The Phantom Cross, or ‘It’s Not About You’

I’m Mary and I’m Martha all at the same time
I’m sitting at His feet and yet I’m dying to be recognized.
I am a picture of contentment and I’m dissatisfied.
Why is it easy to work and hard to rest sometimes?

Audrey Assad, “Lament”

My last post, “The Better Part,” was on Mary and Martha, and God continues to hammer my heart with the example of these two holy women. Yesterday was St. Martha’s feast day, so Jodi and I reflected again on the story in Luke chapter 10, and I was struck by how much of my busy-ness—which I pretend is selfless and sacrificial—is in fact all about me.

I went to Confession last Saturday afternoon. I had reached that state of spiritual haziness that indicates I’m past due for a dose of grace: simple goods seemed hard to choose; near occasions of sin seemed hard to avoid; God’s voice seemed hard to hear, and His light, hard to see. In preparing for the sacrament, I struggled to name and list specific sins I had committed. Instead, I discovered:

  • I couldn’t enjoy down time with friends and family, because stuff needed to get done, and no one but me seemed concerned or inclined to do it.
  • Instead of being present to those around me, I wanted to spend time with those friends who respect and affirm me the most, but
  • I couldn’t listen to their concerns without interjecting and trying to relate my experiences to theirs.
  • I couldn’t receive the generosity of those around me without being bitter about not having a role to play or a way to contribute.
  • I couldn’t receive the concerns of my bride without feeling like she was calling into question my concerns, my judgment or my ability to handle things.
  • I couldn’t perform a single act of service—or even apologize for my actions or inactions—without fishing for acceptance and affirmation from the person I was “loving.”

What do all of these things have in common? An overwhelming self-centeredness: I want to feel useful, productive, necessary, respected, affirmed, desired. I do not say loved, because in this situation, the loving thing would be to point out that I was being a magnificent jerk.

I didn’t want to be loved in that way. But I needed it. And God loves us without fail.

Several months ago, I told my former spiritual director I wanted to know what cross the Lord would ask me to die on. “I see so many people struggling with serious illness or addiction, children who have fallen away from the faith, you name it,” I said. “I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop: What’s it going to be, Lord? I call it my phantom cross…but I want a real cross I can pick up and start carrying.”

My director offered to name my phantom cross for me. He called it “It’s-Not-About-You,” and he warned me not to underestimate it. Carrying it, he said, will require real suffering—you will have to die to yourself and let go of your insecurity and your need for affirmation and control.

He was right. I do not like this cross. Layer by layer, God exposes my motivations, and I learn how fragile my ego is, and how automatically and fiercely I react to protect it and build it up. Even when I mean to do something loving, I often do it out of self-regard. Insofar as I am seeking the good of the other, I am loving. Insofar as I am trying to feel good about myself, I am not. And too often, the balance skews toward me.

The good news is God knows this and is showing me, little by little, day by day. St. Martha, pray for me.

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