I have heard it said in church that if you choose God first and put yourself last, you will be happy and that if you choose to love yourself first, you'll sin. The priest said that's because we, as fallen humans, are wired to do. Choose to love God first and you do not sin (at least not as often). Choose God and you will be happy, and those out there choosing themselves are not happy but they will see you happy and will take the hint. Well, I chose God. I've always chosen God. I never complained when it was time to drop everything to start praying. When my mom picked me up from music practice, she would take a stop to visit the "Blessed Sacrament" and I would never question coming along. I knew I could not say "no" to God. I always showed respect for priests and nuns.
One thing I am even looking forward to this summer, aside from having time to devote to leisure and passion projects, is having mornings free to attend daily Mass regularly. Religion always came easily for me. Sometimes, though, I cannot help but wonder if I am doing something wrong. I was told that if you are devout and place God first in your life, you will be happy. However, I cannot say that being religious has made me happy.
Some of my friends in the parish find peace and joy from the practice of their faith. I cannot say that I have gotten nothing from it. I do find a sense of purpose in religion, in belonging to something bigger than myself and the prospect of merit. I can offer my work and suffering to God and that can be used to help another person in need. It is better than believing that we suffer for nothing. However, rather than peace and joy, what I have taken away from being religious is chronic guilt, self-loathing, and fear.
Before I knew this chronic guilt and fear that I was doing something wrong had a name I was treading on eggshells to not offend a God, who is offended by pretty much any human activity (so I felt). I just thought I was crazy. I did not know that others suffered from it. Little did I know that this what I was feeling is "Scruples", it is a condition when your conscience is "sick" and "red-flags" your actions as sins when they are not really sinful. It is the "Devil's attack on good souls"- those who make an effort to do the right thing- in order to discourage their efforts. And according to someone in my youth group, Acies, who has experienced it as well, "Scruples" is a manifestation of pride. There is a subconscious desire to give yourself the "Hell sentence" rather than let God judge by His own standards- at least that is what Ms. Reyes told me. Either way, it is not from God. The fact that I am not happy in my faith is proof of this.
No matter what I sacrifice to prove that I care for my salvation, I still feel like I am not doing enough. Those who know me and my tendencies to make sacrifices have even told me off for being "too extreme". A priest even told me that I should not enter a convent because with my "attitude" or "pushing myself" leading me to be "miserable in the faith" will not help the church. Apparently, going without water for a whole day is now even considered "self-abusive" because that can cause kidney problems (It was one day!)...even though many saints have gone physical with their penances and at harsher calibers. But just because self-harming behavior was "holy" for them does not mean it is a way of becoming "holy" for everyone. According to my "beau"'s father, who has studied this sort of thing, you need to be specially chosen to do the extreme things. You cannot volunteer for it. He said my wanting to be God's champion rather than mediocre is "prideful" (The priest said from the Pulpit that saints are what we should aspire to be. HOW, then, is it pride to listen?!). Then again, what is considered "extreme" tends to vary among individuals. Staying off my phone for Good Friday was considered "extreme" by my "beau"...even though the priests recommend using minimal technology during Lent, but that was most likely his abandonment issues talking.
I told him it was normal for me to have been offline that day and he replied, "Maybe normal for extremists like you."
We are alright now but I was given a warning that if I do not learn to become balanced, it could cost us our relationship.
How is it that I listen to what I believe is an inspiring sermon to live up to a greater purpose, only to be put down as "prideful" and "extreme" for trying? How is it that taking examples from saints gets me scolded? The frustration from all of these different messages causes a loss of peace for sure. Either I am "red-flagged" for slacking off or I am "red-flagged" for pushing myself. So I had to stop and think, "Why am I pushing myself?" Is it because I'm afraid of punishment? Sometimes. Am I afraid that one piece of slack will lead to the unraveling of a months-long habit? That was the case for walking to church on a rainy day with a cramp. Am I really giving up something I like or giving up something I do not like sacrificially for the glory of God or just because I can? After a talk on the virtues of temperance and chastity, I gave up snacks and tea just to prove how easy temperance is to practice. But then I remembered that verse in 1 Corinthians 13:3, "If I give away all I have to the poor, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not charity, I have profited nothing".
Just recently, I heard a sermon about choosing God first in our lives. "It is hard", the priest said. He said that It is normal for people to ostracize you, but at the end of the day, you will be happy and can set the right example for those who persecute you. I could not help but think...not necessarily. You can choose God and not be worldly and still have no inner peace. How can I explain it? I was surprised to get the answer to my prayer-question fast. The answer came as my mind raced through the Offertory song.
Somewhere along the line, I must have been taught wrong, been given the wrong example. I was not shown how to properly be righteous, but instead, I was taught to be self-righteous. (Yes, Christian-haters exist but some self-righteous individuals claim they are being persecuted whenever they face disagreement. It adds fuel to the martyr complex.)
I disagree with people using their virtue as an excuse to be snobby, but I could name a person or two whose bad influence might have rubbed off on me- that rivalry between two former friends who always seemed to be in a holiness competition. I do not like it when people act like Pharisees and use their religion as an excuse to mistreat people, the Gospel even features Christ telling the Pharisees off so many times. Take the hint, and do not be a Pharisee, you do not know the impact you may be having on someone. Do not plume yourself on your virtues. The only reason you have them is because of God and then your own hard work. Those the work of the Pharisees out there is not due to a church problem, it is a people problem.
When someone considers religion as a set of rules or treats it like a competition of who can be stricter, perhaps to get attention or self-esteem, it becomes more about fluffing our own ego than it is about pleasing God. Self-righteousness is choosing both yourself and God, but you cannot play both sides successfully. You cannot be liberated when the self still wants something in return for sacrifice and virtue.
I do not consider myself as self-righteous as a personal trait, despite Pharisee-like thoughts leaking into my stream of consciousness now and again...I hate it. However, I have checked my motives for why I have pushed myself and not all of them have been pure. (The convent, despite what the priest accused me of, was not for a selfish motive.) Sometimes I have pushed a physical sacrifice on myself (any pain or discomfort, like fasting) because of self-loathing or because I was afraid of God being displeased by my "mediocrity" if I did not do it (when not obligated to laypeople).
Sometimes I volunteer for Acies because I do not want my peers to think I am a bad Catholic or a slacker only interested in the occasional party. My "beau" has not been involved due to the group's new leaders disregarding members' schedules and using guilt trips to make people attend meetings and volunteer regardless. Other times, I am genuinely interested.
Some of the unhappiness also comes from not discerning spirits as I should. Shame can be healthy in certain doses, but toxic guilt is most definitely not from God. If there is any trait I have causing this lack of happiness, it's a lack of balance and too much self-consciousness.