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Living the Christian Life. Let Me Know Myself, Let Me Know You: This is Prayer
By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
August 3rd, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
To allow the seeds of the Gospel to grow, we must also cut through the thorns of life's anxieties, the world's riches, and our own concupiscence. Put another way, we must quiet the Martha in us--"Martha, Martha, you are anxious about so many things!"--and encourage the Mary in us. We must not worship Mammon; so we dismount the camel that will keep us from entering the eye of the needle into the City of God. We must tame the three libidos of concupiscence, the Pascalian libido sentiendi, the libido sciendi, and the libido dominandi, the lust of pleasure, the lust of knowledge, and the lust for power.CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In one of his Sermons, St. Augustine of Hippo exhorts his flock to examine their consciences. Such examinations of conscience are the only way the seeds of the Gospel can take root and transform us. The Holy Spirit must be invited into the deepest part of our lives, into the very furrows of our hearts, and there the Divine Paraclete, our Helper and Advocate, must ferret out and replace whatever hampers or bars the Gospel seed from growing, including the noxious air of the Spirit of the Age or Zeitgeist.
To allow the seeds of the Gospel to grow, we must give them soil, and allow them to root deep in our souls and not on the rocky soil of shallow emotion or mere convention. It requires a plenary Christian life: prayer, the exercise of theological, the infused, and the acquired virtues, keeping of the Commandments, participation in the sacramental life of the Church. In short, we must live in the Church, feel with the Church, and do what the Church does: vivere in Ecclesia, sentire cum Eccleisa, et agere pro Ecclesia.
To allow the seeds of the Gospel to grow, we must also cut through the thorns of life's anxieties, the world's riches, and our own concupiscence. Put another way, we must quiet the Martha in us--"Martha, Martha, you are anxious about so many things!" (Luke 10:41)--and encourage the Mary in us. We must not worship Mammon; so we dismount the camel that will keep us from entering the eye of the needle into the City of God. (Matt. 19:24) We must tame the three libidos of concupiscence, the Pascalian libido sentiendi, the libido sciendi, and the libido dominandi, the lust of pleasure, the lust of knowledge, and the lust for power. (Cf. I John 2:16)
Finally, we must constantly stand guard against the wiles of the devil, who, like a roaring lion, prowls about the world seeking the ruin of souls. (Cf. Luke 8:12-16)
St. Augustine, who of course practiced what he preached (read his Confessions and his Soliloquies, to see what I mean), recognized that any honest introspection takes courage, unflagging honesty, and last but not least the help of God. Self-knowledge is not a practice in solipsistic contemplation or spiritual navel worship. It is a practice of communion, a dialogue with the Other, with God.
The sort of examination St. Augustine has in mind is an I-Thou examination. But sometimes the "I" is me and the "Thou" God, and sometimes God is "I" and I am the "Thou." In other words, there is both me speaking and God listening, and me listening and God speaking. Or, as St. Ignatius of Loyola may have put it, there is a conversation up from below, a conversation de abajo a arriba, and a conversation down from above, de arriba a abajo.
In reading St. Augustine's Confessions, for example, it is sometimes difficult to tell when St. Augustine is speaking to himself in retrospection of his past life or introspection of his current thoughts and when he is praying to God. The segues are almost imperceptible. For St. Augustine critical self-reflection and prayer to God go hand-in-hand.
Similarly, in his Soliloquies, St. Augustine wrote: "O God, always the same, let me know myself, let me know you. This is prayer." Deus semper idem, noverim me, noverim te. Oratum est. (Soliloquies 2.1.1.) Two must travel the path toward self-discovery. One cannot know himself by himself.
St. Augustine knew many in his flock were captured by the spirit of timidity. They were governed by the fear of what might be found if their inner recesses were exposed to the light of God. They might be discomfited by the changes that might be required to their comfortable lives if they allowed God entry.
Some of the townsmen of Hippo were surely bourgeois avant la lettre. "Ignorance is bliss: 'Tis a folly to be wise," is the maxim of such as these. But this maxim is an anodyne which prevents a real spiritual life. Such as these forget that willful ignorance is sin. (2 Pet. 3:5)
The unexamined life is not worth living as Socrates reminded us. And if that is true for philosophy (which concerns itself with logos and things of this world), it is even more true when it comes to the Gospel (which concerns itself with the Logos, the things of the soul, and eternity).
Unless the lackadaisical Christian in his flock was challenged, enjoined, or even cajoled, St. Augustine knew that he or she would never bother to explore anything below the surface of his or her life. The shallow one abides by convention, lives by facile formulae, and therefore remains in lukewarm conformity with the world. Such a superficial life, however, is the nemesis of authentic spirituality. It leads to a life in spiritual doldrums, a zombie-like existence. In fact, it leads to death. There are no zombies in heaven.
A shallow spirituality--which is no spirituality at all--is highly distasteful to God. God wants things clean. God want things hot. God is like a refiner's fire or a fuller's soap. (Malachi 3:2) For this reason the Scriptures say that the lukewarm--that would be the spiritual zombies-will be vomited from the Lord's mouth. (Rev. 3:16)
To keep our souls from spoiling the appetite of the Lord at the time of our Judgment, there must be a real descent into our soul in this life. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, there is a frightful depth in our souls which can be appear foreboding:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind . . . .
If the mind has mountains, cliffs of fall, imagine the byzantine folds of the human heart! "More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?" states the Prophet Jeremiah. (Jer. 10:9)
Clearly, we need a guide through the labyrinthine chambers of our heart. Like Theseus who traveled in the fabled maze in the Island of Crete designed by Daedalus, we need an Ariadne's thread to guide us in the darkness, in and out of the tortuous twist and turns and corners where we hide things, a maze more confounding than the Perplexus Epic. Thankfully, we have such a guide. "I, the Lord, alone probe the mind and test the heart." (Jer. 10:10)
We must invite the Lord to be our guide in this inner quest: "Probe me, God, know my heart; try me, know my thoughts. See if there is a wicked path in me; lead me along an ancient path." (Ps. 139:23-24) In the Vulgate translation of this Psalm, the Psalmist distinguishes between the via idoli, the way of idols, and the via aeterna, the eternal way.
To be sure, there is danger in the interior journey. Yet heedless of the danger, St. Augustine insisted to his flock that they ought not to creep into the interstices of their heart, safe from the whirlwinds which threatened to change their lives. Be not afraid! St. Augustine encouraged his flock.
Don't just scratch the surface he enjoined them. Dig deep, "penetrate the interiority of your heart," St. Augustine admonished. And once in, "rummage around there diligently, and make sure there isn't a venomous vein" (vena venenata) within, filling us with the "corrosive love of the age." Especially when the age is faithless, the amorem saeculi, the love of this age, is horribly corrosive an noxious.
St. Augustine lived when the world was turning away from Paganism, but his message is perennial. For example, in his book Creative Fidelity, the Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel speaks of the duty of the believer to become aware of the non-believer that is within him, and the need to root it out once identified. It is the same message as St. Augustine's, only put in a different way. The only real difference, perhaps, is historical; and that is that the world, instead of turning away from Paganism, appears to be re-embracing it, acting like a dog returning to its vomit.
Both St. Augustine and Gabriel Marcel, of course, are echoing St. Paul: "Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect." (Rom. 12:2)
Whether the world is leaving Paganism or the world re-embracing Paganism is of no consequence to the Christian. "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." (1 John 2:15).
Know yourself read the inscription at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. But this is impossible alone and without God. One cannot follow the guidance of Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.
No. This is the Psalmist's "wicked path," the via idoli, the way of idols. Man was not made for man. Man was made for God. God is his origin and his end. Man is an enigma, a surd, an unknowable without God.
It is better to follow the path of St. Augustine: "O God, always the same, let me know myself, let me know you. This is prayer." This is the Psalmist's "ancient path," the via aeterna, the eternal way. This is what St. Augustine recommended to his flock in the 4th century, and this is what he still would recommend to us today.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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