Saturday, June 22, 2013

Thoughts on the maxim: Know Thyself

Christ the Light of the World
by William Holman Hunt
I've been on hiatus for quite some time and so I apologize for my long withdrawal from blogging. However, I've come up with a few categories that I’d like to talk about; namely, I have been struggling with a post that hopes to address something I call the poverty of love and more fully the Divine Poverty of Christ (or the Trinity, which is a far higher ideal). This sort of grandiose essay has escaped me for far too long and my love falls far too short to make any honest progress other than what amounts to straw and hot air. In this topic I’d like to just ease back into blogging with the question of whether a man (or woman) ought to strive to know himself very thoroughly or whether it is better to profess a certain form of ignorance surrounding one’s self. Or is there perhaps a dualism by which we ought to know ourselves well in one way but not in another.

That man should strive to know himself:

It might be argued by some that man ought to more fully come to know himself. After all, what does a man have most intimately if not his very own self? It is one of the most intimate acts that a person can procure in this life to look upon himself and wonder what am I? In fact, we consider it a matter of personal responsibility to know yourself well enough, and to act in a civil and proper manner with others understanding the various boundaries and quirks that might make you undesirable in a social context. Society strives on people knowing themselves well enough to work together effectively in whatever manner is most effective for each group of persons working together.

It is good for a person to find himself and to look to improve whatever he finds himself that stands in the way of good moral development and general human flourishing. And we say that it is even better for a man to try and know himself as a way to find his place and purpose in the cosmos. These sorts of existential questions are essential to what it is to be human. Moreover, we know that as Christians it is our duty to know our limits and where we stand with regards to temptations. We always strive to guard ourselves from the temptations of Satan and his demons. Living by the maxim -know thyself- then is one of the key ways of navigating life in a clear and consistent manner. But it strikes me that this is in some way also deficient, because man is not an island, nor is he some sort of statue that can be contemplated by earthly means. Rather, man has within him the capacity to be transformed according to the divine nature, and to understand himself, man must turn upward towards God to become fully alive. This then, to know God, is essential to knowing one’s self, and in this end, perhaps only in the final beatific union with God can man fully know himself as he is to be known in his totality, namely the way that God sees him.

That man should not say that he knows himself well:

It strikes me as the wiser thing to say that a man does not know himself well, for we have from St. Paul the Apostle: “At present, we are looking at a confused reflection in a mirror; then, we shall see face to face; now, I have only glimpses of knowledge; then, I shall recognize God as He has recognized me” (1 Corinthians 13:12). In the midst of this statement St. Paul is writing his famous poem, shall we say, about the virtuosity and fulfillment of true love. Love is patient, it is kind, self-sacrificing, never envious, and always peaceful. The Apostle then digresses interestingly enough and begins to speak of knowledge of God through miracles and prophecies, and how many of the spiritual gifts we know and come to experience are simply a small foretaste of the experience we will find in God at the end of our lives. This is perhaps the truest beginning of our lives, the final return to God. At present we see God only through the small moments where He reveals Himself to us, which color our expectations of Him, and if we are not careful these moments leave us sometimes chasing ideas of God rather than the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul continues then, he leaves us mysteriously with the statement that one day we shall come to recognize and know God as He sees us. Let us more closely examine the implications of this sentence.

It is clear that God knows us infinitely more closely than we even know ourselves in this present life. Such is the nature of omniscience, but also the nature of a willed omniscience that is deeply and characteristically attentive to the object of its creative love. If we are to know God in the next life, as He knows us, this must mean that the magnitude by which we do not know God in this very self-same life is comparable to the magnitude by which a man does not even know himself. For man is the image of God, and if the image of God that man holds in his mind is muddled and dim, then so too will his image of himself be so muddled and confused. I do not believe that knowledge of man and knowledge of God are two distinct realms that share nothing in common.

Let us try an example then. It is true that sin distorts the world that we see, but we must also know that we are finite creatures for which the entire way of the world is closed off to us in this life. It might be claimed that our lack of full knowledge of our own humanity and our own interior path for holiness is what causes us to fall. If so, we might say, with Socrates, sin comes from a lack of knowledge. Not only a lack of knowledge of the true wrong one commits to himself in sin, via the damage to one’s honor, dignity, and integrity as a human being, but with this too, the misunderstanding of what is truly just and proper for a man or a woman to strive to be. Each deed we carry out and each action we arrive at irrevocably marks history and marks out the very pathway by which we choose to continue to think and act. Every habit has its echo in the mind and the soul. Virtue and vice are as much moral as they are existential categories by which a person more fully comes to union with God or alienates himself from his truest Home.

How could a man truly say that he knows himself then, in the context of so much noise which occurs within a man’s heart? Do you truly know what you desire and what you want in your life? Is your life defined to a simple calculus by which the very fabric of who you are can be woven? Human minds are not so easy to comprehend, nor can we say to know ourselves so well, if we are truly honest with ourselves. God knows you better than you do. It is as if a town is being built by many workers and each worker only sees a portion of the town being built. But from the mountaintop over and above the town, a man can see all that goes on within the town. So too does God see a man’s whole soul, being, and life across space and time. A man only sees where he is very dimly and only part of the work that God is bringing about in him. He cannot measure out all of the consequences of his actions. Nor can he foretell the very echoes with which his thoughts will later resonate with him in the coming years or how once beautiful and cultivated ideas will wither away to the recesses of forgotten memories. It is then paramount to know that the building of our souls, of these towns, ought to be ordered, and we should strive to make it the way that God wants it to be built, since only in this can we have a truer peace and order in our lives.

That a Christian man ought to be humble and accept the will of Christ in him, rather than proclaim himself to be well-known to himself as if he were a complete work:

It strikes me then, that the object of humility is a matter of knowledge by which we compare ourselves to the Divine standard which we were always intended for. It is in Christ that we see the fulfillment of the perfect man, the One who submitted all things in His heart and mind to the will of His Father with absolute simplicity. What is my knowledge of myself before the knowledge of who I am before the Creator? It is indeed minute and small, but also in what I do know I ought to be most careful.

There were many things in my life that I believed myself to know well about myself. I thought I was very much in control of myself at one point, with a clear and honest road to piety if I willed it to be so. That I knew how to avoid the worst sins that I could imagine. But I did not know myself so deeply as to see that sometimes fear, cowardice, a greedy love, desire for affection, and many other incentives can grip a man’s heart so strongly and firmly. I did not rely on the remedy to wake Christ up in my heart when a tempest threatens to overtake my conscience and peace in God. One cannot rely on what one thinks he knows of himself, for God will bring him low to show him, “You are not a finished work, you do not fully know yourself if you are not in Me.”

For this is the truth of the Gospel, that a man is not most fully alive unless He is alive in Christ. Or as St. Augustine writes, “I could not exist therefore, my God, were it not for Your existence in me. Or would it be truer to say that I could not exist unless I existed in You, of whom are all things, by whom are all things, in whom are all things?” (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 2) It is only through God that things contain their existence, their nature, their essence, their very being. And because man was uniquely designed to not only receive from God a very-being, but also turn back unto God to receive and give from another super-added form of being which completes him. A man ought to turn to God to know himself as he ought to actually be. But what is this turning towards God if not the full disowning of one’s self to one’s self and the handling of one’s self over to God? What great trust this requires! It is bold to say, “I am not truly me until my love has given itself over to Him who made me and makes me!” What is this self-disembowelment of one’s ego and sense of self, other than a form of death itself! What a mystery this paradox of fully becoming and truly loving myself as I ought, by handing myself over to Another without fear or limit!

“With Christ I hang upon the cross, and yet I am alive; or rather, not I; it is Christ that lives in me. True, I am living, here and now, this mortal life; but my real life is the faith I have in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)

Is it I who more fully is in God, or is it God who is more fully in me? If I truly abandon myself to God’s will, is it more truly I who am, or He who Is in me? Have I more fully come to know myself by abandoning myself to Him and fearlessly daring to know and trust that this is what is truly best for me?

You have undergone death, and your life is hidden away now with Christ in God. Christ is your life, and when He is made manifest, you too will be made manifest in glory with Him” (Colossians 3:3-4)

What is it then to have undergone death and to live again hidden away with Christ in God? It is of note to Christians that we say that we must die to ourselves, that we might be crucified with Christ, and have new life with Him in the fruits of the Resurrection. These are all a reference to the progression of the spiritual life. If I strive to honestly know myself then I must understand as a Christian that in my life I must undergo death to my earthly passions as St. Paul writes in Colossians 3:5. But not only that, but my entire schema of what I believe to be good, better, and best, and of who I am, must give way to the work of the Holy Spirit. It strikes me that when a person reaches a maturity in his faith with God he learns to grow in faith by abandoning himself in humility, in accordance with the very radical trust of Jesus Christ, to the will of God. To abandon one’s self and aspirations and desires to the will of God is to undergo a certain form of death. But this death is not a form of destruction. Though we break one thing down, we build it up into something more beautiful and complete. This form of death to one’s self is a birth into new life. A gift of freedom by which man who endlessly toils upon the earth chasing after things which perish and blow away into dust, is given a new hope in Jesus Christ to live according to a manner worthy of eternal life, and to have a communion with the Eternal by which he finds his home and rest from his finitude. The Christian’s life is hidden away with Christ in God.

What does it mean to be hidden away with Christ in God? This is to live the life of Christ ever so dearly in one’s own life. To follow the entire model of His humble poverty, by which He esteemed Himself a servant, and by which He loved all as the Father saw each in His love. To constantly dote and hang on every word from God, and to look longingly upwards. Let us look so longingly upwards towards the Lord that our very hearts might seem to rise up to be seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father. Let your love for God soar, that you might be a bridge of self-giving love and generosity between God and mankind.

In summary, simply what I would like to say is that, in the Christian life it is right and good that a person know himself. Introspection is a very important part of the Christian life as introspection is critical for true prayer of the heart and examination of conscience, but there is also a need to understand that in the Christian life the self is not the source of all that the self is, nor all that the self can be. Rather we must turn to God in all of our needs. We are to die to ourselves and be hidden in Christ with God. And so it stands that a faithful Christian aims to rest all things upon Christ, to ask to be taken as he is, with the full hope of being taken up in glory on the day of the final Resurrection. Not only glorified by a royal decree, but made a servant of God and robed in the light of one’s own love for God.

For me, I know that I cannot know all that there is to me. Can there be any true philosophy that can explain to me how in all of the long years of my life I still do not fully know who I am? Even so it is in this wonder of who I am that I hope to at least strive for what I know I ought, and that is to strive to do the will of God. Let us then make the daily intention to serve the good Lord.

Lord let me be humble so that I might not confuse myself with knowing myself, but strive to ever confess Your Name in my heart so as to find that home which grants me peace and rest. I cannot reconcile myself to myself without Your presence, and I am ever restless without You. Let Your presence reign in my life today, tomorrow, and for ever and ever. Amen.

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