St. Teresa of Jesus believes that it is of the highest importance for the soul to know itself. She says: “Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or his mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies.” Life, Peers, Ch. 1 p. 80.
She states that this self-knowledge must never be neglected because we would suffer terrible trials because we do not understand ourselves. We would not so effectually advance towards God without knowing the structure of the soul, its possibilities, its deficiencies, the laws that regulate its activities.
In the sixth mansion of Interior Castle, she came to the understanding that our Lord dearly loves the virtue of humility because God is Sovereign Truth and to be humble is to walk in truth for it is absolutely true to say that we have no good thing in ourselves but only misery and nothingness, and anyone who fails to understand this is walking in falsehood. He who best understands it is most pleasing to Sovereign Truth because he is walking in truth. She also states in the Interior Castle, first mansion, “However high a state the soul may have attained, self- knowledge is incumbent upon it, and this it will never be able to neglect even should it so desire.” Therefore, she states, “However sublime your contemplation may be, take care both to begin and end every period of prayer with self-examination.”
Object of the Knowledge of Self
All that is quoted so far shows that St. Teresa wants to know herself only in order to attain to God more surely. It is almost exclusively in the light of God that she is going to ask for the necessary bread of self-knowledge. God must be at the same time the end and the beginning of the knowledge of self.
She discovers that imagination or thoughts are not the same as understanding. She wondered why the understanding was more timid in the soul than thoughts which seemed to be numerous. She explains the distinction between the two as exterior and interior, between sense and spirit. She states: “Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, revolving as they do with such speed, so we cannot restrain our thought. And then we send all the faculties of the soul after it, thinking we are lost, and have misused the time that we are spending in the presence of God. Yet the soul may perhaps be wholly united with Him in the Mansions very near His presence, while thought remains in the outskirts of the castle, suffering the assaults of a thousand wild and venomous creatures…” She concludes that “it is not good for us to be disturbed by our thoughts or to worry about them in the slightest…”
It is only under the light of God that we can explore the triple domain of the spiritual knowledge of self.
Thus the double knowledge of the all of God and the nothingness of man is fundamental for the spiritual life. It creates in the soul a profound humility that nothing can disturb; it places the soul in an attitude of truth which attracts all the gifts of God. This knowledge also helped St. Teresa to have a profound respect for the greatness of God.
2. Supernatural riches
Now we look at the supernatural riches that are made available to this soul of nothingness. All souls are called to be perfect as its heavenly Father is perfect. St. Teresa says that the soul’s capacity is much greater than we can realize. She wishes now to talk about the sublime dignity and beauty of the soul – “the palace occupied by the King”. She says the soul is “a castle made of a single diamond or of a very clear crystal.” The Christian ought to know his dignity. He ought not to be ignorant of the value of the many special graces he has received. In the Way of Perfection, we find St. Teresa stating: “If God gives a soul such pledges, it is a sign that He has great things in store for it. It will be its own fault if it does not make great progress.” Truth moves us to gratitude towards God and urges us to be faithful to graces received.
3. Evil tendencies
St. Teresa now brings us to the reality that there are forces which work against us and the graces which God wants us to have. We cannot disregard the venomous poisons which are all around us because they constitute one of the most important objects of the knowledge of self. Man discovers in himself concupiscence, the disordinate strivings of the senses; pride of mind and of the will, or the lusting of these two powers for self-independence. St. John of the Cross points out certain effects of these evil tendencies, especially the privative one of eliminating God and God’s action wherever they prevail: “For it is the same thing if a bird be held by a slender cord or by a stout one; since, even if it be slender, the bird will be as well held as though it were stout, for so long as it breaks it not and flies not away.” St. John also tells us in detail how these unruly desires cause torment, fatigue, weariness, blindness and weakness in the soul.
How to acquire knowledge of self?
It is the light of God that discovers to her what she is, the value of the supernatural riches and the harmfulness of evil inclinations. Therefore: It is the light of God that the soul learns to know itself. St. Teresa asks the soul not to seek to know itself by analyzing itself directly, but to search itself under the light of God. She says in the first mansions of the Interior Castle: “As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God, let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditation upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble. She says that we must be careful not to focus too much on ourselves and its failures. We must not have a false humility to make us very uneasy about the gravity of our past sins. This would be an avenue for Satan to make us melancholy or sad. She says that we must never take our eyes off of Christ.
We must add here that even though Our Lady was perfect, the Church gives her to us as our perfect model. She never took her eyes off of Christ. Mary had perfect humility which never disturbs or troubles the soul. It is accompanied with peace, joy and tranquility. We have the Sacraments to find Jesus and ask His pardon and beg Him through the prayers and intercession of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel for the graces we need to grow in holiness. We want to live in imitation of her. We want to love Jesus above all thing and to depend on Him for the graces we need to reach perfect union with Him.
St. Teresa only wanted to know herself to serve God better and to attain to Him who is the friend of order and of truth. May we never give up the fight for Truth and may we always seek the Truth – truth to know that God is a loving Father who wants us all to depend on Him like a little child. Truth to know that this little child has faults and failings that can only be healed by God Himself through our yes to His grace. May we seek to do His Will so that we can grow closer to Him each and every day for all eternity
PS – The St. Louis DeMontfort – To Jesus Through Mary Consecration has a 33 day
Preparation in which the second week is devoted to “Knowledge of Self”. As Carmelites, we are asked in the Old Rule to follow this teaching which is to seek Christ with the help of Mary. It is the surest, fastest way to acquire perfection which we are all called to.
May Our Lady of Mt. Carmel pray for us and lead us to Her Son Jesus Christ!!
Blessed Fr. Marie-Eugene