Taking my sin of Self-Loathing through the Labyrinth of Caves ... with Lieutenant Colombo as my Virgil
The Meditation Device; Abbey of the Imagination
I use my Abbey of the Imagination as a meditation device. I “go” to places I've prepared through time, and where I've stored texts, images, objects, spiritual reading, holograms of Bible stories, lives of the saints, or even scenes from my own life that might be instructive. When I visit, the proceedings often surprise me, because I find things I haven't put there, or find nothing in places I've stored important things. My unconscious works, creates, and plays in these spaces. Apparently, so does The Holy Spirit.
The “Caves of the Deadly Sins” is such a place in my Abbey. The caves deep in the ground under the tower of Reconciliation provide a device for the examination of conscience to prepare for repentance, reconciliation and confession. I reach the caves through the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, an arched dome of golden tiles with a Byzantine mosaic of Christ the Good Shepherd holding a lamb. This image reminds me of the parable of the ninety-nine sheep.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Luke 15:1-7
I begin my journey through the caves within this luminous chapel and I will end here, too, emerging from the undercroft into the presence of the gorgeous mosaic of Christ cradling the lamb. I am that lamb, of course. And so are other sinners. I have to remember this from time to time when I visit this chapel.
And I remind myself that when I return from my examination of conscience in the caves, angels inhabiting the uppermost parts of the tower above the chapel will prepare a celebration. After my confession I will hear the words of comfort after absolution, Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Abide in Peace. The Lord has put away all your sins. (BCP p.451) I like to imagine angels having a good time.
I invite you to accompany me to the caves to show you how you might create your own device for examination of conscience. (You may very well have a way of examen which fulfills its purpose without the use of imagination. I find most examens dull and annoying and Victorian and masculine- oriented.) I won't be very specific about the content of the caves. The images within the caves function as insights to the devices and desires of my own heart, as we say in an old confessional prayer. You don't need to know the intimate spectrum of creativity of my propensities toward one sin or another. You have your own devices and desires, your own unique derivations and recurring distractions. I hope sharing an examination of conscience with you will inspire you to create and then visit your own schema of an examen.
Today's Sin: Self-Loathing
Today I bring my tendency toward self-loathing into the caves of the seven deadly sins. Self-loathing is a kind of pride, and the roots of this sin embed themselves deeply into the human psyche. Meditating on this sin always offers me insight and healing as I uncover the insidious derivations with which it sabotages all sorts of good intentions, events and directions of my life.
Why do I suffer from self-loathing? Am I genetically predisposed to it? Does it come from deep childhood memories and traumas? Was this self-loathing nurtured and reinforced through family, school, relationships, and culture? Yes. Yes. Yes, yes and yes. However. I am an adult and responsible for my behavior and the continual shaping of my character. I live and work with people whom I love who need not suffer from the shadows of my acting out. I have come to realize lately, that the most difficult parts of my personality have roots in this trait of self-loathing. So I must (or should) go often to the caves, or learn from the lessons, watching my behaviors, my reactions, my thought patterns, my speech, the subtleties of this imbalance and sickness of character, as well as the fruits of observation, incremental self-improvement, sheer grace, and miraculous healings that this examen shows me.
Dante and Virgil Meet the Souls on the Cliff, Purgatory, Gustave Dore
My Guide (this time)
I don't like to go into my caves of the Deadly Sins alone. Some of you might ask, why not take Jesus with you? The answer to that question is this: I don't like to use Jesus as as an imaginary friend in my mind. I'm waiting for Jesus. And Jesus must be Jesus, not my own projection of who I think I want Jesus to be. For this I'll wait forever if I have to.
Still, I don't want to go alone.
In seminary I took Massey H. Shepherd's course on The Divine Comedy. I especially loved the Purgatorio and refer to it again and again in my own spiritual journey. In the Purgatorio, the journey through the Seven Deadly Sins takes place upon a mountain, and Dante and his guide observe the people working out their penances and watch the sky as the occasional soul is released into Paradise. They ascend together from cornice to cornice through pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust. Dante peoples his Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise with figures of history and with his own acquaintances and he frequently converses with them and hears their stories. Dante's guide and instructor through the first two books is Virgil, the poet beloved by Dante. But beyond the purifying flame in the cornice of lust through which he must pass, Beatrice, Dante's childhood love, awaits him and serves as his guide and ours through the layers of Paradise.
Massey Shepherd served as my guide through Dante's imagination. Virgil and Beatrice guided Dante in his own inner journey of love, healing, hope, redemption and amendment of life. I, too, want a guide, an interlocutor, someone to challenge and comfort me.
Lately, I found the guide I needed in the fictional Lt. Colombo of the Los Angeles Police Department played by Peter Falk in the TV series Colombo. In Wim Wender's movie Wings of Desire, an angel (Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a human trapeze artist and forsakes his immortality to be with her. Peter Falk plays himself playing an actor who plays Colombo. However, this Peter Falk was once an angel, too. He perceives the presence of angels watching him: “I can't see ya, but I know you're there!” He flaunts the joy of slurping hot coffee in the cold air, and claps his hands and rubs them together for heat with childish delight, taunting the angels with the seductions of mortal pleasure.
In the television mystery series Lt. Colombo comes across as a rumpled, forgetful, inept fool. The foolish persona and unrelenting presence often draws out the moral weakness (most often pride) of the murderer, causing him or her to slip up. Colombo's just the man to take with me to notice details I might gloss over in my examination of conscience. And I like cigar smoke.
After a loving gaze at the Good Shepherd Mosaic, I descend the steps which curve around the sides of the chapel. An altar table set with crisp white linen, fresh flowers, and beeswax candles stands in the space below the chapel. I'm reminded of the Eucharist and of the transformation which awaits me when I next receive the sacrament in church. I hear running water from a stone fountain in a circular space beyond the undercroft chapel. I'm reminded of my baptismal vows, the promise of forgiveness and cleansing, of new birth and regeneration of life.
When I was confirmed and took my baptismal promises upon myself, I vowed to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil. Although I seem to reembrace them just as fast as I renounce them, I remind myself that the examination of conscience and the whole of the process of reconciliation is meant to help me live in a state of perpetual sanctification and healing. Self-examination is necessary for honest dealings with myself. I wouldn't want my dentist to do half a job just to enhance his or her popularity with me. I'd rather the problem get fixed thoroughly and not have to come back so often. So it is with confession and reconciliation.
I detect the scent of cigar smoke.
I see the back of his wrinkled rain coat, the blue smoke of the cigar curling up into the gloom. His messy hair makes me think of that particular iconic attribute of John the Baptist. Colombo is a modern version of the archetypal wise fool. The fool's function is to throw you off balance, breaking the worn grooves in your mind that keep you from perceiving truth.
I sit at the fountain's edge and say, somewhat pretentiously, “Canst thou be Virgil? thou that fount of splendour/ Whence poured so wide a stream of lordly speech?”
“Nah,” he says, “Lieutenant Colombo, LAPD. Homicide.”
Peter Falk has a glass eye. So did my father, and I find the familiarity of that off-balance face comforting. I'm wondering whether I should tell my spiritual director I'm imagining a TV detective guiding me through my conscience.
“Well? What are ya waiting for? Let's get started. What are ya taking with you this time?”
“Oh, that old thing? My wife says she's got some of that but I just don't see it in her. Well, okay, let's go.”
Colombo fumbles in his pocket for a flashlight. A torch lights the passage in front of each cave, but the pathway between them remain pretty dark.
The seven caves emanate from a wall enclosing a circle around the fountain like chapels fan around the altar in a cathedral apse. Because I designed the architecture, I know the fountain of life flows in the center and I'm never far from it despite the earthen and rock wall that forms the ambulatory connecting the seven caves. The tunnel seems as if it's going deeper into the earth but we're going to come out of that gloom at the other side of the fountain.
To my left is the first cave.
Peter Falk as Lieutenant Colombo
I used to think I wouldn't be so busy here. I see prideful people in the cartoonish sense puffed up with Pride before many falls. The self-loathing person thinks, “I'm the opposite of those people! My problem is not enough pride.”
But what is pride but the rejection of grace in the embrace of the illusion of control and power? Pride is the illusion that you are beyond the mercy of God. Either you're too good for grace or not good enough. Either way, you're rejecting the free gift of God's love.
I browse through Pride like a museum, looking closely at artifacts of my life: journals, letters, even holographic scenes played out like a three-dimensional movie in front of me. Ah, yes. That. And that. Yes, I remember. I need to work on this. I need to confess that. (I draw a veil over the contents of the cave to spare my readers.)
“I think I'm ready to leave now.”
Colombo, on his hands and knees looking at the dust settled just so upon a coffee table mutters, “Ya know, there's something that's bothering me. I just can't figure out what it is.”
“Can I help you?”
“Well, its my wife. She says she suffers from self-loathing, but I think she's just about perfect. Can you explain that?”
“I think maybe we're so afraid of being prideful, we put ourselves down and appear to be very humble. Then, we suffer from the pride of knowing we're being self-effacing and so very humble. Then we know we've blown it, and we hate ourselves. Hating ourselves is familiar and feels good in a perverse way. Then we appear happy.”
“Oh. That must be it. Thank you very much,” says Colombo.
When we studied the cornice of Envy in the Purgatorio, Massey Shepherd pointed out the detachment Dante exhibits here. As uncomfortable as he was in Pride, he's almost bored along the way of Envy. Why would Dante suffer from envy? Dr. Shepherd said, “Of whom would Dante be envious?”
I feel a similar detachment, and therefore a call to study envy more carefully. I have experienced the sudden smack of envy a few memorable times. Each time came as a shock and I knew right away what sickness this was and found ways out of it quickly.
But much more dangerous are the subtle shadows that feed my self-loathing. Along the bookshelves in this cave I find author's works which illumine my mediocrity. Their success confirms me in my failures, contemplating their readership makes crinkles in my psyche. Here are writer's works I should read professionally but don't because I think I'll imitate them.
This cave shimmers with ghosts: people with carefree careers. Clergy with successful, healthy parishes. Mothers with happy, loving grown children and magical grandchildren. Families where no divorce, addictions, accidents, lies, or tragedies marred their wholesomeness. I know from experience that most of these shadows are illusions. I have to come here consciously to remind myself however.
A crystal decanter and several cut-glass liqueur goblets sit invitingly upon a small table. If you shift your head to look at the bottle through different angles of light, you can just make out an illusory skull and crossed-bones etched into it. The tincture is schadenfreude, involuntary happiness at another person's misfortune. One drop mingled with any emotion can poison a whole season's vintage of honest compassion.
While envy is a real part of my own soul's imbalance, being the victim of others' envy has caused me a great deal of suffering from early childhood on. Here in this cave I store tokens of the pain envy has caused me, not to feed resentment, but as a warning to myself that my envy causes pain and how deeply that wound can penetrate another person's life. I don't want to envy but I rarely notice I'm envying. Envying feeds my self-loathing. I have to pay more attention.
I believe I've looked at what I need for my confession. As we head toward the door of the cave Colombo swings around suddenly.
“Oh, just one more thing! You said you were going to read Ann and Barry Ulanov's Cinderella and Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying for Lent. How's that going?”
“I haven't started it yet.”
He writes in his messy little notebook pad and mumbles, “I haven't started it yet. But, Ma'am it's already the second week in Lent.”
“That's right, Lieutenant. I've been unusually busy.”
“But you had time to watch a number of episodes of Colombo on Netflix, isn't that right?”
“Yes. But that was research.”
“Well, it's probably not important. Let's move on to the next cave.”
In Dante's journey up the mountain of purgatory, the wrathful live in a cloud of choking smoke. Anger blinds rationality and suffocates good intentions. For me, it's not temper or self-righteous outbursts that damage my soul, but the slow, seething embers of resentment. I don't even notice I'm angry until its years beyond the moment the precariously placed virtue could have been righted, or the opportunity passed to scrub out immediately what need not have led to a stain. I don't notice my anger because I'm so busy trying to be nice all the time.
That kind of ignoring and suppression of anger and general Pollyanna-ishness leads to self-loathing. If I am tongue-tied when someone says something hurtful to me, I finally might find my voice long past the time when the person meant to hurt me. That person felt sorry perhaps, or let go of the impulse to hurt, and has been in the clear all this time while I've carried the poison within me, letting it infect my whole being, like the second monk in the following story.
Two monks on a journey meet a young and beautiful woman unable to cross the river at a ford. One of the monks picks her up and carries her across the ford and then the two monks continue their journey. After a few miles the second monk bursts into a rage, over the first monk's audacity in speaking to and even touching a woman and taking her in his arms, against all the rules of their order. “Goodness!” said the first monk. “I put that woman down at the riverbank, but you've been carrying her all this time!»
Most anger is justified. It's the degree of response or lack of response that creates sin. My cave of Anger contains clear vessels of lies I failed to challenge when I learned about them. The lies grew because I nurtured them by my silence. The liars may have gone on to other lies, other people to gossip about, other dramas to stir up in other families and organizations. I'm left with the lies as souvenirs of my own ineptitude.
Why, with the poisons of resentment so potentially dangerous, would I keep these vessels in my soul space? It might be more dangerous to hide them, I think, and not learn from them. Careers and reputations are not so large things after all. But what if you do not try to stop much larger lies, say, about the environment or the government? The clear vessels of my own failings push me to see with clarity the potential damage of bigger lies when I force myself to gaze on the smaller lies I once let live.
“Mind if I smoke?” asks Colombo.
“Of course not. This place could use a little more smoke.”
I hate this cave.
Oh, Sloth from whom all sin doth flow. Even work-a-holism. You'd think industriousness would be a good thing, and that an accomplished, busy, productive person might pass by with a little wave of well- deserved self-righteous gloating.
You don't even have to suck on a hooka pipe here. The addictive dolors perfume the air in this well-appointed parlor with lots of unread books, unfinished projects, tarnished, unpolished and out-of-tune musical instruments, dusty exercise equipment and plenty of too-interesting diversions.
“Oh, look at that!” cries Colombo. “You can type in any comedian you want into this You-Tube thing and come up with hours of comedy from the old days! Son of a gun!”
If resting on your laurels is sloth, so is working too hard to win the wreath. Sloth is a tricky sin. Here I see holograms of myself as a parish priest, killing myself in availability to all people at all hours. The surest way to avoid God is to be in the religion business. If you're running from God, the priesthood is the golden hamster wheel to ensure you drop dead from exhaustion and isolation. The guilt of never succeeding or balancing or setting the right boundaries feeds my self-loathing. How can I be so stupid to do this again and again? I'm trying to be good, to serve my fellow, to comfort, to baptize, to visit the sick, the prisoner, to bury the dead, to balance the budget. The work is never finished. I know so many clergy who pile up traffic tickets speeding from appointment to appointment, crisis to crisis.
How can running be characterized as sloth? Because when you run you don't see. You don't look up or down or around. You don't notice things. Sloth is a kind of self-induced blindness. Lack of awareness through busy-ness is just as lethal as lying on a couch and staring at the wall.
But you can convince yourself that you're important and necessary and pivotal by being busy. But in fact, you can (and probably will) be replaced as soon as you show signs of wear. And you show signs of wear because you haven't paced yourself. Sloth is close to Pride in this way.
“Look!” says Colombo. “Look at this Google Earth thing. You can spend HOURS moving this little thing here on the screen and following all these roads and railroad lines and rivers. I can't wait to show this thing to my wife. She's up in Fresno with my mother-in-law. Do you think I can see her if I zero in on the house?”
All religions teach practices of being in the moment, of the sacred present, of the eternity that unfolds within each shard, each splinter of time. Sloth is anything that fools you into thinking that the illusion of chronological time is more important than the Presence of the Divine unfolding Love into the soul.
You have to waste time to know time's illusions. But you can fool yourself. And you can hate yourself for continual failure in endeavors which have no criteria of success. As in meditation, you have to bring yourself back to the moment without recrimination. That's the phrase I need to hear and gather to myself in the cave of Sloth. “Without recrimination.” Come back. Come back home. Come back to the awareness of God. Every moment is the right moment.
Remember, Suzanne, the parable of the workers hired late in the afternoon.
“Oh, yeah,” says Colombo, “that's a good story. Do you know that you can google 'parable of the workers' and find all kinds of translations and commentaries on that story? That's really marvelous. Do you mind if I borrow your laptop for a while? I'll just bring it into the next cave with me. If you don't mind...”
Here's another cave in which the opposite of what I think the sin is, is the sin.
I remember learning about my personality type on the Enneagram for the first time. The prominent sin of my type is greed or avarice. This didn't make sense. Isn't Greed the desire for money? Prestige? Beautiful clothes? My type tends to avoid those things which draw attention to us. We're accomplished hiders.
Ah, but aren't you greedy for solitude? said the workshop leader, who shares this personality type. Don't you shun companionship in order to feed your unending hunger for knowledge? Don't you hoard your knowledge with the same passion Midas collected gold? Won't you keep quiet during a conversation at which you have some expertise simply to avoid the possibility that you might have to do something about the issue you're discussing? Don't you avoid leadership to avoid responsibility for making right decisions?
“Hey,” says Colombo, “I guess I'm not very good on the computer and I must have pushed some wrong buttons, but I found some very interesting things. You have a lot of writing here that you haven't showed to anyone. Isn't that right?”
“It's not ready. Or its no good.”
“No good? I thought you said your primary sin is self-loathing. If that's true maybe you're not the person to decide if you're work isn't good enough. I'm just saying you might want to polish up some of this stuff. It looks pretty good to me. But I'm no expert or anything.”
“Did you take my computer into this particular cave to expose to me the avaricious hoarding of my own ideas?”
“Oh, no, Ma'am. Do you think I did that? I'm sure its just a coincidence. I'm really sorry.”
“You know, Lieutenant Colombo, I've watched you're show and I know how you get people to incriminate themselves.”
“But Ma'am, I think you just did incriminate yourself.”
“That's what I'm saying.”
“Sorry to keep bothering you, but are you going to put up this little story about your visit to the caves of the Deadly Sins?”
“Do you think it's too personal? Do you think if people read it they'll have power over me? to use against me? something that I won't be able to bear?»
“Ma'am, I don't know about that. But don't you think something personal like this story is more engaging than those confession things, what do you call them, examens?”
“I think you might just have to take the risk.”
“We'll see. Let's go. You might find something to eat in the next cave. I smell chili.”
Colombo helps himself to a bowl of chili while I look at my holograms, my objects and texts to remind me of my gluttony. My own gluttony is based in an irrational sense of panic that there's never going to be enough. I was born with that sense and felt it keenly when I was little even though we had plenty. It made me think I had a past life marked by deprivation. But since I can't know that, I have had to learn again and again to trust God. This cave contains many reminders of God's providence.
Because there always has been enough, my work, our work as lovers of God is to help other people find what they need and strive not to ignore that most people in the world do not have enough. There's not enough food. Or proper shelter. Or clean water. Or safety.
Gluttony is a soporific. Being satisfied puts us into a moral stupor. If something is good, isn't more of it better? And don't I deserve as much as I want or work for or can have because I can? This entitlement, that I deserve more than other creatures, puts me in the place of God. It's a kind of blasphemy, not to share.
Like other sins, gluttony doesn't have to be obvious. A trim, healthy, modest person can consume more than her fair share of oil, water, plastic. All of us in the West consume more resources than all the rest of the world, heedless of the world and heedless of the future of even our own young.
What can I do? I'm part of this insidious system.
The answer: I can't do everything. But I can do some things. I can begin with small steps and work up to bigger steps. Networking. Activism. Tied to sloth, facing gluttony involves being awake and alert. And knowing we are all one.
Colombo interrupts my self-sermonizing. “It's probably not important, but what makes this computer work? How does all that information get into this small box?” asks Colombo.
“There's a mineral called columbite-tantalite. It's refined into coltan, which makes small electronic devices work, you know, cell phones, computers, DVD players, i-pods. The largest deposit is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I know what you're going to bring up, Colombo. The civil war in Congo and the rape of women, and how the need for coltan feeds that war and the devastation of people and land. I hate myself for this laptop. And my cell phone.”
For once, my self-loathing is in balance. But I don't know how to even think of giving up my laptop. Anyone reading this is also implicated.
Colombo puts down his bowl of chili. Mysteriously the dirty bowl and spoon and the chili disappears - one of the advantages of an imaginary workplace.
“At least you know about the coltan … but try not to hate yourself. It only hurts people. It leads to despair and then you won't do anything - even a little bit of good. But your gonna have to do something sometime about it. Ya know, we're coming up on the Cave of Lust. I'll just stay outside here and smoke my cigar. If you don't mind.”
"I'd be delighted if you stayed outside this cave, Lieutenant."
Dante and Beatrice gaze at the Mystic Rose, Gustav Dore
Once I entered this cave and saw the heads of men I've loved stuck on stakes. Shocked by the violence of feeling, I realized after calming down that this apparition arose from false Pride - a delusion born of my own self-loathing. The heads disappeared. Instead, I saw images of these men as they are, not devastated by the failures of love, but happy and productive and doing perfectly well without me.
I've lusted and I've been lusted after. Both states hold distinctive horrors. My obsessive love objectified and diminished the persons I loved. I hurt them. Not knowing myself or loving myself, I invited myself into a dangerous, frightening irrationality that damaged myself and others.
On the other hand, being a victim of Lust relates to self-loathing also. A person with any sense of self-worth might perceive signs of lust before getting involved in a dangerous relationship. A person with self-loathing tendencies can easily mistake ill-intentioned flattery and attention for love. In my experience, in a situation in which Lust makes you an object which then does not fulfill the fantasy placed upon you, the inevitable consequence is violence.
Lust not only refers to sexual situations. Lust is about power and domination and having your own way.
I don't like spending unnecessary time near my memories of ongoing violence. But even a quick glance reminds me of the ways Lust affects daily life in subtle ways. I really don't need to have my way all the time. But I'm also not doing anyone any favors by letting them have their way all the time. I have to remember to appreciate this during long boring meetings full of careful negotiation.
Darkened, tinted long mirrors hang at varying angles throughout The Cave of Lust. As I walk through and see memories glimmer across the glass, the mirrors shift gently like laundry swaying on the clothesline on a breezy day. If I see an uncomfortable image I can put my hand behind the mirror to show myself the picture isn't real, and it fades quickly. I'm noting what I need to see for my confession as I wander haphazardly among the hanging mirrors. Once in a while I come upon a bright mirror in which I see myself clearly as I am. Wrinkled, needing more exercise, but essentially happy.
I don't notice at first, but then I realize I'm hearing a distinctive voice from my childhood, singing as if from inside a smile: “How lovely to sit here in the shade, with none of the woes of man and maid, I'm glad I'm not young anymore...” Maurice Chevalier! What a grace! A good ending to my tour of Lust. Yes, thank goodness I'm not young anymore!
I come out of the Cave of Lust smiling.
“Looks like you had some fun in there,” observes Colombo.
“Not really, just a nice surprise at the end.”
Colombo reaches into his raincoat and takes out a notebook. “Here's some notes I took while I was waiting that might be of help to you, no, this is my grocery list, I'm sorry. Wait, no, this is Mrs. Colombo's dry cleaning receipt. Oh here it is. Here's some notes I thought you might like to have.”
“Oh, one more thing. I'm really impressed by all the technology you have in these caves. Really amazing. But I noticed you didn't look at some of the holograms. Why is that?”
«Most of them show how I've improved over the years. For example there's one showing how I used to yell and curse at myself when I made a mistake. But now I just laugh.”
“Why didn't you look at those holograms?”
«I don't know.”
“Maybe you don't want to acknowledge you're healing? Isn't that a kind of self-loathing?”
“Well, I guess it is. I promise I'll look at them especially next time.”
Colombo extends his arm for me and I take it. He whistles Knick-Knack Paddy-Whack as we stroll toward the singing fountain.