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.

Our Metaphysical Origins and Contemplation

Christians often throw around this idea of a “relationship with God”, but to the philosophical mind, such a concept should be preposterous. How can a temporal have anything to do with an eternal? How does the limited relate to the limitless? In this blog post, I’m going to explore some of Thomas Aquinas’ philosophies of creation (what are commonly called the cosmological argument for God and the argument from motion) and their implications for humanity. Ultimately, I’m going to show how it is the human calling to pray, by nature of our existence and creation out of nothing.

The universe

The universe is a big place, if God thinks about it.

Let’s reflect on creation. Bang! The universe awakens to God’s words and bursts into life. Time itself is summoned from nothing, and so is space, matter, energy. Essentially, Thomas Aquinas argues that there must have been a cause—after all, a fundamental facet of philosophy is the intelligibility of the universe, that is, that it can be understood, observed, and made rational. So, for every action, there must be a re-action, and vice-versa (contingency). Philosophically, the Big Bang couldn’t cause itself (if it could, wouldn’t we be able to cause—or uncause ourselves?). A force must have acted upon the nothing that existed before us in order to generate something.

Everything exists because God called it into being from nothing and continues to hold it [in] existence. The formula for all created beings, from the speck of dust to the highest angel, is nothingness made to be something from the omnipotence of God. Omit God from the consideration of anything or everything, and you omit the reason why anything exists and make everything forever unexplainable; and this is not a sound first step toward understanding.

—Frank J. Sheed, Theology and Sanity

Sheed jumps ahead of my analysis to posit that God, this Being of pure existence (for we only exist as a mere cause from Him, but He must be causeless), continues to hold us into existence. How do we know that? This is a particularly interesting question that I think can be addressed both by a brief glimpse on the nature of time (which tells us a surprising amount about the nature of God) and the nature of causes. Firstly, if we accept that pure existence (God) created us and created time itself, then God must be outside of time. Time, too, is a created thing, a limitation upon us as limiting as space, energy, matter. We already know of the relationship of time with matter—time is warped and changed based on the density of matter and energy. And we know that time moved differently as the universe expanded (and continues to expand). So God, being eternal and outside of the confines of time, had (has? will have? Language is limiting me here) a thought—and that thought was/is/will be to create a universe. Already, with the struggles of language in describing the act of creation, you can start to see that talking about the universe before creation or during creation is impossible. You cannot talk about when God created the universe any more than you can talk about where God is (another issue I’ll explain in a few paragraphs). God, an eternal being of existence, only needs one thought, and the thought, not being bound by time (and thus, by the consequence of change) is a persistent and enduring thought. The universe, then, was not just created; it is created, and will continue to be created, not just because God is eternal, but because he thought it once means that he thinks it for eternity. You see, it is metaphysically impossible for God to change. It goes against the principles of eternity. (And this is why we can say that God is perfect—He exists, and his existence is dependent on nothing [while our existence remains dependent upon him]; “What we see at once is that since God is existence, that existence must be utterly without limit, for there is no principle of limitation in a being thus self-existent. Limitation is a deficiency of existence, something lacking to fullness of existence.”—Frank Sheed, ibid.).
Secondly, the nature of causes: we see that because the universe still exists, that God must still exist. Within the realm of created matter, we’re used to seeing things create (a better word would be beget) other things. In order to make a table, we need to cut down a tree. The tree dies, but the table then subsists, regardless of what happened to the tree in the past. In order for a baby to be made, we need a man and a woman, and then the woman has to eat a consistent amount of food and nutrients.


A baby can metaphysically exist apart from his father and mother.

Created matter begets more created matter, and thus a baby, once born, can subsist within its own existence outside of the mother. The mother and father may pass away, but the child retains its own life and matter. But what happens when you are created from nothing? If you are within the universe, and the universe is not begotten (that is, not created from pre-existing matter), but genuinely created ex nihilo, your existence is sustained by your cause, unlike that of the table or baby. To take this point home, St. Augustine says in De Natura Boni, “All the things that God has made are mutable because [they are] made of nothing.”

When Moses asks, “Who shall I tell them is sending me?” God answers, “I am that I am.” He is the act of existence, self-sufficient in his existence, such to the point that no other definition (or name) can apply. Interestingly, unlike most creation mythologies, God isn’t one god among many—he doesn’t behave and interact with the world as a created god. Take, for instance, Zeus, who seems to cause a disaster every time he visits and interacts with the people of Greece. Brahma, the creator of the universe, though also known as “self-born”, was still born from the god Vishnu. Or according to Japanese mythology, the universe began to create itself—and from its settling, the gods emerged. In order to create and develop the universe, these gods of each of these mythologies have to take from existing material. But the God of the Jews developed the universe out of nothingness, and He doesn’t owe his existence to anything, but exists in his own reality, while our reality depends on his eternality. And when God steps into his own creation, he does so in an entirely non-invasive, non-violent way. He asks permission of Mary, of a human, his own created thing, before she becomes the Mother of God. And when God occupies the burning bush through which he communicates to Moses, the bush is not consumed or destroyed—instead it blossoms.

God is not a supreme being alongside other beings but rather ipsum esse, the sheer act of to-be itself, in which and through which all finite things are constituted. This means that as I find my center in God, I simultaneously find your center, the center of everyone else, and indeed the center of brother sun and sister moon. When St. Francis used that evocative phrase, he was not indulging in sentimental poetry but rather articulating an exact metaphysical position: because of the creator God, all things in the cosmos are ontological siblings to one another, connected by a bond deeper and more abiding than anything that divides them.

Exploring Catholic Theology, Robert Barron

Because of our ontological “brotherhood” with our fellow creatures—both humans and the whole rest of the created order—we should share a common sympathy with the rest of the universe. Hence Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si, a treatise on the care for creation and our fellow creatures. Hence St. Ambrose says, “If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you; the other belongs to the man who has no shirt.” We are naturally and deeply in relationship with each other. But even moreso, we are in relationship with God. Better said, we are relationship with God.

Hence, creation is “a kind of relationship to the Creator with newness of being.” God is responsible, in short, for the entirety of a creature’s being, yet his influence is not external to the creature. And this is why he speaks of it as a “kind” of relation. Thomas was well acquainted with the Aristotelian notion of relationship as an accidental qualification of two or more substances, but he knew that creation, which is responsible for the whole of a creature’s being, cannot be imagined as “between” the creature and God. As he does when speaking of the Eucharist, Thomas here uses Aristotelian language but in a decidedly non-Aristotelian way, signaling that something else, metaphysically speaking, is the case. God is therefore properly discovered as the deepest ground of the creature’s ontological identity. Thomas Merton was entirely in a Thomist frame of mind when he said that contemplative prayer is finding that place in you where you are here and now being created by God.”

Exploring Catholic Theology

Our existence is a relationship with God. Thomas Aquinas says, a creature does not have a relationship with God; rather, a creature is a relationship with God. Whether we participate highly or hardly in that relationship at all is a different matter. How do we participate?

Return to the image of the burning bush speaking to Moses. This bush grows and blossoms under the burning indwelling presence of God. Mary herself, by her freewill choice saying yes to God’s asking to dwell within her, blossoms as a rose. God doesn’t consume or destroy when he steps into his creation—his presence allows that created thing to become more fully itself according to his creative intention.

If God truly creates from nothing, then there is no aspect of creation that is not, from moment to moment, coming forth from God and, quite literally, nothing standing between creatures and their Creator. To transpose this to a moral and spiritual register, there is no place that one can run from the presence of God, no ontological ground on which one can finally stand in resistance to God’s creativity. “Where shall I go from your Spirit?… If I ascend to the heaven, you are there!” Irenaeus expresses this through the trope of the right hand of God, which holds up the sinner even when that creature, in rebellion, “takes the wings of the morning and dwells in the uttermost parts of the sea.”
All of this is recapitulated in the new Adam. Whereas the first Adam disobeyed and hence withdrew into a kind of metaphysical shadowland, the second Adam [Christ] obeyed the Father and lived out of the deepest truth of things. And this did not merely indicate the way things are; it effected a change in a world marked by division. Irenaeus uses the following words to indicate what the union between divinity and humanity in Christ produced in the wider creation: “unite,” “join together,” “fuse,” “make one.” The obedient relationality on display in Jesus knits a broken creation back together precisely in the measure that it incarnates the relationality that God is.

Exploring Catholic Theology

Psalm139To participate in this relationship means to return back to God. God made us for himself—our hearts are restless until they rest in Him (St. Augustine). And we find our rest when we pray, when we center ourselves on our Creator moment by moment. To listen for God’s voice is to begin to return home to Him.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes, I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who bestrayest Me.”

Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
“And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing,
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught” (He said),
“And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
but just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”

Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shades of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

—excerpts from Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven”