As we grow up, we learn from those around us ways of seeing the world and everything in it, including ourselves. We absorb other peoples’ ways of seeing, imagining, thinking and reacting to what is happening within us and around us. Even if we rebel against this training during our adolescence, the imprint remains. The challenge of adulthood is working out how much of this formation is true to who we are, and how much of it must be discarded so that we can become our true selves.
This appears to be a self-centred goal - Until we realise that we can only model what we have become; we can only teach what we have learned; we can only share what we have discovered. How can we help another person “become themselves” if we are always hiding behind a mask? If we shift our shape depending on our mood, our companions, our context? If we do not know our own character? Or if we are not comfortable inside our own skin?
If I truly desire to help other people grow to the point of becoming their true selves, then I can only do this by becoming myself. This is a process. Each one of us is a work in progress. But by working on myself - or perhaps more accurately, working with myself - I learn what I am called to be, do, offer, share. Only as I get to know - and love - myself am I learning what it means to give myself away.
Christians are supposed to be experts at self-denial. But self-denial can be a distraction. Self-sacrifice can be a means of avoiding an honest encounter with who we are. Christ’s call to self-offering can be used as an excuse for not engaging with ourselves as we have been made. As God has made us. Because we fear to look at how we are made. Because we fear that parts of ourselves are unacceptable. Because we fear that these parts of ourselves are truly who we are, and that, as a result, we are totally unacceptable, immediately judged, utterly condemned, forever excluded from the light.
Love is the only power that can counter this fear. The most precious gift a parent can give a child is to demonstrate that they are lovable and beloved: that they are a joy, a blessing, a gift from God. It is not enough simply to say it, the words must be made real, personal and specific through attitudes which bear fruit in action. If this is how a parent treats their child, then that child will always know that they are lovable and beloved. They will still make mistakes. They will still commit sins. They will still fall far short of the glory of God. But however much they come to doubt their own good nature, that core of understanding will remain beneath their self-doubt, waiting to be rediscovered. Because they have been taught that they are more than any wrong they might do; more, even than the worst thing they might do. They have been loved, and so they know that they are capable of being loved. They have been loved, and so they know what loving means.
All parents are human, and some are more human than others. Some children are received, loved, welcomed as a blessing: others are not. Untold numbers of children grow up without this assurance. This terrible doubt is part of all that has formed them, and it tends to influence the way they interact with others, and the way they make relationships. They express it in their anxieties. They pass it onto their children.
However, the Good News is that this cycle is not inevitable. At any stage in our development, it can be interrupted, stalled, reversed. Our eyes can be opened to the amazing, wonderful truth that even if our parents were unable to give us this assurance, God can do so. And does so, with open eyes, open hands and an open heart.
Mark shows us Jesus receiving this insight immediately following his baptism. As he emerges from the water, he receives a dazzling vision of God’s power, which splits the heavens and descends upon him in the gentlest of forms - as the touch of a bird, a dove, symbol of God’s acceptance, mercy and peace. The image is one of abundance: of infinite power outpoured as grace; of an awesome loving energy brought to a specific point and material form for the benefit of a single person. And expressed as words of welcome: “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.
God speaks as God finds. Jesus is received with approval and affirmation. Henri Nouwen describes this as the “core experience” of Jesus, reminding him, in the depths of his being, of who he is. Nouwen writes: “I think his whole life is continually claiming that identity in the midst of everything.” And so for Nouwen, prayer is “listening to that voice - to the One who calls you the Beloved. It is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are and claim it for ourselves”.
The experience of being loved was the spring, source and centre of Jesus’ spirituality. Whatever he had been brought up to believe about himself, God had demonstrated that he, Jesus, was lovely and beloved. Having been given this experience of approval and affirmation, it was his forever. Whenever he was wearied or worn down by the needs of others, or battered and bruised by the anger of his critics, or irritated by the demands and expectations of his disciples, he could remember this moment. He could re-imagine it, revisit it and be refreshed by it. It was the foundation on which his ministry rested. It was his true self. And by remembering it, he was able to remain true to that Self. The Self God had made him to be.
Love - understood like this - is not based on any objective assessment. It is a conscious choice. God does not love because it is a sensible thing to do, nor even because it is the right thing to do. God loves because God chooses to love. In doing so, God is “being himself”. Or being “herself”. Because God is love. God has the freedom to do otherwise, but chooses to love. God acts according to the Divine nature, and the nature of the Divine is love - love understood like this. Love that has open eyes, open hands and an open heart.
And whether or not we have been brought up to believe we are lovable, we are invited to believe that this is how God loves us. If this is how our parents have loved us, then we may find it easier to believe that God can love us like this, too. We will begin with a greater degree of confidence and assurance. But even if we have never learned from our parents or teachers or carers that we are lovely and beloved, we can still choose to believe that it is possible that God might love us like this. We can still decide that this possibility is worth examining. We can still set out to explore the possibility. We can still choose to act as if it is true.
Of course, it will never be proved. To see like this, think like this, act like this, is a process of living by faith. There are alternatives, but, as we have seen, they are generally ruled by anxiety. So while we do indeed have a choice, what it amounts to, in the end, is a choice between the uncertainties of faith, and the dreadful certainties of fear.
This is the challenge: to see ourselves as lovely and beloved. Not because that is what we look like to our own eyes. Not because that is what other people have said we look like. But because God receives us with words of welcome and looks upon us only with love.
This is how God sees us. And how God will always see us, whatever we do to deny or diminish ourselves in our own eyes. Or in everyone else’s eyes. Whatever we do - despite the worst that we can do - God looks upon us only with love. This is the foolishness of God. This is why people despise and reject and denounce God as soft on crime, horror, atrocity and holocaust. Because God is love and elects to use no other power in dealing with us. This is God’s folly - and God’s eternal and infinite strength.
With this love, God looks at us and sees us as we are. And, seeing us as we are, looks upon us only with love. Contemplative prayer is choosing to believe that we are seen like that and allowing ourselves to be so received: seen, heard, understood and welcome - regardless of how we feel about ourselves, regardless of whatever it is we may have done, or how our actions may have been viewed by those around us. We are offered the amazing grace of imagining God seeing us, knowing us and loving us like this. As if we are lovely and beloved.
We are given this astonishing, unexpected gift and invited to unpack it at our leisure. God allows us - even encourages us - to spend time playing with this image and this thought, paying attention to it until we have followed its every implication and taken those insights into our thinking and behaviour. God looks upon me only with love. And that love has a purpose: that I may be my true self, live life to the full and learn to create abundance in such a way that it can be shared far and wide.
For some people, the idea that God sees us as lovely and beloved is so far off limits that they can barely bring themselves to consider it. Either they shy away from it altogether. Or they jump in at once to qualify it, and then focus so much on the qualifications that they lose sight of the original vision. Or they react angrily, arguing that the very suggestion plumbs the depths of sinful selfish self-indulgence. They believe it to be wicked. Evil. Despicable. Dirty. Disgusting.
The very possibility that God might look at us like this is enough to distress some people, and enough to offend others. And even those of us who have begun to learn how to accept it still struggle to deal with it sometimes. For it is a thought that sears even as it inspires. Such a depth of love is our judgement as well as our redemption. Nevertheless, it is a possibility that we are invited to consider: that God receives us with open eyes, open hands and an open heart. That God looks upon us only with love. And encourages us - in humility and hope - to act as if this is true.
 Henri Nouwen, quotation from “Parting Words” included in “The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life” by Henri J. M. Nouwen. Compiled and Edited by Wendy Wilson Greer. Published by Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000.