My Conscience or My Vanity Appalled

My Conscience or My Vanity Appalled

I was greatly impacted by the words of Isaac Watts’ hymn, At the Cross. Watts told us Christ’s death was “for such a worm as I.” In my fundamentalist childhood there was no shortage of judgment for the real and imagined flaws in my barely formed being. It was decades before I began to understand God might possibly, on Thursdays maybe, love me just as I was.

Could it be true I did not have to do a single thing to earn God’s favor? Mary Oliver writes about the conclusion of a journey toward radical grace in her poem, The Wild Geese. The poem begins,

You do not have to be good

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves

I memorized the poem 20 years ago, but only recently do I no longer choke on the phrase, “the soft animal of your body.” I was an excellent example of a body and spirit that were not integrated. My spirit and body were each gendered, but the genders were not in alignment. Through my transition I began to integrate the two. Through the love of family, friends, and my new church I finally began to love the soft animal of my body.

I also began to see myself in a new light. I came to see, far more clearly than before, that I am a mess – a living, breathing series of considerable contradictions. I could identify with the words of Terence, the ancient Roman playwright, “Nothing human is alien to me.”

A secret of the Fundamentalist world is that while people acknowledge the idea of their sinfulness, they often believe they are not actually sinful. I used to do adoption casework. I would ask a couple their strengths and weaknesses. Non-church people easily named both. Fundamentalists could name neither. To speak of their strengths would be boasting. When it came to weaknesses, they acknowledged they had them, but could never seem to recall any. They might say, “I’m not as loving as I should be.” “Seriously? That’s the best you can do. What about your addiction to your work, your inattentiveness to your spouse, and your extraordinary capacity to judge others!” I never actually said those things, but I wanted to. What I actually said was, “Hmmm, interesting.”

I believe you must remove the fear of rejection to fully face your messiness. When I counsel Fundamentalists I find they often must reimagine God before they can really get down to work. They must put aside their notion of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” and embrace a God of grace, mercy and love. Only then are they able to truly address their weaknesses.

I rarely use the word sin. It is too loaded. When I am working with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, we talk about Paul Tillich’s view of sin as separation from the ground of being. We resurrect the meaning of the Greek word for sin, “missing the mark.” That language is helpful. Missing the mark feels pretty human. I do it every time I ride singletrack on my mountain bike. If you don’t hit the right few square inches of trail there is going to be a wheel strike. When a wheel strike occurs the physics is pretty simple. The rock and bike do not move. You do. The result is painful. But if you are going to mountain bike you are going to have wheel strikes. It is the nature of the sport. And if you are going to live, you are going to miss the mark. It’s okay to miss the mark. It really is.

In Richard III Shakespeare writes, “Alas, I rather hate myself, for hateful deeds committed by myself.”


I love the way William Butler Yeats puts it in his poem Vacillation:

Responsibility so weighs me down

Things said and done long years ago

Or things I did not say or do but thought that

I might say or do weigh me down

And not a day but something is recalled

My conscience or my vanity appalled.


Yeats and Shakespeare name the reality of their sin. They are the people Jesus was referring to when he said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That word mourn means those who mourn the very specific nature of their known weaknesses – the ones they have had for decades. The ones that piss everybody off. The ones that made Nikos Kazantzakis say by the time we are 50 we have the face we deserve. Jesus says blessed are those who mourn that, for they will be comforted.

Jung called neurosis a “life designed around avoiding authentic suffering.” We cannot authentically suffer until we realize we are not going to be rejected for it. It is difficult to suffer through the reality of what was done to us and what we have done to others. But it is the only route to wholeness, a road you will not find the strength to travel until you know you are loved.

On his last day of public ministry Jesus was asked one final question, “Which of the laws is the greatest.” He answered, “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” We understand loving God. We even get the importance of loving neighbor. But we completely miss the last command – to love our selves.   Until we stop mistaking narcissism or self-denigration for self-love, it will be difficult to love ourselves.  We will know we have come to truly love ourselves when we can say with Carl Jung, “I stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I am the enemy who must be loved.”  When we can do that, love wins.

10 thoughts on “My Conscience or My Vanity Appalled

  1. It’s all about acknowledging that God, the supreme life/love/light source energizes all of creation in magnificence as the sun rises each day and at one and the same time died for us. If we cannot hold the tension of those two realities in us each day ,we will not get very far. Thank you, Teresa of Avila, for the worm image. Along with the tension and mystery ,we are but that …. and yet loved !


  2. Thanks! I really needed that today. At my church I’m suffering through a year of sermons on holiness. As far as I can tell it’s all about beating myself up, and then beating up others for simply being human. I think it’s time to find a place where I can be me, and you can be you, and we can all be loved for who and what we are. An old mentor of mine once observed that people choke on the teachings of Jesus because they are too simple! Amen.


  3. Thanks! I really needed that today. At my church I’m suffering through a year-long(!) series of sermons on the subject of holiness. As far as I can tell the topic is designed to make me beat myself up and beat up those around me. I think it’s time to find a new community, one where I can love myself and love those around me for who and what they are–a church that actually believes in grace! An old mentor of mine once said that people choke on the teachings of Jesus because they are too simple. Amen.


  4. As always, thank you, Paula, especially as we come to the conclusion of Lent. If my pastor had not taught me that sin is a separation from and repent is a turning back, I don’t know if I would have stayed on this Christian journey. I love you. Holly


  5. Every spring I re-read Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” A celebrated American poet by both the left and the right, Christian and other; but if I recited Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” most Christians would walk out – unless some Christian “authority” told them it was okay to enjoy it. No “soft animal” in Whitman’s stuff! He does get a bit of a pass though, being a man and all….


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