Mercy is the point where God’s love meets the needs of the world. When Pope Francis opened this Year of Mercy he stated, In this Jubilee Year, let us allow God to surprise us. He never tires of casting open the doors of his heart and of repeating that he loves us and wants to share his love with us. Let God surprise us with deep and extravagant mercy!
My tendency is to have abundant mercy for others, but struggle to truly be gentle and kind to myself. However, over ten years of intrusive thoughts of self-harm have taught me some serious spiritual lessons.
Here are a few:
- Having a thought does not make it true
I may have the same thought of self-harm every day, hundreds of times a day for the rest of my life, and nothing will ever make that thought true. Sometimes we think every thought that goes through our head is a missive from God. But they are not. Some thoughts are temptations, distractions and lies that we tell ourselves. Even when I believe I am precious to and beloved by God, my thoughts don’t always reflect it. I must choose how I react to my thoughts, which lead to…
- Neither repress nor obsess
When I either avoid my thoughts or ruminate on them like a favorite pet, things only get worse. Instead, I choose to “ride the wave.” When difficult thoughts and emotions threaten to overwhelm me I watch them come and, eventually, go. I observe without judgment. I name them. “Hmmmm. Looks like I’m having a self-harming thought. Yep. There it is. What do I need to do right now to be merciful to myself and remember I am beloved?” Either repressing or obsessing just gives power to the thoughts. By staying in the middle way the thoughts dissolve on their own.
- I can’t. God can. Let God.
This summary of the first three steps of the 12 Step Spirituality Program helps millions in recovery for whatever addiction or habit gets you most stuck. “God, I’m not in control of my life, but I know that you’ve got this and I’m going to give my will, my struggles and my life to you.” Sometimes handing it over to God is an every moment thing. Just this one day, this hour, this moment. As we say in recovery “I can do something this moment that would daunt me if I thought I had to do it for a lifetime. Right now, I give it all to God.”
- People are kind, even when they say stupid things (which they often do without trying to).
When I talk of self-harming and suicidal thoughts it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed. I learn how each person in my life walks with me. Some people can listen, some people can just be. Some people have never really dealt with someone who has intense mental health issues before. One sister in my congregation just sends me a kind note with a bag of herbal tea now and then, and I know she cares. People care for me and don’t want to see me in pain, but they don’t always know what to do. That’s okay. Just let them love you and be present in whatever way is most respectful to both of you. One person said to me, “How can you have those thoughts and be a Catholic Sister? Don’t you believe in God?” Well, yes. And that leads to…
- Jesus doesn’t always take the pain away, but He always holds me in my suffering.
Sometimes I can believe I’m a precious child of God lovingly created for all eternity, other times I cannot. But God never abandons me. Through every pain and ugly thought and wish to die my sweet Christ surrounds me in love. Whether I feel it or not. Recently in my prayer I heard Christ say, “I am sorry you are suffering. You have everything you need. I love you. Let my love be sufficient.” When I finished praying the thoughts of self-harm were still there, but I knew I was not alone.
- God. God. God.
Persistent thoughts of self-harm have taught me to be willing to be willing. I need to open my hands and let go of the illusion of control, every day. Every moment. I can:
- Give everything to God.
- Increase my self-care.
- Decrease my stress (which often involves hard choices and saying no to worthy commitments).
- Choose to use the elements in my toolbox: prayer, exercise, support and healthy mental (sk)illness (which I wrote about in “Spiritual rights for the mentally (sk)illed”).
I can do all of this right and the suffering may not go away. On the spiritual journey, it’s not about getting it right. We are each doing the best we can. I open my hands. I breathe deeply, declare my dependence on God and am simply willing to be willing to try again. And in that moment I find a God of love, grace and power who never leaves me alone, even in my darkest nights.
About The Rabble Rouser
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.