Loving and losing oneself
On the Lord’s words: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34).
What the Lord commands seems hard and burdensome: that anyone who wishes to follow him must deny himself. But what he commands is not hard or burdensome because he helps us so that what he commands may be done. For what is said in the Psalm is true: “Because of the words of Your lips I have kept hard ways” (Ps 16:4), as also is true what Christ himself said: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt 11:30). For whatever is hard in his commandments, charity makes easy. We know what great things love itself can do. Very often this love is even abominable and impure; but how great hardships people have suffered, what indignities and intolerable things they have endured, to attain to the object of their love–whether it be a lover of money who is called greedy; or a lover of honor, who is called ambitious; or a lover of beautiful bodies, who is called voluptuous. And who could number all the kinds of loves? Yet consider what labor all lovers undertake, not thinking that they are laboring, feeling that they are laboring only when hindered from labor. Most people are what their loves are, and their greatest concern in living their lives ought to be choosing what they are to love. Why are you surprised, therefore, that anyone who loves Christ and wishes to follow Christ denies himself out of love for him. If by loving himself, a person is lost, surely he is found by denying himself.
Love of himself was man’s first destruction. If he had not loved himself, if he had preferred God to himself, he would have been willing always to be subject to God and would not have been turned aside and neglected God’s will and done his own will. To love one’s self is to want to do one’s own will. Prefer God’s will; learn to love yourself by not loving yourself. That you may know that it is a vice to love one’s self, the Apostle says, “For men shall be lovers of their own selves.” Can one who loves himself have any sure trust in himself? No, because he begins to love himself by forsaking God and is driven away from himself to love things outside himself, to such a degree that when the same Apostle had said, “Men shall be lovers of their own selves,” he added immediately, “lovers of money” (2 Tim 3:2). Already you see that you are outside. You have begun to love yourself: stay inside yourself if you can. Why are you going outside your self? Made rich by money, have you become a lover of money? You’ve begun to love what’s outside you; you’ve lost yourself. …
What is said of the son in that parable (Lk 15:12-18)? “And when he returned to himself.” If he returned to himself, he must have gone away from himself. Because he had fallen from himself, had gone away from himself, he first returns to himself so that he may return to that state from which he fell by falling from himself. By falling away from himself, he remained in himself; by returning to himself, he must not remain in himself, lest he again go away from himself. Returning then to himself, so that he would not remain in himself, what did he say? “I will arise and go to my father.” See, when he fell away from himself, he fell away from his father; he had fallen away from himself, he had gone away from himself to things outside himself. He returns to himself and goes to his father, where he may preserve himself in all security. If then he had gone away from himself, let him also return to himself from whom he had gone away, and let him, so that he may go to his Father, deny himself. What is deny himself? Let him not trust in himself, let him recognize that he is a man, and respect the words of the prophet, “Cursed is every one that puts his hope in man” (Jer 17:5). Let him withdraw himself from himself, but not towards things below. Let him withdraw himself from himself, that he may cling to God. Whatever good he has, let him attribute to Him by whom he was made; whatever evil he has, he has made it for himself. The evil that is in him God did not make; let him destroy what he has done, who by that was undone. “Let him deny himself,” Jesus says, “and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Augustine Sermon 96, 1-2; PL 38, 584-585)