The Reality and Dangers of Spiritual Narcissism

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One of the things that opened my heart to a call to the priesthood was my experience of the sacrament of Confession.  The liberation my heart experienced from this sacrament after the first time I received it has stayed with me for over fifteen years.  Now my heart feels great pain because the sacrament is under extreme, though prudently imposed, limitation due to the coronavirus pandemic.  The temporary restriction of this sacrament (and again, I believe prudently so) causes me to think about what we can do during this time to prepare our hearts for receiving it once again.

Confession gives freedom of spirit to the faithful, who accept it as a gift from God. This life of freedom is not an abstract concept nor is it founded on some inflated egoistical view of the self.  The freedom of spirit is extended to us because our God is truth.  Where His truth is absent, bondage will take its place.  What is bonded is the human heart: to its egotized “truth”, or as the Bible teaches, its bondage to sin (John 8:34, Galatians 5:1).

A Barrier to Freedom

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) wrote that “anyone who seeks truth seeks God, whether or not he realizes it.”  It is in that necessity for truth that we can begin to prepare our hearts for a return to Confession.  How do we go about striving for God’s truth?  We first turn to the foundation of lies that we have constructed in our lives.  We may struggle inside to understand what is true, but our spirit is keenly aware of when it lies or experiences a lie.  Thus, the act of lying is where we must begin.

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him from the lie, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. Having no respect for anyone or anything, he ceases to love.

In my life as a Carmelite friar and especially since my priestly ordination, I see the grave dangers that come from lying to oneself.  There are many reasons why a person may lie to themselves, but regardless of the reason, the weeds of strife grow in people’s lives from lying.  Lying to oneself creates a disharmony in the heart between what is and what isn’t. In that disharmony, a person’s heart moves away from the reality around them and what it is they wish their reality to be. In that disharmony, a tension arises in the heart of the person that keeps them from truly being in a relationship with anyone, because any other person, including God, is a possible threat to their false reality they desire for themselves.

Spiritual Narcissism

In crafting that false reality, we grow in a kind of spiritual narcissism, and underneath all narcissism is the desire to avoid shame.  Many things can cause shame, such as failure, but shame itself is a powerful force that leaves a taste of bitterness in the heart. Hence, creating a fantasy to avoid shame is appealing but quite isolating because no one can fully participate in the exact kind of magical thinking that is required to support one’s fantasy world.

Spiritual narcissism is a malady that simply allows the growth of idols in one’s life. Idol worship is like a spiritual cancer, because idols arise from human desires like cancer cells arise from already existing cells in the body.  Idols never challenge false realities because their life arises from them. An idol calls the heart to focus on it, thus causing us to turn our back on any relationship of true love that may exist in our lives.  The spiritual narcissist is all too happy to comply because it keeps them turned away from any shame in their lives.  Spiritual narcissism keeps the truth of God at bay because the individual can’t handle the truth about themselves.

Communalized Magical Thinking

Magical thinking, that is, constructing a false vison of one’s reality, naturally precipitates both an external and internal act of lying.  To lie is to speak an untruth either to oneself or to others in order to mislead them. Lies inhibit the growth of love. Magical thinking erects stone walls around the heart that shield the heart from the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit. The desire to preserve one’s false reality via magical thinking can go as far as utilizing religious language and sentiments to support one’s idols.

I see this sometimes around the topic of kingdom building from those inside the Church.  Usually it is utilized by Christians who use justice-based terms, ideas, and doctrines from the Church but bend them in a way that speaks of a human-centered utopian kingdom that can exist on earth.  Of course, names and terms like God, Jesus, and grace will be tacked on at the end of their vision to safeguard their heart from the shameful accusations of Pelagianism.  In these acts, however, we see a kind of exporting of one’s internal fantasy to a communitarian level as a means of supporting and safeguarding their own privately constructed and envisioned world.  A good example of this is the building of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11).

What are we to do?

How are we to safeguard ourselves from traveling down the isolating and life-draining path of lies? The answer may be found in the concepts of respect and love. It is in these two items that we find our needed guidance against the pathway of lying. The verb “to respect” comes from the Latin “respicere” (to look back at). Respect is the act of looking back at something. Thus, to cultivate an atmosphere of respect in one’s life, that person must be willing to look back upon themselves and see where they have been, where they are, and where their current path is leading them.

Respect calls a person to step outside of themselves to see how they are doing in the world. A respectable person is thus a person who understands that the world is not rooted in them, but rather, that they are in fact rooted in the world.  Being able to see in that way helps to cultivate a humble heart.  What comes from the heart of a narcissist versus a respectable person?  A narcissist seeks to dominate what is around them; a respectable person assumes the role of a steward who is called to care for the world in which they exist.

Love as Vulnerability

Lacking respect keeps one blind to one’s own being, so it is no surprise that love is often lacking in the life of a disrespectful person.  Love requires the act of giving oneself over to another.  Love requires vulnerability.  A spiritual narcissist sees no value in vulnerability because they see the act as something void of the power of control.  Nothing of course is further from the truth.  The Cross of Christ testifies to the truth that vulnerability does have power in it when it arises from love. God, as our foundation of truth, reveals this truth to us: it is in giving that one receives (Acts 20:35).  It is the act of opening one’s hand that one can save the world.

We religious are called to continue this witness of love in and for the Church.  St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote, “The motive, principle, and end of the religious life is to make an absolute gift of self to God in a self-forgetting love, to end one’s own life in order to make room for God’s life.”  To look back on oneself is an act of vulnerability that opens the heart to that river of love experienced by the Church from the Cross of her bridegroom.

Conclusion

It is true love, and not mere egotistical sentimentalism, that brings about freedom in the human heart.  Love causes the heart to open itself to another so it can receive the other in joy. It is in that desire for openness and reception that we begin to cultivate our heart’s ability to receive Jesus when we can eventually return to the sacrament of Confession.  God calls all to Himself, even those who are bent over and turned in on themselves like the wretched creature Gollum was with the One Ring in J.R.R. Tolkein’s famous Lord of the Rings series.

Even though we may be kept from the sacraments at this time, we can still do the internal work needed to prepare ourselves for receiving them again. One of the first steps is to overcome the lies we tell ourselves and those around us.  The human tongue is meant to liberate us in the truth, not to bind us with lies. Thus, living in truth allows human life to become a source of liberation for others in the world in which we live.

It is quite usual for the Lord to grant me some special favor after I have been beside myself with shame, so that I may the better realize how far I am from deserving it. ~ St. Teresa of Jesus

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1 thought on “The Reality and Dangers of Spiritual Narcissism”

  1. Wow, this makes a lot of sense. It helps me connect the dots, to answer the questions why people don’t reciprocate in the love offered to them. I heard your explanation this morning on the Sonrise Morning Show, and was so impressed that I found your article. Please keep speaking. Your message is important and we don’t hear this explained enough.
    Thank you very much. God bless you!

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