It is no secret that Van Gogh suffered emotionally to a great extent; he was a very sensitive man who tried hard to conquer his emotional issues or at least tried to live with them.* In doing so he struggled to understand himself. In a letter to his sister he said: "I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer." And later to his brother: "People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either. The portraits painted by Rembrandt are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation.”** (Rembrandt was also a prolific 'selfie' painter.) These letters show that Van Gogh was interested in knowing himself, as well as trying to be a better painter.
I do not think Van Gogh, no matter what his troubles were, is alone in wanting to “take a picture” of himself as a way to better know who he was. While most 'selfies' today are not about art and are more about capturing a moment (usually a time of fun), there must be something about self-portraits that is deeper than that which meets the eye. It can appear to be narcissism, (and may indeed be for some folks), but it also can be about a certain kind of memory, and a certain kind of self-awareness that we might be consciously or unconsciously pursuing. There are many forms of the self-portrait: some people may keep written journals or others may collect mementos which are symbolic of their personality. No one would think of this as narcissistic, so I think the 'selfie' is just another expression of this sort of memory making.
Part of self-care and continued growth in the spiritual life involves discernment. St. Ignatius of Loyola taught that we do not need to discern between good and evil since that is clear: we do good and avoid evil. But in order to discern properly in our day-to-day decisions we need to learn how to prayerfully choose between two things that seem good. Often we get caught in dilemmas because of this. We want to help someone, for example, who is not really able to be helped because the person is not ready to accept it. Or we feel like we should be doing more service in an already busy life, so we pile it on only to find ourselves burning out, and then wonder why our prayer life feels flat. Or worse still, we begin to resent those around us for whom we are responsible simply because we are over extended.
Discernment means that we are continually taking our own pulse spiritually, while also being conscious of that which God is calling us to do. It means that we examine ourselves interiorly on a daily basis in order to be aware of what brings us closer to God and what moves us away from God. Too much of a good thing can be bad for us, so if we are piling on too much service or a type of service for which we are not really suited or called to do, then we can find that we drift away from God rather than move toward Him. The way we can see if this is taking place is to observe our own behaviors, feelings, and thoughts as we contemplate doing something, or look back at what we have done recently to see if we are on the right track.
Another way that is good for growing in the spiritual life is keeping a journal. Sometimes there is a lesson learned or an insight gained that is important to remember. If we write it down, we can not only remember it, but when we look back at a later date, we can see from whence we have come. Looking back at our growth is a way to continue on the path to inner freedom and holiness. I do not journal every day, as some do, but I try to write only when something significant has taken place in my prayer or if an important insight or lesson has been given me through grace. Of course, spiritual direction can also be of help in coming to understand how God is working in one’s life and to have guidance with that which is happening. A good spiritual director can help us to learn what God is calling us to do and can challenge us when we are inadvertently listening to the impulses that lead us away from God, even if well intentioned.
May we be strengthened by our attempts to come to know the truth of who we are before God! May we be healed of that which keeps us from being the person we were made to be! May we remember the lessons learned on our path to holiness through our efforts to discern the road we are on! May we be empowered by our efforts at self-knowledge and may we be led to greater freedom! And may we use our freedom to love God by loving others as He would have us do! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus where all Truth resides! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first picture, a self portrait of Van Gogh comes from the first website cited above.
The second picture is a self portrait of Rembrandt, found at http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg/790px-Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
The icon is St. Ignatius of Loyola in Prayer Beneath the Stars by Fr. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/133-st-ignatius-in-prayer-beneath-the-stars
The final image is a self portrait painted by Fr. Bill McNichols when he was young. I have printed it with permission, as I have to post the icon of St. Ignatius. You can find the self portrait at http://www.fatherbill.org/gallery-views/images/product/156-self-portrait-of-artist