It’s easy, these days, to feel discouraged about a great many things, not least of which is our relationship with God. We move forward through the bustle of daily life, sometimes gracefully, but more often bouncing from one event or requirement or situation to the next like balls in a pinball machine. And when that happens, and we step back and look at our day-to-day lives, how can we not feel discouraged? How can we not feel that we don’t measure up to what God wants of us?
“The important thing,” says Sr. Marie Paul Curley, FSP, “is to help people realize they’re not alone.” She recounts her own adolescent experience of feeling that she didn’t measure up. “Well, you compare yourself to your heroes, don’t you?” she says. “You don’t compare yourself to other people who are like you, you compare yourself to people you admire, and all I could see was what I didn’t have. I thought I was the only one in the world who struggled with this terrible sense of being inadequate. I believed I was unworthy to be alive. It’s not the same thing as self-hatred; I didn’t hate myself. I just felt I was never going to measure up—to anything. I believed I wasn’t competent, that I wasn’t doing what I’d come here to do, that I was failing.”
Sr. Marie Paul turned to fiction. “One of the books that made a huge difference in my life was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time,” she says. “Even though it’s categorized as fantasy, this book is profoundly Christian. Meg, the protagonist, really struggles with some of the same self-esteem issues I was having.”
A Wrinkle in Time begins with Meg alone in her attic bedroom, feeling strange, wrong, and out of place in every way. And then she starts talking to cats:
"Go back to sleep," Meg said. "Just be glad you're a kitten and not a monster like me." She looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and made a horrible face, baring a mouthful of teeth covered with braces. Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair, so that it stood wildly on end, and let out a sigh almost as noisy as the wind.
Meg's self-criticism knows no bounds. In her eyes, she's an ugly, stupid, over-emotional freak whom everybody outside of her family hates. Meg's mother tries to reassure her that everything will be all right, but Meg refuses to be convinced. “That was how I felt,” says Sr. Marie Paul. “And here was this other girl who felt the same way. That book told me that I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t the only one who felt different, who felt like a failure.”
Many years later, after Sr. Marie Paul entered the convent, people started coming to her with some of these same issues. “When someone comes up to me and expresses discouragement, and says everything feels hopeless, I understand. It makes sense if we view ourselves in a negative way. Of course we’ll be discouraged!”
What she’s done through her writing—first, See Yourself Through God’s Eyes (Pauline Books & Media, 2009), and then Meditations to Grow in Self-Esteem (Pauline Books & Media, 2018)—is, as she says, “help people realize they’re not alone. You’re not the only one to feel that way. In fact, everyone has felt it at some point in their lives.”
Understanding we’re not unique in our feelings of worthlessness and discouragement is the first step, according to Sr. Marie Paul. “The second thing is to stop and take a look at where our image of ourselves comes from,” she says. “We’re all formed by early experiences, by the important relationships we started our lives with. Those people—people who love us, and people who don’t—reflect back to us how they perceive us. Those perceptions may or may not be accurate, but they shape our image of ourselves.”
As Christians, Sr. Marie Paul says, “we can take those relationships that aren’t perfect and we reflect them back on God. Maturity is about unpacking that. I try to challenge people’s image of God. People need to ask themselves: Is my image of God true and complex? Every human being is a mystery, both to ourselves and to others. If we see God only as a judge, we’re missing out on who God is. Then we put ourselves down. Instead, we could choose to have an image of God working out our salvation through justice, mercy, love, etc.”
If we’re struggling with our understanding of ourselves, Sister says, “the next thing is to look at Jesus. He is the perfect image of God and gives us concrete tangible references. We have so many stories in the Scripture and history whose lives have been shaped by him.” She invites us to try an exercise: “Imagine meeting Jesus. Try to put yourself in the movie. Watch him interact with Simon Peter, who always puts his foot in his mouth. See how he interacts with all these different people.”
She summarizes: “Number one, we’re not alone. Number two, we need to ask ourselves where we get these images of ourselves. Number three, how can we understand ourselves as we truly are—which is how God understands us?”
One of the answers to that question is Scripture. “I started to really grow when I entered the convent,” says Sr. Marie Paul. “One thing the sisters did was hand us the Gospels and tell us to read them. I’d heard Scripture all my life at Mass, of course, and probably listened to some terrible homilies about it! It took me a while, but really reading the Gospels and imagining myself in a scene with Jesus made all the difference to me. God created me as an individual, and wants to relate to me as an individual. Praying with the Gospels can be so helpful—seeing ourselves through God’s eyes by praying with the Gospels.”
And not just the Gospels, she adds. “And then there’s praying with the psalms. I’m a big poetry lover, and this language is so special, so exquisitely beautiful.” There are so many psalms, though; how to begin? “Read until something strikes you, and carry that line around with you for a few days. You’ll find that it colors your prayers and reflections on how the Lord speaks to us with so much love. Just take short passages of Scripture and live with them for a while. There’s nothing wrong with looking for quotes that will help you grow in whatever virtue you’re seeking; they’ll help you grow in your trust in God’s love.” She smiles. “Just stay with those passages that enable us to grow,” she advises.
Which is a good way to not only fight discouragement… but blossom into the beautiful creature God already sees in each of us!