One of the greatest battles we face in the spiritual life is knowing and understanding ourselves. “Know thyself” appeared on the temple at Delphi in Ancient Greece. It’s influenced philosophy for centuries and it is an essential aspect of the spiritual life, as long as it is properly ordered to God and a life of holiness. This is not packaging for self-help. It is a very real struggle we all face as we enter more deeply into the life of God and progress on the path He has set out for us.
We often pride ourselves in being objective in our understanding of things, but in reality, more-often-than-not we are not nearly as objective as we believe ourselves to be. Human beings are complex. We deal with a whole host of competing factors from biology to environment to family background to personality traits to our own spiritual temperament and path to intense suffering. We are masters of self-deception. We often think we know ourselves better than we actually do, and worse, we often think we know more about other people than we do. This is something the saints have understood, which is why the vast majority of them had spiritual directors or regular confessors they relied on for objectivity and guidance from the Holy Spirit.
As our battle intensifies in order to grow in holiness and trials increase, we very quickly realize that things are not necessarily what we thought they are or they turn out in ways we didn’t expect. Christ works to shed light into the deepest darkest places within us and we find things we never consciously were aware of, hid, or never thought we’d confront. It is easy to look out at the world around us and point to that evil, but it is another thing to look to the evil within ourselves. That is the painful part. We’d rather look out there, but Christ is calling us to first purify our own hearts, so that we can love and serve Him and others.
The rise of social media and instant communication–for all of its goods, which vary–has given us a false sense of pride. A great many of us think we know more than we actually do and we go out of our way to tell other people when they are wrong. I was rather insufferable for years using social media. I still have days when I am not nearly as charitable as I am supposed to be, but I can look back on some of the years when I too lorded over people and truly regret doing so. Thankfully, God doesn’t give up on us and He has worked quite a bit in me during recent years.
A lot of the emails or comments I receive on my writing points to our lack of objectivity. I don’t expect people to agree with me all of the time. I certainly don’t agree with everything I read. I have blind-spots, make poor arguments, lack clarity, or there are times I’m sure that I am wrong. The problem is, the vast majority of the long ranting emails I receive are because a person has completely missed the point of my piece. The issue is always the same: They cannot be objective about the topic for some reason, but they can’t see it. The emails are always of a condescending tone. Some have called me a heretic others claim to be giving loving, but firm correction, as if we can possibly do that for someone we don’t know in person. The Holy Spirit is not calling any of us to be lord of the Internet. Fraternal correction is rarely successful on the Internet and for good reason. There is a difference between lively debate and ranting. Unfortunately, the difference is not as widely understood as it used to be.
If we have an emotional response to something, we are immediately compromised. It is very difficult once emotions take hold to form reasoned judgments. We have to wait for the emotions to subside. If they don’t, then we know we are not currently in the position to respond to something objectively. We all have areas of our lives, especially related to pain and suffering, when we cannot respond through a clear use of reason. Emotions play a very important part of our experience as human beings, but they are a poor indicator of what is going on in reality. They often cause us to become blind and to make or project assumptions onto other people. We all do this, but it is largely ineffective and can be destructive.
I struggle a great deal with rejection for a variety of reasons that I don’t want to go into here. I realized in recent months how much that hinders my ability to make objective judgements about situations at times. My Confessor even at one point told me that I have to stop projecting my feelings and emotions onto other people. He’s absolutely right. It’s unjust to do so, because it doesn’t allow me to see people as they are and only makes me see them through my own brokenness.
It also taught me an essential aspect of growing in holiness. In order to progress, we must be willing to truly confront every aspect of our souls, even the painful and dark places. We all have these places and Christ wishes to heal us and make us into the saints He desires us to be so that we can live in the love and communion of the Most Holy Trinity. We can’t enter into that communion fully and freely if we are hindered in any way. The path to holiness is the school of love. It’s where we learn to confront ourselves through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and our relationship with Christ. If we refuse to confront ourselves and allow Christ to heal our brokenness, then we will not be able to learn to love as He loves.
The last two years of my life have been intense from a spiritual perspective. Something shifted for me when I made the decision to help a woman avoid an abortion while I was grieving a miscarriage. The Enemy took notice and the barrage he has sent my way has led me through battles I couldn’t ever have foreseen. It also means that I am at a point when I need a regular spiritual director. God made that plain to me. I need someone who can objectively help me work out the inner workings of my soul because I am a master of self-deception. It is difficult for me to understand a lot of things that are going on in my soul and in my relationships with others. I know this, which is why I constantly pray for clarity and I call out to Our Lord seeking His aid and asking Him to preserve me from self-deception.
We forget that we not only face the Fallen state of the flesh, we also struggle against the world, and spiritual attacks from the Enemy. It’s hard to tell what is what as we move up the holy mountain. That’s where spiritual direction and/or a regular Confessor (I’ve chosen both) becomes indispensable in the spiritual life. It’s why I tend to go to Confession with the same priest over-and-over again. It’s why I prayed for a spiritual director and God finally answered me recently with a first candidate. If we are serious about the spiritual life, then we have to be willing to go places we don’t want to go. Those places lie within our own hearts.
We should try to remember that everyone around us is waging a great battle. This is harder to see in the virtual world of the Internet, but we don’t know people as well as we think we do online. We cannot possibly know an author from one 1500 word essay and often we have blind-spots we aren’t willing to confront that keep us from understanding what they are trying to say. I experience the same thing when I read something that frustrates me or makes me feel uncomfortable. Far too often, I read things through my own limited understanding, which means that I am not objective. It’s why I rarely comment or email authors anymore unless it’s work related. I’ve commented once or twice on glaring theological errors because authors really should do their due diligence and study Church teaching before they hit publish. Souls are on the line.
I don’t mind so much when people rant at me. I laugh when people call me a heretic, because nothing could be further from the truth. I know that some people send me long emails because they are hurting and need to vent. I pray for all of them, especially the most vitriolic. I’ve gotten some nasty ones. I’d only remind people that before we hit send on anything in the virtual world or before we make a judgement about someone we see or know in our community, we should keep in mind that our feelings, thoughts, or understanding may in fact be erroneous. Our own pain or understanding often blinds us to reality.
This is why we need good spiritual guides, whether spiritual directors, spiritual friends, or trusted holy friends who can help us along the way. More than anything, we need the courage to ask Christ to show us who we are and who we are meant to be. The two will be different at this point in time. He will show us how things are supposed to be, but we must wage the battle to get there. Objectivity is a part of that battle and it is something that seems to come with wisdom, but even then we can never truly be sure we are correct in our assessments of other people or our own motives. The spiritual life is a life-long path that teaches us how to rely totally on Christ and to realize that our own understanding is often the wrong one and we must fall on prayer and guidance to begin to see reality as it truly is both in relation to ourselves and to others. This also provides all of us with a much needed lesson on humility.
**I just came across an essay over at Dominicana on the need to control our emotions in the spiritual life, especially as we grow in faith and union with God. Our feelings are not God. Our faith in God cannot be contingent upon the tumultuous roller coaster of emotions, nor can our understanding of reality. It’s a great battle we all have to wage. It’s not easy by any stretch and I’m no exception. It’s a great read! You can find it here.