The Personalist Project

The way to true personality

The way to true personality does not lead through the formation of a technique of the will, a decomposition of life into a series of separate, cramped acts…It does not lead through a petty decomposition of God’s commandments into innumerable rules dominating every situation in life from the outside. The way to true personality leads rather through the opening of oneself in the depths, the exposing of oneself to the sun of God…It implies making room in oneself for the life implanted in us by baptism, giving God the opportunity to speak in us, ‘watching’ before the Lord. It means especially the clear understanding that we are impotent to form Christ in our soul by our own efforts, but that the Lord must transform us; that we cannot save our soul by our own power, but only by the power of Christ. It requires prayer for the right thoughts and decisions, prayer for love, grasping the fact that our task is only a free cooperation with grace, letting ourselves be transformed by God.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality

As any addict knows--whether the substance of choice is Oreos or cocaine--the "freedom" to do whatever you feel like doing can turn into slavery faster than you'd ever have imagined. It's not a question of whether that's true, just of how long it takes us to stop squirming and admit it. 

This point has been made before, to say the least. True freedom is not merely the ability to do what you want, whatever that might turn out to be. True freedom, it always turns out, is the power to do what you ought--the power to say no to your appetites--the power to become who you're meant to be--the power to freely choose what is good and true and beautiful, which will end up leading to your happiness in a way that Oreos and cocaine can't rival.

To 21st-century ears, though, this sounds like sleight of hand. Oh, sure, my freedom is precious and valuable,as long as I end up not getting what I want. True freedom means obeying the rules and doing what I don't feel like doing, doing what God tells me to do. If that's freedom, give me slavery.

I'll leave it to others to defend the point. Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Fr. Jacques Philippe do it brilliantly. But there's another kind of true freedom that Christ exemplifies which is easier for people these days to appreciate. 

I don't mean the freedom to control your circumstances. Christ does occasionally makes use of this kind of freedom. Once, when the crowd was trying to stone Him, He "passed through the midst" of them and disappeared unharmed. Another time, when the disciples needed money to pay a tax, He arranged for the coin to appear inside a nearby fish.

These are examples of the kind of freedom that gives you physical control over a situation. Another example is the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. This ability was so easy to appreciate, they tried to make Him King by force. Anybody can see the appeal of this sort of thing, even if they're oblivious to all the foreshadowing, symbolism and Eucharistic imagry.

But He also wields an interior freedom: the ability to resist attempts at psychological or emotional coercion. This kind of freedom made Him immune to attempts at mind games, manipulation, and people trying to "push His buttons." This, if you think about it, is just as appealing to people today as the freedom to walk away unharmed from a murderous mob, or to make food or money appear just when you're hungriest or brokest.

The Scribes and Pharisees try to manipulate Him, attempting to trip Him up on technicalities. He doesn't fall for it, but asks them questions in return that leave them momentarily helpless. The devil tries to work on His physical appetite ("Command that these stones be made bread") or His supposed desire to prove Himself ("If you are the Son of God..."). The bystanders who jeer at Him as He hangs on the Cross do the same thing ("He saved others; He cannot save Himself!" and "If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!"). But Jesus, because He is free, doesn't take the bait. He can't be manipulated, pressured, or goaded into doing anything at all--not even under threat of torture and death. He's free to do as He chooses.

What He chooses isn't selfish pleasure or His own convenience. What He chooses is death and abandonment. That part is a hard sell, to 21st-century people or anybody else.

But the message we are to take from that is not just "hardship is better than pleasure" or "stop wanting what you want." It's not a pious lesson at all, not a facile "teaching moment"--but the vision of a Person who possesses real, interior freedom, the kind we all wish we had.

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I've never met my Facebook friend Brianne in real life. We only know each other from an online support group for caregivers for loved ones with dementia. But as soon as I heard her story I knew I needed to share it.

She begins:

The moment I feared most was most beautiful… mother was diagnosed with dementia two and a half years ago.... And from that instant I began trying to prepare for the moment when she wouldn’t know who I was. ... But when that moment finally came, it was profoundly beautiful, and with it, I saw something beyond my mother’s dementia.

It happened over the holidays. Mom was wandering the house one night, and came into the room .... I woke up, as she was turning back out. I followed her to the living room and saw fear, nervousness and sadness all over her face.

“What’s wrong, Mama?” I asked.

“This is my home,” she said, “but I don’t know who you people are.” She was on the verge of tears. 

It was The Moment I feared--but… but…in that moment, not an ounce of my consciousness was thinking about me. I was focused entirely on the scared woman in front of me.

“Oh, I see. That must be scary. Well, I can tell you we are all people who love you. We’re all here because we love you. You might not remember, but we love you a whole lot.”

“You do?” she asked, as I watched the fear slip a little.

“Yes indeed. We love you tons, that’s why we’re here.”

This is the first insight: the "theme" of that moment was to respond to the person in front of her--not, primarily, to her own reactions. Brianne was looking forward with dread to an abstract event, but the reality, when it came, was not some disembodied happening, but enmeshed in the particular person before her and the longstanding relations between them.

Next came a stroke of genius:

A sense of ease slipped into the cracks, so I thought I would take a chance.

“Do you remember you have a daughter?”


“Do you remember her name is Brianne?”


“That’s me!” I said, with the warmest smile I could ever find.

And then the fear disappeared and my mama reached out to me for the most amazing hug we have ever shared. She pulled away, looked at me with the sweetest eyes, then hugged me more. I don’t think my mother and I have ever been wrapped in a moment filled with so much love. 

Had her mother forgotten who she was? Technically, you could say so. The ability spontaneously to connect the name with the face, or the person she was looking at with the memory of her daughter, was gone. But the bond between beloved mother and beloved daughter was intact.

And that is when it hit me...the place where love resides cannot be touched by any disease. The place where connection flows is beyond any intellectual comprehension, and so a “rational” mind is not necessary to experience it. Those moments of grace like the one I had with my mom are always on offer, just beyond our ideas of what’s wrong.

Alzheimers is still a tragedy, and Brianne doesn't pretend otherwise:

I still have moments of sadness and grief when I think of the mom I might have had if dementia had not come along, but the heaviness it once carried is gone.

I've seen my grandmother and my mother pass through the stages of Alzheimer's, and I've seen how, even when it's very advanced, they will grasp a hand reached out to them. In I'm Still Here: A new philosophy of Alzheimer's care, John Zeisel tells how the sense of touch, which connects us so closely to one another, is one of the last abilities to go. We're sometimes over-hasty to equate the disappearance of reasoning power, spatial awareness, or agility with the disappearance of the person. We don't even try to reach her in other ways. 

It's also a failure of imagination: if we don't have access to the person's thoughts through speech, we assume there are no thoughts there. But I remember when my grandmother was in the final stages, confined to a bed in a nursing home. She hadn't said a word, much less a full sentence, in a long, long time. But one day she looked up at the nurse and remarked graciously, "You take care of me every day." She was "still there," all evidence to the contrary.

Brianne also rejects the idea that the person with dementia has somehow "disappeared." It might seem to make sense to talk about "the person she used to be." The experience of missing someone who's still there is real, and it comes up again and again in our online support group. But moments like the one Brianne describes are testimony to the person who is still there, outlasting so many former abilities and skills.

When we look at the disease, we find despair. But the human we love is still present. When we look at what is lost, we find heartbreak. But something more powerful always remains. When we look at what is or is not said, we find confusion and frustration. But beyond all language, life itself will carry us when we cannot carry ourselves.

This is not “looking at the bright side”, I believe this is seeing something more true than dementia.

I think she's absolutely right. And I won't presume to add anything more to Brianne's words. I just wanted them to have as wide an audience as possible.

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Don't be alarmed. I'm not ill, just older. I'm about to turn 52, so I was starting to feel funny being represented by a photo taken when I was 40. 

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Continuing our discussion of boundaries, I want to tackle the question of whether mindfulness of the boundaries between persons runs counter to the self-gift we are called to as Christians. 

I don't think boundaries, as I understand them as a Personalist and a Christian, prohibit true martyrdom. They aren't primarily about self-protection, except insofar as we are responsible for our own well-being. But other responsibilities---other *goods*---can eclipse even that very immediate and instinctual responsibility.

God, of course, has a kind of responsibility for each of us that we can't really have for each other. He creates us, holds us in being, and provides all of the created world to meet our needs. He won't violate the natural boundaries He created us to have because that would be counter to His own nature. He won't coerce us. But in the person of Christ, God sacrificed himself to be able to offer us redemption. 

What do we do with that kind of radical gift? If we are to be like Christ, doesn't that mean we should also be prepared to make equally radical gifts of ourselves for the good of others? Does altruism violate the boundaries between people?

I'd like to propose a few guidelines for navigating these questions. 

The principle I've developed for myself for non-reciprocal self-gift---giving to someone who cannot be relied upon to appreciate or reciprocate my care or concern---is this: my gift must be free, unconditional, and not interfere with my ability to meet equal or greater responsibilities to myself or those in my care. 


I am not coerced. I recognize where my obligations lie and I know what I am not obligated to do. I act out of my freedom, not under compulsion or coercion. 


There are no strings attached to my gift. I am not attempting to exert control over another or make them feel obligated to me. I am not unduly attached to the hope of a particular kind of response that would serve or gratify me.

Not in conflict with my responsibilities:

I am not costing myself the ability to live out the responsibilities of my vocation. I am not giving time, energy, or money that I cannot afford to give.

I believe there are times where martyrdom can meet these conditions--when it is free, unconditional, and becomes the perfect fulfilment of vocation as an act of love that encompasses all those we are responsible to.  

Christ accepts his death freely, offering it as a gift we are free to take or refuse, and in doing so fulfils his vocation of love to us without permanently withdrawing from us. The world continued to turn and men and women continued to draw breath as God the Father held us in being even as God the Son died at human hands.

God is infinite being with infinite capacity for infinite love and therefore infinite gift. He is never lessened by His gifts. We humans, on the other hand, have finite capacity and finite being, and need to be prudent and wise caretakers of both our gifts and those in our particular care.

When your boundaries have been crossed again and again and you have finally learned where the borders around your own responsibilities lie, it can be frightening--vulnerable--to contemplate bringing down the stockade you have built to protect your heart. 

You or I may never face the extreme choice of martyrdom. But we do face smaller opportunities for self-gift every day, times and places where we can carry someone else's cross with them for a short while and lighten their load. 

Don't hesitate to embrace these opportunities when they come. The load borne freely, eagerly, that strengthens rather than competes with our closest responsibilities, gives more than it takes. This free self-gift takes some portion of our time and our love, but it gives back even more than it takes. 

"Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for himself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self"  (Gaudium et Spes 24)

Man is the creature God willed for himself. We were not created for anyone's use, but were created for the sake of the good of our existence. It is right and good that we should resist being treated as objects of use, and refuse to so treat others as objects of use. Healthy boundaries around our subjectivity are thus essential--not optional.

But as incommunicable as we are in our subjectivity, we are also made for communion. We cannot fully find ourselves without giving ourselves. We define our boundaries so that we can make this gift freely, whole-heartedly, without regrets or reservations. 

And I believe that it is here, in the freedom of our gift, that we may finally, fully find ourselves.  

Photo by lalesh aldarwish from Pexels 

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Yesterday, while working on the post below, I found two a propos items. An address given last month by Cardinal Cupich called, "Pope Francis’ Revolution of Mercy: Amoris Laetitia as a New Paradigm of Catholicity," and a blogpost claiming:

The new paradigm Catholic Church is the old 1970's paradigm that Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict tried to undo and is being resurrection [sic] again and with the same nasty results.

Feel free to google if you want to read it. As far as I'm concerned, that quote says it all.

I'm grateful to this blogger, whoever he is, for making explicit what I sense many conservatives think but seldom say so straight-forwardly. I suspect that it's basically what Archbishop Chaput thinks too. If he doesn't think it, many conservatives think he does, because his public words suggest it. And he, like Cardinal Burke, is widely seen as their hero—a hero for Truth against a dark force of liberalism that has taken over the Vatican.

It distresses and disturbs me, as I think (to the degree that they know about it) it must the Pope and his predecessors. It's not just that it's objectively bad and scandalous for popes to be pitted against each other and for there to be such ugly division in the Church, but the notion that Francis is in discontinuity with John Paul and Benedict is  not true. Conservatives think he is, because of their "excessive objectivism." They are so focussed on objectivity that they've missed the "turn toward subjectivity" that is the great and paradigmatic event of our time in salvation history. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were two of its prime authors and protagonists

Further, and really importantly, their misunderstanding of what's going on with this papacy is preventing conservatives from playing the vital role they ought to be playing at this moment in the Church. The Pope is calling for dialogue. Conservatives' values, insights, perspective and help is urgently needn't for the task we're facing. But it's as if, instead of bringing what we have to the table, we're scoffing at the idea that there's any need for dialogue at all. We're talking and acting as if the call for dialogue is tantamount to an assertion of relativism—as if our perspective is the same as Truth as such and other perspectives are a menace to Truth. 

In deepest theological and metaphysical fact, though, truth, like love, involves a communion of persons. We need each other to attain it. And the higher the truth in question, the stronger, deeper and broader the communion needs to be.

It happens that I've been re-reading a lot of JP II and Benedict in recent weeks, so I am freshly aware and in awe of how absolutely replete with subjectivity their works and witness are. Of course they were also great defenders of objectivity. That's the gift and the miracle.

Those two intellectual giants—popes, saints, Scripture scholars and mystics both—promoted subjectivity while they defended objectivity. They showed in their words and witness that there is a dialectical (not to say conjugal) relation between these two aspects of Reality, and between modernity and the perennial tradition.

It's meant to be a fruitful union. Modernists are contracepting one way; traditionalists in another. Both are "refusing to give" and "refusing to receive" the other in full. It's not okay.

I think I might need the rest of my life to explain.


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