"CARITAS SUI" AND THE DOCTRINE OF LIFE
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090- 1153 A.D.) once wrote to Blessed Pope Eugene III:
If you wish to belong entirely to others, like him who was made all things to all men, then I praise your human feeling, provided only that it extends to all. But how can it extend to all, if it does not include yourself? You too are a man: if your human feeling is to be entire and all-embracing, let the bosom which gathers all men to itself gather your own self also, otherwise, what does it profit you to gain all men, while you lose yourself? Consequently, since all have a claim on you, see to it that you are one of those who exercise that claim...at least from time to time, to restore yourself to yourself.
St. Bernard is getting at an important part of the Second of the two Great Precepts of Charity — the love of God above all things and the love of neighbor as oneself. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves then that means there is a particular charity which we owe to ourselves. This is what is called “caritas sui” — that is, charity-to-oneself.
This is not to be confused with a selfish, callous egocentricity nor an immoderate pampering of the body. Charity-to-oneself is an important part of the observance of the Fifth Commandment Thou shalt not kill. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section II “Respect for the Dignity of Persons”/Respect for Health we read:
Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good.
Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment and social assistance. (PAR 2288)
It is not selfish therefore to pay conscious attention to the requirements of stewardship for our own selves. St. Teresa of Avila (+1582), who reformed her own Carmelite religious order towards a more perfect and austere observance of their Rule, nonetheless observed: “In order to pray well, one must also sleep well and eat well.”
This recognition that our own self too is a kind of “neighbor” deserving of our charity can serve as an important corrective for many distortions which exist in human life.
For example, people can be very hard on themselves in their own thinking. They put themselves down as stupid, bad, always doing the wrong thing, and the like. This is not the fruit of a good examination of conscience and the acquiring of accurate, helpful selfknowledge. It is merely self-bashing. It is uncharitableness.
Likewise, people can mistreat the memory of past versions of themselves, as if anyone can lead a life free of mistakes and not stumble and fall. We can apply here St. Augustine’s famous saying: “Hate the sin, but not the sinner.” We can regret and repent our sins without hating that person we were.