Know Thyself before Thee Pray

A few days ago I wrote about the connection between our origins as created beings and our present relationship with God. My use of Scripture and historical Christian writings was minimal; I wanted to attempt to demonstrate that, regardless of personal beliefs, denominational beliefs, or traditions, it’s built within us to find God in contemplative prayer deep inside ourselves and each other. I want to continue that line of thought here: if we are made ex nihilo by God and utterly dependent on God for our entire existence (mind, soul, body, etc.), then how does prayer increase awareness of God? And why am I using stale philosophical arguments to bring about an understanding of something as intimate as a close, deep relationship, deeper and more intimate than mother and child (Isaiah 49:15)?

There is an ancient maxim from the ancient Greek philosophers, so old that it’s uncertain who coined it. This maxim finds new meaning in Christian spirituality, especially for St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and many other spiritual masters.

Know thyself

Keep Calm and Know Thyself

Ageless wisdom.


Obviously, to know only yourself isn’t enough to maintain a relationship. A marriage would be an exceedingly lonely relationship if both spouses only knew themselves, without an attempt at knowing each other. One needs both knowledge of God and knowledge of self to have the fullness of relationship with God (and, ultimately, salvation, if that’s what we’re talking about).

As an aside, the knowledge of God I’m speaking of isn’t merely philosophical or academic knowledge of God; it must be an intimate knowledge of Him, a knowledge that must include His mercy and love. Knowledge of self mustn’t also be exclusively scientific, psychological, or philosophical; it must include a frank idea of our own weaknesses, dependencies, and triviality. Ideally, the knowledge of both ourselves and of God would be much deeper and more intimate than merely these ideas.

Know thyself—perhaps one of the most poignant commands of Ignatian or Cistercian spirituality as I have ever heard. The human soul, having been created of nothing by a generous Creator in the image and likeness of the Creator, must share much in common with the Creator who imagined the soul from the beginning—that is, a natural connection between being (or to-be) and living (or living well, living happily). The effects of the first sin of Adam and Eve left us with only the image of God; its likeness being somewhat covered up and hidden by our shame and pride. Immediately one can see the difficulty in reuniting image and likeness. Surely for God, this connection is obvious, because He is perfect in all things natural to existence, but we can see how we are not like God in this matter. To experience unhappiness even once is to find in our soul a divide between existing and actually living. God maintains this simplicity inside Himself—He is both to-be and living. For the human soul, who seeks union with God, we must also seek this kind of simplicity:

The fact that Scripture speaks of our present unlikeness to God does not mean that Holy Writ maintains the likeness has been destroyed, but that something different has been drawn over it, concealing it. Obviously, the soul has not cast off her original form, but has put on a new one foreign to her. . . . And so the simplicity of the soul remains truly unimpaired in its essence, but that is no longer able to be seen now that it is covered over by the duplicity of man’s deceit, simulation, and hypocrisy. . . . And thus accidental evils superadded to the good that is in our nature, do not suppress that good, but are impressed upon it, defile it without destroying it, and lead to its upheavel, not its total removal. This is the reason why the soul is unlike to God, and why it is even unlike itself. This is the reason why it ‘is compared to senseless beasts and is become like to them.’

—St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs, Sermon 82

St. Bernard shows us that not only is the soul unlike itself in its duplicity, but that the soul loses its dignity as being created higher than the angels by becoming even lower than the “beasts of the field” who lack even rationality. St. Augustine also argues that a human who objects to use of rationality in his spirituality makes himself lower than the beasts of the field and abandons his dignity as a being created higher than the angels (the source eludes me, I’ll find it later).

So, I return to my main question: how does knowledge of self help us in our relationship with God? Thomas Merton makes three very good points.

1. The human person must recognize the truth about himself and face the fact of his own duplicity. “That means: simplicity in the sense of sincerity, a frank awareness of one’s own shortcomings.”
2. “He will also have to overcome the temptation to excuse himself and argue that he is not, in fact, what he is (whether he argues with other men, with himself, or with God, it does not matter). Hence: simplicity in the sense of meekness—self-effacement, humility.”
3. “He must strive to rid himself of everything that is useless, unnecessary to his one big end: the recovery of the divine image, and union with God.”—Thomas Merton on St. Bernard

Merton exposes a ton of the theology of being in these points of advice. He is well aware that it is the primary human weakness and temptation to puff himself up and make himself into a big deal. Christ is the ultimate example of flipping that onto its head, and we remember (especially today of all days) that to be Christian isn’t to be great or to be self-sufficient or to be in control of one’s life and surroundings. To be Christian is to abandon oneself to God; that a king, even the King of the Universe, should allow himself to be stripped of everything, and by human hands thrust upon an instrument of torture and death and be brutally nailed to it.

The first Adam, in grasping to make himself equal to God, immediately saw his nakedness and clothed himself in an attempt to hide his duplicity and shame. The second Adam allowed himself to be stripped of clothes, and with all self-effacement and sincerity showed us how we are to understand who we are in relation to God. If we are truly honest with ourselves, with each other, and with God, then we are finally open to becoming to likeness of God as we were intended to be.

Know thyself until thee knowest this.

Know thyself until thee knowest this.


But, as mentioned earlier, an understanding of self is insufficient. One must have a deep understanding of God and the activity of His mercies in the human soul. Without sufficient knowledge of God, such profound knowledge of self would lead to depression, despair, and loneliness.

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