Why not take advantage of this Lenten season to sort out the problems in your life?
For Yves Boulvin, a Christian and a psychotherapist, Lent is a great opportunity to rediscover God, and transform our attitude toward ourselves, our life, and all those we love. He offers some advice on the subject.
How do you approach the Lenten period?
As a great opportunity to work on myself: to see what I must let go of. Jesus tells us: “I come to set the captives free.” But our freedom is relative: we’re all prisoners of our baggage.During Lent, Christ comes and tells us: “I’ve come to set you free; do you accept me?”And this is truly great news!
So, if there were no Lent, someone should invent it?
Yes, because it’s an opportunity to take stock of things, to sort them out. We get rid of all the things that slow or weigh us down. We do this at home, in our car and at work, so why not do the same in our life?
What is your advice to make the Lenten period fruitful?
I must get rid of guilt and embrace true contrition. Guilt makes me see myself through the prism of moral perfectionism; we all strive to be perfect.There are even those who use guilt to clear their conscience: “I am someone decent because I feel guilt!” It’s a pointless kind of guilt that makes us go in circles. It’s the opposite of contrition, the pang in my heart when I realize what is wrong with my life that makes me want to change, although it will take patience, perseverance and time — hence, some genuine humility to do so.
What must we change first?
Precisely this sense of “perfectionism.” We have stuck with a “moralizing” interpretation of the thing that Christ invites us to do: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father is perfect.” We’ve assumed that we must instantly become perfect like God. We’ve transformed the objective into an instant obligation. And because we can’t do it, we naturally feel guilty, blame, despise and criticize ourselves … then finally fall into despair.
We must acknowledge that we’re not perfect and never will be. We must go from imperfection to imperfection, accept them all readily in the love of God. There can only be perfection in the imperfection we’ve perfectly accepted. Jesus never criticized sinners; he spoke against proud Pharisees who placed themselves above everyone else.
Why do people dread Lent so much?
In our Church we still have a long tradition of fear that we haven’t been able to get rid of: the fear of a judging God, of hell, of retribution.And of course we fear change. The same old routine reassures us; it can even become a source of comfort. Lent provides us with an opportunity to put all this into question.
What harmful attitudes do I still have in my life? Do I go to bed late? Do I tend to snack all the time or do I get enough exercise? How can I envision a gradual change that won’t result in too much frustration and will be adapted to my everyday life? What would I like to change in my relationship with others — the way I flee confrontations, my interactions with others, my personality – too submissive, too soft or too defiant, my tendency to gossip and criticize or my perpetual distrust?
We must admit these habits we wish to be rid of, without guilt or excuses. Have I allowed myself become a slave of habits that makes me suffer? I don’t let guilt take over me; it’s pointless. Instead, I decide to change this situation, stick to my decision from one day to the next. We must never forget resolutions are made on a daily basis.We accept the mistakes, encouraging ourselves for the progress already made.
How can we acknowledge our flaws?
An Orthodox theologian once said: “Don’t go down to a cellar without turning the light on first, or you may fall flat on your face.” It’s dangerous to inspect our own multi-layered psyche without the Divine Light, because it can frequently lead to despair.If I persist in being judgmental, I will blame myself or someone else and play into the hands of the Evil One. If I see myself in the love of God, I will come out enriched by a better understanding of myself and of others; I will grow in humility and tolerance.
Are you calling for a positive attitude toward Lent?
I am showing people how to see things from a different angle! For example, I look at my colleague, my boss, my spouse differently. I no longer see them as my tormentors, but as fragile human beings, like myself. No doubt this may take me months or years, but I can no longer watch my own suffering and the physical damage it causes, without changing something in my life. Now, I truly wish for change and I work hard every day on preventing myself from becoming submerged in negative thoughts.
Can I truly want to, even if I can’t do it?
Here is a very simple sentence I propose you write on a piece of paper and look at every day: “I can do it!” The reason why it’s so important is precisely because it’s an antidote for the things that we therapists have to hear every day: “It’s impossible”; “I can’t do it”; “I suck.” Some poisonous words dwell deep inside us, the “bad” words we indulge in and nurture, instead of putting up strong resistance.Stop being complacent and get rid of these poisonous words that obstruct the work of God. You can do it!
But, not everything is possible …
No, but some things are. So, instead of humiliating myself, feeling sorry for myself, I can find a real strategy for change. It may take time and be achieved only gradually, but it’s doable with God’s help. It may involvea change of habits, cutting down on compensations such as food, alcohol, tobacco, or a change of career, my intimate life or even readjusting my professional, family and personal lives, because one of these three has become too predominant.
Do you think we can really change our lives?
If I gradually achieve the actual goal I have set for myself. If I don’t have any goals, I can’t change; if I have too many of them I may become overextended. I must see what objective the Lord has for me.He takes into account the kind of person I am. The readjustments he proposes us are very personal. When God speaks, he is succinct: remain, accept the change, learn to love yourself, go ahead, put your trust in me, I am with you, persevere, dare … Yet, most of the time, we drown his words out instead of following them. There are some people who have biblical verses engraved in their hearts: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”; “I come to set the captives free”; “ Get up … and walk”; “They had everything in common”; “Don’t be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
When you say “God is my coach,” is that a joke?
No, I am serious (laughter)! The Lord with his angels and his saints is not here to punish me, but to help me, to make me better at what I was made for, to elicit who I am, for myself and for others.I love to look at it as a puzzle: all pieces are of equal importance. What matters is that I am in the right place: it’s not better or worse than the one next to it, but it’s mine. Comparison is like lethal poison: either I underestimate myself or I overestimate myself. The question is not whether I am more or less intelligent, but what is my kind of intelligence – today we know of at least eight. Sensitivity and memory serve the gift that God has given me.
Doesn’t this outlook on life and the world depend on our character? Can it change?
I think it also depends on our family history; whether we grew up in a more or less positive environment; whether we were loved, expected, desired or not; how were we loved. But if some things depend on birth, a great deal also depends on our rebirth. Because I can change my attitude, the negative view of life I have, and gradually transform the way I see my own experience in order to free myself and to guide other people in my turn. I can help them, because I recognize the situations where I got hurt. Often only a former alcoholic can help another alcoholic give up alcohol, for example.
Lent can also be a time of struggle, right?
It can turn into a struggle against the pointless sense of guilt that constantly takes me to negativity. I receive many people suffering from OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) caused by unresolved issues of guilt from childhood. It’s hard to get rid of these obsessions. it’s a real struggle! It’s like a little child learning how to walk – because the Lord asks me to become a little child again.A child makes baby steps; sometimes it staggers and falls. St. Therese used to say “Little ones take baby steps.” I only need to take one baby step; the Father is there, ready to catch me. St. Therese always added that little children never fall hard. We are all vulnerable, but God, too, is very vulnerable in what concerns us! The more we love, the more vulnerable we are. And His love for us is immense.
Can our wounds become a source of grace?
Yes, if I manage to replant the seeds of God’s love on top of my wound, instead of dividing everything into two piles with the perfect God on one side and the imperfect me on the other, carefully concealing my errors, my sins, my “negative experiences.” Sanctity can be grafted to flaws.St. Paul called it “a thorn in my flesh.” A fortunate flaw and a fortunate thorn that make us more humble and compassionate, for we no longer judge other people in the same way. We can’t become saintly on our own – sanctity can only be received from God. To become a Christian is to allow God’s light to permeate all of our experiences: the grief, the separations, the addictions. So, we can also infuse with light all those who have suffered or are suffering from the same afflictions.
We can be infused with light?
I love this story: it’s about a mother who attends Mass with her son. In the course of the service, the latter examines the church architecture and points at a stained glass window, asking his mom: “Who’s that?” The mother, who is in deep prayer responds: “It’s a Christian”. Five minutes later, the little boy points to another stained glass window: “And that?” and gets the same answer. The third time, the same thing happens. The following week, during catechism, the teacher asks: “What’s a Christian?” And the little boy says: “It’s someone we can see the light through.” A saint is someone infused with divine light. He is someone who has humbly accepted that throughout his whole life, all his flaws will be infused with it.
What is your definition of sanctity?
I think it doesn’t lie in our personal achievements, but in a painful sense of emptiness that only God can fill. I can’t become a saint by making my ego bigger in an attempt to approach an ideal and wresting myself into perfection. But if I accept the emptiness and the events of my life, no matter how tragic and painful they have been, this will create a spiritual void within me. If I try to fill it up in my usual manner, I won’t leave the time or the space necessary to encounter the Spirit, because, only the sanctity of God can transform all the failings in my life.
Interview by Luc Adrian