, not out of narcissistic selfish regard, but because God has created me which means I am worthy and frankly because only appropriate self-love and self-care makes me available to be an effective agent for God’s love in the world.

So this is really an important template that we all have to work through, and it doesn’t even take into consideration then the other two loves, love of neighbor and love of enemy! But if you truly believe that you are created in the image and likeness of God, sooner or later you are going to wake up and say well, what about that person next door? Hmmm, he or she is created in God’s image, too. And then what about the family across the street whose dogs always dig up my daffodils? Yes, they are too.

[Both laugh.]

CM: So once we realize that everyone is created in the image and likeness of God and that therefore, we have to bring everyone into the circle of love as well – it’s obviously a huge process and something that really needs to begin with children. And that is why therapists stay so busy, because so many of us didn’t get that training in love when we were children.

BM: Oh, yeah.

CM: Suddenly we are 35 years old or so, and we are still trying to figure out how to love ourselves without feeling guilty about that. So spiritual love is a four-legged table, and you need all four legs, which also includes loving your enemies. If there is any hope of something other than just a continual round of eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye until we are all blind, it goes back to what you quoted in the Dhammapada — that only love can stop hate, right?

BM: Yes.

CM: So it’s got to be that four-legged stool of love. And if you don’t want to get metaphysical about God’s love, just start with that idea that love means I am going to love something bigger than myself. And to do that well, I also need to love myself, not in a narcissistic way but in a taking good care of myself way. And then I am going to love the people I like and I am even going to love the people I don’t like. We need all four legs, otherwise the table topples over.

BM: That’s excellent. Did you call St. Bernard, Bernie?  Did you say –

CM: Bernard of Clairvaux, I am not that irreverent! Bernard of Clairvaux. I probably said Bernard and it just sounded like Bernie.

BM: I was thinking wow you are pretty familiar with the saint.

CM: Yeah. Me and Bernie go back a long way.

BM: You are buds. Question #7 then, I am not sure – maybe I can guess your answer, but let’s give it a go – “Who do you look up to the most when you think of the power of love?”

CM: Number 1, of course, is Jesus Christ, Number 2, close second is the Buddha and then probably after that the Great Mystics, Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian Fathers, you know, and other people who really have just done an amazing job living the spiritual life and the live of love: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. My daughter who died last year was handicapped, so L’Arche has been a big part of our lives. She never lived in a L’Arche house but we are a part of a larger L’Arche community here in Atlanta. L’Arche, you know, began with this very simple but radical question: Why are we institutionalizing all of our handicapped brothers and sisters?  Why aren’t we bringing them into our homes? Nowadays, a lot of people see that, but in 1964 that was radical.

BM: Oh, yeah.

CM: And that’s what Jean Vanier did. He just invited two mentally challenged people to come and live with him, and they did it, without a blueprint or a plan. And fifty years later it’s a worldwide movement, of love in action.

BM: That is excellent.

CM: So certainly Jesus with his teachings on the four loves, is just so, so central to how I understand my own spiritual identity and my own kind of moral compass, but I am a broad-minded Christian – I also love the Dharma. I’m like the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in that regard. I am a strong believer that you can be a practicing devout Christian and also a student of the Buddha; that the two work together. The Buddha basically said God is not really relevant to what he was teaching — which means you can be a Buddhist and be a total atheist, but it also means you can be a Buddhist and be a theist.

BM: Yes.

CM: Buddhism is like a universal donor in that respect — its wisdom can be integrated with any positive spiritual path. One reason why Buddhism is just so important is because it’s a kind of mental detergent. It’s about cleaning out the cravings and attachments in our minds and hearts, just going in and doing really practical work to cultivate wisdom and compassion in your own heart. Of course, a lot of the Christian mystics did the same thing, but their language is maybe not necessarily accessible in our time, and so they are not really being taught. That is the beautiful thing nowadays is almost every major city at least in the United States, there is a Dharma center, you know, like Shambhala Buddhism or Zen Buddhism or some other lineage, where you can go learn to meditate. But you can also do that by learning the Christian practice of centering prayer.

BM: Of course.

CM: But I sometimes wonder if most centering prayer Christians are also kind of closet Buddhists.

[Both laugh.]

CM: They are all reading the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Pema Chödrön, and of course, they get criticized for it. There are Christians who fear centering prayer, who think we’re all crypto-Buddhists. It’s really sad, this spiritual xenophobia. That’s all it is: xenophobia. But this brings me back to that foundational question: How can I love my enemies? How can I be loving even toward those who are opposed to my interfaith-friendly spirituality?

BM: There is only one question left: “Do you have anything you would like to add that I haven’t asked?”

CM: Well, I really strongly believe that we have to learn how to love ourselves, which is a challenge because we live in a culture that is pervasively narcissistic. So we have all sorts of models about how not to love ourselves, even though we are told that the consumerism of our society is self-loving. But it’s not. It involves various kinds of indulgences, you know, substance abuse, sexual materialism, obviously alcohol, drugs, all those kinds of excesses that we can get ourselves wrapped up in. Meanwhile, religious people – certainly Christians, but I bet you can find variants in other faiths, too — Religious people are guilty of promoting self-hatred, usually under the guise of “you need to do this to please God.” We really have got to do something about that. That’s why so many young people today don’t want anything to do with us. As I said before, Christianity has a brand problem.

BM: It certainly does.

CM: Just read some of the teachings of the saints or other Christian leaders, from a hundred or more years ago. A lot of these people are very blunt about it. They insist that it’s our jobs as believers to hate ourselves. Well, no, it’s not. Wherever that came from, it’s a problem. The question we all are facing, whether we are secular or religious or spiritual-but-not-religious, whatever label we wear, whatever tribe we join, is learning how to authentically love ourselves. And I think that involves basic kindness. It involves a basic gentleness. I think it involves cultivating hope, and obviously I believe it involves cultivating a contemplative dimension to our lives. Which isn’t to say that there is no place to dance and party in our lives! A balanced life needs times for profound silence, but also times for great celebration. We need both, but we live in a culture that is all about the party all the time, and so we need to step away from that and remember that we really do need places of deep listening, deep silence, deep interiority. Befriending ourselves, you know.

But many people don’t know how to sit still with themselves. It’s quite sad. I can tell you about people who would come to the monastery to make a retreat. They would walk into the guest house, get their key, and go to their room. They would walk back five minutes later and say, “There is no TV in my room.”

BM: I happen to like that part of the retreat – the lack of connection to the outside world. I rather enjoyed that.

CM: The guest master would say, “I am sorry. We don’t provide televisions or telephones or anything like that.” And sometimes they would leave!

BM: Oh, really?

CM: Pascal said that so much evil comes from our inability to sit alone in a room.

BM: He was right.

CM: If that was true in the 17th century, how much more true is it in the 21st century. So we need to learn how to be quiet. We need to learn how to listen, and that means listening to our own inner hearts which means we have to face our suffering, so it’s painful. Then we have to learn not just to settle for being a victim even though all of us have been victimized in some way, shape or form, some people a lot worse than others, but we have got to move through that, until we come to that place where we can recognize that we are created in the image and likeness of God. That we have value. That each one of us is a good person even if we have done terrible, terrible things. Once we truly comprehend this, then we are ready to play the game. Then we are ready to do all this work that you and I have been talking about. There is a lot of work that needs to be done, and to begin we have got to be working on ourselves. My favorite analogy is you are on an airplane and there is a drop in cabin pressure and the masks fall down and the stewardesses say the parents need to put their masks on first before they help their children, and that is exactly the boat we are all in — to mix my metaphor from a plane to a boat — so we all have got to learn how to put our own masks on and then we will be in a position to ask how we can make a difference? Can I help others to alleviate a little bit of their suffering? And the reality is that none of us are the Messiah. We are only going to make a small little difference, but we can all do a little bit, and boy what an amazing difference that would make.

BM: Well, I would love to end it right there, but I am going to ask you this question, Carl.

CM: Okay.

BM: Do you love yourself?

CM: I am working on it.

[Both laugh.]

CM: I think I love myself a lot more than I did 20 or 30 years ago, and I think I credit the spiritual work that I have been doing. I think I am like any other person in this culture. I have been trained so much not to love myself that it’s so easy to fall into self-destructive behavior or self-destructive thought patterns. Since I am a practicing Catholic, I go to confession, and a lot of times when I am in confession, the priest and I will talk about things that I do that are unloving towards my wife or in my work life or whatever, but a lot of what we talk about are ways in which I am unloving towards myself, because there are so many patterns where I am still learning to repent. The word repent is a word that has become very problematic in our culture, but the original Greek word is metanoia which literally means to change your mind; to adopt a higher consciousness, so it’s moving out of this consciousness that is so wrapped up in suffering that we just create more suffering including towards ourselves. Jesus said repent and believe the gospel, in other words, adopt a higher mind and embrace good news. So what we repent of is the trap of being mindlessly caught in the wheel of suffering, the wheel of Dukkha to use the Sanskrit word, and in repentance we move into this place where we can actually become a conduit for the love of God. So back to your question — on my better days I do love myself, and hopefully on my worse days I am at least trying.

BM: Can’t fault that. [Laughs.] I appreciate your time today. This has been another amazing interview, Carl. Thank you.

NOTE: Please visit Carl’s official web site if you’d like to know more about what he has written, and continues to write, on the subject of spirituality.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 12.07.11 PMSpecial THANK YOU to Saij for transcribing this interview for us.

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