Yesterday, along with Richard LeSeur and Brian Evans, in a day focused on “Self-Care” I spoke to the clergy of our Diocese about “Prayer and Self-care.”

Here is something like the first part of what I think I said.


One of the great self-care passages in the Bible comes from Isaiah chapter 40, where the prophet says,

The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

In my own strength, relying on my own devices, I am going to “grow weary.” The pressures of life will cause, even  youth to grow “weary,” “faint,” and “fall exhausted.” No matter how well I manage my time, or how good my self-care skills may be, the needs and demands of ministry will always exceed the available time or human energy.

So, although the techniques of managing my time well and making healthy choices for my life are enormously beneficial, they are not the foundation of real “self-care.” The key to self-care in a spiritual context is to be conscious in of the living presence of the Divine who “does not faint or grow weary” and whose “understanding is unsearchable.”

Self-care means staying aware of the unlimited reality of God’s presence at work in my life and in all of life.

So, when we talk about “self-care” we need to begin by asking an important question. Which “self” is it I am seeking to take care of?

Spiritual traditions have almost uniformly made a distinction between two “selfs” within human beings. Thomas Merton called them the “false self” and the “true self,” or the “external self” and “the deep transcendent self.”

We live in the uneasy tension between a surface part of ourselves where we constantly fret and fuss about external circumstance and a deep part of ourselves where we are able to rest and trust in God . These are two contradictory ways of being in the world, two opposing ways of interacting with reality.

It is not that one is bad and the other is good, both are a necessary part of being human. I need to navigate in the physical material realm and rejoice in the blessings and complications of living in creation and engaging in human community. But I must never forget that these physical material realities are not ultimate.

In I Corinthians 7:31 Paul states that,

the present form (schema) of this world is passing away.

The word schema refers to that part of reality that is perceptible by the physical senses. Schema is everything we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. And Paul wants us to understand that schema all shares one thing in common. It is all “passing away;” none of it is permanent.

The problem with my small self is that it wants to cling to schema; it is determined to build meaning and establish significance in the material realm. It seeks to create a sense of identity out of what I do. My egoic consciousness is obsessed with schema; it is concerned with how things look and with struggling to make the external circumstances of my life operate as smoothly as possible.

My small self believes in the illusion that I can gain control over the circumstances of life. It is driven by the need to protect myself, to build walls around my fragile little world. When my small self is running the show I live in constant fear. I am trapped in the unending stress of either trying to exert control over life or recovering from my inevitable failure to adequately shape the circumstances of the world to conform to my wishes.

My small self is intent on building my little kingdom. It is engaged in the futile attempt to create a lasting sense of identity by manipulating the levers of power and by gaining prestige and privilege.

The ministry theme song of the small self is

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine;
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine;
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine;
Let it shine; let it shine; let it shine.

My small self wants to “shine;” it wants to be noticed, to be seen to be important and special. My small self needs to be constantly affirmed, supported, encouraged and propped up. My small self is a voracious tyrant who is never satisfied or content with the reality of my life as it is. My small self never gets enough strokes from life.

What am I to do about this small self that exerts so much pressure in my life? This is one of the foundational questions of the spiritual life and it lies at the heart of true self-care in ministry.