The Enigmatic Paradox of Knowing Ourselves
“Is it not true that failure very often comes, largely, from a high-handed way of doing things, and airs of superiority?.... the apostle has got to cultivate humility (and only the interior life will show him how) to the point of effacing himself and disappearing from view until those who look at him see right through him to God, so to speak.”
Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard O.C.S.O, The Soul of the Apostolate
The Monkey on All our Backs
Instructed by wisdom, the Holy Spirit often awakens within us an awareness of our own fallen-dispositions. It is far too easy for us to be distracted by the mere external manifestation of our own behavior and that of others. It is almost as though we are vicariously aware of ourselves only through our perception of others perceiving us. That is a mouthful, but basically I’m saying, we are looking at others, interpreting how they are looking at us. As such, this way of examining ourselves merely adds to the noise that obscures the voice of the Spirit who would otherwise be heard speaking about our interior dispositions. We say to ourselves: “If I smile this way, if I use this type of tone, if I use this hallmark-phrase, I will be seen as X, Y or Z.” These sometimes necessary components of our external forms of communication can become rather burdensome to endure when they are the object of our discernment rather than the accidentals (non-essentials) associated with our internal disposition. Bishop Robert Barron, in his series on the 7 Deadly Sins refers to it as a type of monkey on our back. We are focused on the accessories of humility which can in the end distract us from the actual interior reality of humility.
When we are habituated in discerning the faults of others, it naturally inhibits our ability to be self-aware of our own faults. But the reason isn’t because we are focused on others – it’s that we are ultimately focusing on others as an extension of focusing on the narrow confines of our own ego. That is what the problem is. We do not look to the other as the good, true, and beautiful demand, we look to the other, as they look to us. The external dissonance that arises from this disposition can often reveal what Christ refers to as a type of plank or log in our eye. The frightening thing is we all have some sort of plank in our eye, and yet pride can double-down and exploit this passage merely to point out the planks in another’s eyes! What darkness can consume us in pride to obscure our own self-awareness!
Humility Frees the Mind
Humility, here, is not a matter of merely being aware of our sinfulness, it is also a type of paradox that causes us to know ourselves by becoming less aware of ourselves. That is to say, it’s a healthy type of self-knowledge. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima makes an interesting point. He asserts that humans only come to be aware of themselves by first becoming aware of a concept of something extrinsic to themselves. Meaning, we become aware that we are, by thinking about something extrinsic to ourselves. In becoming aware that we are thinking of some extrinsic reality we begin to know ourselves as thinkers. The bottom line is that our self-knowledge grows by a movement of our appetite to know that which is outside of us. This might be called a type of psychological transcendence that liberates the mind to see things as they truly are.
If we take this seriously, we will realize that distraction often involves an excessive type of preoccupation with ourselves. It is puffed up on what others will see of ourselves, how others will recognize our virtue signals, the opinions others have of us (good or bad) and acquiescence in the face of fears in order to avoid conflict. But if our preoccupation was with God’s heart, His Justice, His goodness, and not with the perceptions of others (lest that serve knowing God better), we’d become more aware of our own heart, our own purpose, our own motives. That is to say, that if we are to listen to the people of God, the object of our listening is principally God’s voice that we are discerning, not man’s wisdom. This is a good principle as the Church discerns God through the upcoming Synod on Synodality. It is crucial that the motive of all involved, places God’s heart and voice as the object of our discernment. For nothing that God would say would ever be contrary to the good of all.
Abiding in Him
St. Vincent De Paul says clearly: “…we will never be any use in doing God’s work until we become thoroughly convinced that, of ourselves, we are better fitted to ruin everything than to make a success of it.” Might I suggest that the context of this statement, biblically, is like that of the Tower of Babel. It’s crucial we recognize that everything we build apart from both God’s agenda or an openness/willingness to His promptings will be a wasted effort. I consider this simple anecdote from my own life. A man joined the RCIA and told me that he had decided to become Catholic for the following reason: he had been in a spiritual crisis, and had a very specific question to ask God in prayer. He asked it. Then on the following Sunday, as he drove, a voice in his conscience said, “How can you ask a question, yet not attend to Church to discover the answer?” When he arrived at the Church, in the homily I gave, I quoted verbatim the question he was asking, and then proceeded to answer it. Was this the result of any genius idea of my own? No. Was this the result of several committees, and dialogues? No. Was it the result of nothing other than the Spirit working through my own circumstances, and timing things perfectly for the sake of this man’s consolation and faith? Yes! There is nothing I could ever do to generate this moment of conversion, no matter how hard I would try. It required following a prompting of the Spirit, but that is all; the meager and humble act of cooperation without full knowledge.
This was substantially the work of the Spirit, in conjunction with my own feeble humanity. It is openness to God working in such a manner that we as a Church need to consider. Consider that a priest, prior to proclaiming the Gospel has a prayer to say at the altar, asking the Lord to guide his proclamation. In this very act we are to recognize that our own genius will afford us nothing, for without the Spirit is entirely vacuous and in fact foolish. This isn’t to diminish the practical necessity of committees, programs, structures, and human effort in general. But rather, it places them into the context of entirely being empty of value without God Himself being united to them. And to be clear, by saying He is united to these things, I mean that they are subject to Him, in Spirit and Truth. To assume God is united to our work without begging, praying, and discernment is nothing short of presumption.
Jesus says succinctly, “Without me you can do nothing.” Abiding in Him, being aware of Himself, becomes the way in which He can work through us. If we are to grow in humility, a great deal of it will take place not as we consider ourselves so much, but as we consider Him. And as we consider Him, we will consider ourselves in the context of His Divine Light.
Brothers and sisters, may we be enthralled with Him, and so discover ourselves as individuals and the Church. If we lose ourselves in Him, everything else we need for self-awareness will unfold before us. But here again we arrive at a fascinating paradox – to be enthralled in God is to know ourselves better. To resolve this apparent contradiction we might say that the object of our meditation is not ourselves, but God, and by God, we experience ourselves being lost in Him.
“Anyone who loves God in the depths of his heart has already been loved by God. In fact, the measure of a man’s love for God depends upon how deeply aware he is of God’s love for him. When this awareness is keen it makes whoever possesses it long to be enlightened by the divine light, and this longing is so intense that it seems to penetrate his very bones. He loses all consciousness of himself and is entirely transformed by the love of God.”
 Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard O.C.S.O., The Soul of the Apostolate, Aeterna Press, Gethsemani, Kentucky. Copyright 2015, p. 89.
 Matthew 7:3
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, Book II, Chapter IV, 308.
 Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate, p. 89.
 John 15:5
 From the treatise On Spiritual Perfection, by Diadochus of Photice, Bishop (Office of Readings, 2022-02-21)