Self-Knowledge and Christ's Knowledge

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Psalm 131

1 Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.

2 Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.

3 Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.

from Psalm 139

1O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.

12 Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.

13 Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.

14 For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.

from The Interior Castle
St. Teresa of Avila

It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or his mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies, and have a vague idea, because we have heard it and because our Faith tells us so, that we possess souls.

The providential conjunction of these three readings led to what follows. It is important to note that what follows is highly personal and highly individual. No two people will follow exactly the same way. Nevertheless, the path followed by one may be instructive or indicative; it may provide guideposts along the way.

Were I to write of the numerous ways in which I have denied knowledge of self or missed the mark, I'm certain we would fall into the realm of too much information. So I'll confine this story to the points suggested by the readings above and to what I have already made public many times. You've heard all of this before, perhaps out of context, and the contextualization will give you a sense of where the journey is guiding me. The three readings together have made me realize that there is often a wide gap between self-knowledge outside of God (mostly self-delusion) and self-knowledge in Christ (the real self). This gap is not overcome merely by recognizing it, but recognition is the first step toward remedy. Grace and prayer will take anyone the rest of the way. Or so I assume, because I am still on the way.

Psalm 131 has, along with psalm 100, long been a favorite of mine. It has spoken to my soul long before it spoke sufficiently to my intellect to provoke any action on my part. The imagery of being stilled and in the arms of God was intimately appealing, an invitation of the first order, a promise of the life I was meant to live.

The reality is that I do trouble myself with things beyond my
capacity, and I do stir around in things that merely dredge up irreconcilable feelings. I recall that one of the first things I wrote over at Disputations was my deep distrust of St. Thomas Aquinas. I further recall picking at the great Doctor's arguments on the basis of empirical understandings that he could not have had at the time.

What I have gradually come to see is that these are defensive postures. I look upon the greatness of intellect and spirit, and feeling intimidated, I try to find ways where I can challenge the Saint. The reality is that I don't have the capacity to even engage the saint in much of what he writes. I read him and my head spins. Ultimately I come down to a huffish, "Who cares anyway?" This isn't apathy, this is merely self-disgust projected outward upon the object that gave rise to this inner light. There is no shame in not understanding St. Thomas Aquinas. He was one of the great intellects of his time and perhaps of any time. His unique mind gave rise to some of the most intricate reasoning and thought ever composed. And more importantly, he spent his time thinking about the good, the beautiful, and most of all the true. That I cannot engage is not a measure of the Saint, but a measure of me. I am not found wanting in that, I am found different. There are a great many people who are utterly turned off by St. John of the Cross. This isn't a reflection on him, but rather on the capacity of the people approaching him. Again, it is not to say that they are wanting, but rather that they are differently constructed. What the saint has to say isn't meant for them directly. They'll find those truths (if it is necessary for them to do so) in another way.

The long and the short of this argument is that we need to allow ourselves to like what we like and to shy away from what has no appeal. God calls us through these differences. This is one of the reasons there is the enormous array of Saints and one of the reasons I was so appreciative of John Paul the Great's recognition of so many Saints. We are called to be all that we are, but we are never carbon copies of some other Saint, and not all of us are called to Francis, Dominic, or Aquinas.

I have been a long time battling this feeling of insufficiency that came when I recognized that I could not engage Thomas Aquinas. I had always thought of myself as reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-versed, reasonably reasonable. But this showed me that I had grossly overestimated some of my capacities. On the other hand I have also learned that I have grossly underestimated others. I have never seen myself as a particularly kind, considerate, or engaging person. I never viewed myself as sympathetic or overly emotional. The veneer of intellect covered up a vast well of emotion. This I discovered as I was meddling in these things beyond me. I read in various blogs a number of different kinds of argument. For example, there were arguments about how one was required to participate in representative government, there have been ongoing debates about the justness of the War in Iraq, and any number of other subtly reasoned but controversial points. In viewing each of these, I realized that I could follow reason so far. I could read the arguments on each side and found myself assenting to nearly every reasoned line. The argument against the war in Iraq made perfect sense to me. So to does the argument that speaks of its justness. The end result was utter confusion. I reached a place that intellect alone could not provide a solution. In all such cases the solution came from the heart, from thinking about all of the people involved on both sides. Such solutions are tricky and dangerous--doubly dangerous if we do not take care to inform ourselves to the best of our capacity. But for some of us there is no solution in the chain of reason, something more must be added to the mix before the solution can be satisfactory. Part of the end result of this is that I can be perfectly comfortable with people who hold views diametrically opposed to my own. I can sometimes perceive the reason that they follow to get to their endpoint and conclude that the person, differing in opinion though they are, is acting in good faith with all the right intentions. Too often in debates, I perceive that the point is not so much to find the truth as to convince someone else that we are right.

So meddling in things that are beyond me has taught me a great deal about the masks I wear and the image I would like to project. It has also taught me not to be ashamed of the fact that I am ultimately driven more by feeling than by intellect. There are those who would have one feel bad about such an arrangement, but so long as the feelings are as informed as one possibly can do, it seems that they may provide a solution when the intellect alone cannot resolve the perceived difficulty.

This dismantling of self is very painful, but also very productive. I discovered in it abilities that I had long thought were beyond me. I found ways of listening and ways around some of my own obstacles. I found in this dismantling a hint of who I am in Christ.

That is the point of this perhaps overly intimate sharing. And it is the point of the second and third readings above. God alone knows me as I am meant to be known. He alone has the knowledge of who I am and what part I serve in the divine economy. He alone can apprise me of my capacities and my shortcomings; He can augment the one and ameliorate the other. He has known me and had a place for me in the body of Christ from before the time the Psalms were written to tell us. Such knowledge, such a realization when it hits home is overwhelming. When the pyramids were being built, I was known and my place in the Body of Christ was fixed.

The only person who does not know me is me. And as Teresa of Avila points out in the third reading, that is entirely my own fault. God did not strike me blind, deaf, and unfeeling; rather, I struck myself blind. I cannot see because to open my eyes and see is too painful--it involves laying aside too much of what I think about myself.

God alone can assist me in finding the way home. He alone can help to deconstruct the huge barriers I have placed in the way of self-knowledge. The amazing thing is how gentle He is and what mechanisms he uses. At the risk of possible embarrassment of a great many here, I want to say how much the parishioners of St. Blogs have helped me along the path to self-knowledge. First among them, I need to thank Tom at Disputations who effectively dismantled what I thought were reasoned responses and showed them to be emotional reactions with little core of thought. Sometimes it hurt and I was hurt--but that was never his intention--and such momentary smarting made the lesson stick all the more. Tom isn't perfect, and he never laid claim to being, but his desire to know the truth has been immeasurably helpful to me. I have also to thank so many people in St. Blogs who have shown me the many different ways of being a faithful Catholic. They broadened my perspectives and my understanding. Chief among these was Karen Marie Knapp who very gently corrected a statement I made regarding her former Bishop and showed me what charity really meant. But others have helped as well. The vibrancy of the personalities and the deep-felt faith of MamaT, JulieD, and TSO (among others) have been mainstays of my consideration of Catholic life. The quiet reflections of innumerable bloggers, including Quenta Narwenion, Enbrethiel, have all helped. I can't continue to catalog, but every person listed in the left-hand column here has done a part of the work of helping me to come to know myself as God knows me. Admittedly, I am very, very far from the goal--but I have at last realized some part of that ultimate goal in terms that are more than academic.

Many in St.Blogs deny that their work is "spiritually valid" or important. But let me say that every encounter with a believer is important and formative. Every association with someone who prizes Christ above other things is healing. Every word exchanged with someone who, if even for a moment, sets his or her mind on the things above is liberating. In Saint Blogs I encounter God every single day in so many ways that I am often awestruck. Too often I have neglected to convey my deep thanks and appreciation to each person. Please consider this that thank you. Each person has helped me immeasurably. and as I open to grace and see God's motions, will continue to help me. That is what community is about. We help one another to God.

So, what is the conclusion of all of this? I have not yet realized the fullness, or perhaps even a great fraction of what God has in store for me. I suspect that this may be the case for a great many of us. God is present in every interaction of every day--we come to know ourselves not by seeking self-knowledge, which is often delusion, but by seeking Him. It is in searching for Him and loving Him that we become who we are supposed to be. The most wonderful thing about this is that we needn't do anything extraordinary to find Him. We continue in the sacraments, we engage the scriptures, and we pay attention to the arc of the day. God is present always and everywhere. He is ready to show us who we are when we are ready to see it. My eyes are slowly opening (I hope) and I count on His grace to sustain me and to take me where I can do His will to the greatest effect. All of you have been and will continue to be a part of this journey--for that alone I thank God daily. For all of your service to me, I dedicate my fasting, my prayer, and my suffering--to some more each day (you know who you are little sister), but always for those I encounter every day, for those who unwittingly are so instrumental in leading me to Christ.

Joy overwhelms me when I think of how much I have to be grateful for even in this place which is hardly real. How much more so in the interactions of the day. Please continue to pray for me and I will continue to pray for you. Pray that I continue to advance in the knowledge of God and that the knowledge makes of me a person who can serve Him as He deserves.

Thank you and God bless each visitor today.

(KOB--you were much on my mind as I wrote this--I hope it speaks to you little sister--I send it with much affection and with all of my prayers.)

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Steven, this is a beautiful post that just continues the wonderful insights you've been sharing with us lately. I don't know how you do it ... but please KEEP ON doing it! :-)

(though I did just about drop my teeth when I saw my name in there ... )

Dear Julie,

Perhaps that's because you don't realize what a witness you can be when you are not witnessing. Being ourselves as God has made us in his Grace and Life are the very best ways to demonstrate for the world what it means to be a Christian. There are a great many at St. Blogs who do that well. You are among them. You bless me every time I visit. You give me yet another model of how to be uncompromisingly Catholic and yet generous and charitable. That is a blessing to everyone. There are others who do so as well, but I think it is very important to make a point of the witness of the person in ordinary walks of life--not trying to be extraordinarily "spiritual" or "intellectual" but succeeding because of extraordinary faith.



*blushing* (but pleased)



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 11, 2005 8:51 AM.

Joy and Happiness was the previous entry in this blog.

Making a Joyful Noise is the next entry in this blog.

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