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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Self-Knowledge and Seeking God

We have been created as wonderful mysteries. God loves to contemplate the hidden glory that He makes known deep in the secret of our hearts and that He wants to help us see with Him. But to see it, we need to seek Him—and that is why He commands us to love Him with all of our heart. We are indeed mysteries to ourselves—being in the image and likeness of God, each person ever made is endowed with unique and surprising spiritual depths and horizons. These inexhaustible places were established by the Lord so that He might find His rest in them. Thus, each particular, unique soul is meant to be a new kind of heaven where His glory is made known in a way that it cannot be known anywhere else in the whole cosmos. Self-knowledge learned in prayer makes us more vulnerable and open to this secret plan of God. There are, however, many different kinds of self-knowledge. Not all of it is as beneficial for our salvation. As we prepare for Advent, it is time to make space in our lives for the self-knowledge to be gained in prayer. For example, there can be an excessive self-occupation in which we carry out an interior dialogue with our own self. This alienating effort may analyze hidden motivations or constantly evaluate personal failures or grievances, or even stare with nihilism into the deep voids of one's own psyche. It may be the quest for some kind of absolute idea whether to seize upon or reject. It can be the effort to break through to the other side, to go beyond good and evil, to somehow escape the acute pain that haunts our lives in terms of desire, guilt and death. None of this by itself is helpful in the life of prayer—but can easily become a form of self-torment. When these efforts do not lead to taking responsibility for one's own actions before God, when they do not culminate in repentance and conversion, such self-knowledge no matter how enlightened is nothing more than a simple foretaste of hell. There is also a so called self-knowledge that is really nothing other than self-delusion. One form of this is a kind of egalitarianism in regards the whims of the heart. The voices that we attend to in our hearts must be carefully discerned because not all of them are true. When we mistake the whims of our own big fat ego for the hidden judgments of God, we are subject to all kinds of rashness. Such magical thinking can even threaten the very integrity of our lives and our connections with those we most love. If one is not careful, it is easy to drown in an abyss not only of capriciousness, but also of pride. Only the truth can hold up the weight of our existence against our fickleness in the moment. There is also a certain self-knowledge gained through various kinds of therapeutic counseling. This kind of self-knowledge can be useful and even necessary in helping us identify and learn to manage psychological pathology. Yet, securing a healthy psyche is still only secondary when it comes to the life of prayer. Indeed, there have been saints who were robbed of this blessing even as they were raised to the gates of heaven. The self-knowledge that most glorifies God is that which comes when we see ourselves in the light of His own goodness and truth. This knowledge of self suffers a humble vulnerability before God that accepts the reality of who we actually are in His Presence with invincible hope. It is a knowledge that grows the more the heart gives itself to the Lord, the more one allows oneself to be loved and to fall in love with Him. Such contemplation is realized before the Manger, at the Foot of the Cross and in the Breaking of the Bread. This faith informed "knowledge of self" at once grounds us in the dirt and grit of our lives with holy fear, while heaven's peace resounds within us. We move forward to our final judgement not with timid reluctance but in hope. What we thought could not be forgiven or forgotten has suddenly become a fountain of compassion and intercession. This confident contemplation keeps before us not what we have accomplished but what He had done for us. It is not a knowledge that beats us up over our inadequacy—but confronts our whole existence with the love of God. It helps us bow our heads even as it gives us standing. More than an intellectual assent, this kind of self-knowledge roots us in the truth that we are not God, that my ego must surrender to the One who gave up everything and humbled Himself for my sake. And the more we lower ourselves in this Light, the more this Eternal Word raises us on high. This self-knowledge leads out of self and into adoration of God. In this knowledge, heaven's mirth does not allow me to be weighed down by those heavy shackles of self-absorbed thoughts. Even a difficult pathology becomes a little easier to bear because of the patience such grace infused self-knowledge bestows. This powerful secret is a gift that the Lord of Hosts is waiting to share with us—and He gives it in the measure that our devotion to Him is tested in all kinds of trials and sacrifices. All we need to do is ask, patiently believe, and to love Him with all our heart.

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