Discovery of Self:
The First Step in the Discovery of God
By Donald X. Burt, OSA
Originally presented on Wednesday - March 19, 2003
After years of living a pagan lifestyle and searching for the meaning of life in various ideologies (Manicheanism, Neo-Platonism, Skepticism), Augustine finally came to the Christian point of view. Thereafter, the spiritual life of a human being meant one thing for him: the attempt to arrive at union with that person who was All-Good: the infinite, immutable God. But where in this life is that God to be found? God's primary place (if that is a proper word) is in that immense realm beyond time, an area far removed from human experience and impossible to reach as long as we continue our pilgrimage on earth. The very fact that we are "pilgrims" is a sign that we have not yet arrived at our destiny. Where then are we to find God in this world?
Augustine's answer is that we must look within. God is everywhere but in creation his strongest presence is in each individual human being. The beginning of the search for God must thus begin with a discovery of self. It is for this reason that Augustine prayed:
O unchanging God, let me know myself; let me know you. That is my prayer. Soliloquies, 2.1.1.
THE MYSTERY OF MY "SELF"
In his Confessions, Augustine wrote:
O Lord, you alone know what I am. Even though Paul said, "No man knows what he is in himself except his own spirit" (1 Corinthians. 2.11), there is much about me that even my spirit does not know. Confessions, 10.5.7.
He recognized that his prayer to know himself was a prayer not easily answered. Indeed, there is a darkness inside each of us that is difficult to penetrate. Our present is often cloudy and our future is beyond prediction. As Augustine admitted to his friends:
I may be able to know to some extent what I am today but what I shall be tomorrow I do not know.
Sermon 179, 10
One thing is certain: ventures into self-discovery can be frightening. Those who look deeply into their true selves are like hardy spelunkers who plunge deep into the crevasses and caverns of the earth's crust, sometimes trapped in spaces too narrow for exploration, sometimes lost in the silent shadowed passages of that world beneath the surface of pleasant ordinary experience. To plunge inside ourselves can be even more terrifying than entering a dark cave. There is no science to guide our way. There is no comforting light beyond that dim lamp of reason which operates none too well even in daylight. As Augustine discovered, the only true illumination that can be found in the cavern of the self is a divine light shining within whose source is as mysterious as the self it tries to reveal.
Once I begin that journey inside myself, I soon learn the truth of Augustine's descriptions of his own experience. I find an abyss deeper than any sea (Commentary on Psalm 41, 14. Commentary on Psalm 76, 18). I discover that the hidden life throbbing inside the depths of my spirit is a site with many facets and many passages marvelous beyond my wildest dreams. (Confessions, 10.17.26)
Beginning this journey into the depths of myself, I quickly come to understand Augustine's words that it is easier to record the "comings and goings" of the hairs on my head than to keep track of the surging feelings coursing through my heart day after day. (Confessions, 4.14.22.) I discover with him that this work of exploring that which is the closest thing to me, my very self, is a chore analogous to the punishment imposed on Adam. Like the fallen Adam I find that to support my life I must dig into a field difficult to cultivate. In my search for my "self", my life becomes a task of "too much sweat". (Gen. 3:17-19) (Confessions, 10.16.25)
Despite the difficulty, my search for self must be done. If I cannot live with the truth about myself, I can never hope to discover the truth about God. Unless I am able to find the true "me," I will have nothing of value to offer to others for them to love. Without some honest discovery of my self, there will be no "me" to be loved. I will be an empty shell of no importance.
THE NEED FOR HONESTY
The first step in discovering my true self is to make a firm decision to be honest. There is no question that looking at my "inner self", the realm where my spirit dwells can be a frightening thing, more frightening by far than those poor folks who declare on talk shows: "I hate my body!" and plead for some expert to "make them over" or "make them up" so that they might be free of the horror of seeing themselves in the morning mirror.
As far as I know, no one has ever appeared on Oprah declaring "I hate my soul," begging for a spiritual make-over that could erase the scars from their past excess, that could cool the fever of hidden passion. Unfortunately, there is no one who can do such repairs to our internal complexion except ourselves and before we can do that, we must get over the fear of looking at ourselves.
Admittedly, it sometimes takes great heroism to face ourselves, but this we must do. It is in our inner self that we will find the person that we actually are, not the person that we sometimes pretend to be externally. It is in our inner self that we will find that which in ourselves will never perish. Only there will we discover our true beauty, our true value. It is only there that in this life we will come closest to the God who made us in the likeness of his beauty, who made our spirit to be immortal, who gave us our surpassing worth by valuing us through his love. And the best part of all this is that when we enter into ourselves and humbly accept the fact of our imperfections, we find there no one who would condemn us. (Sermon 169, 18)
In the search for one's true self, Augustine makes an interesting distinction between what we "think" we are and what we "know" we are. (The Trinity, 10.16) We often create bloated and glorious pictures of ourselves, fabrications based on what we would like to be or what we dream we actually are. At the same time, sometimes hidden deep within ourselves, there are those facts about ourselves that we indeed know about ourselves but try to avoid because they are unpleasant or humbling.
There is often a big difference between what we think we are and what we should know we are. Thus, ...
... We may think that we have arrived at the pinnacle of virtue but we should know that the only thing standing in the way of our supposedly saintly self from becoming a satyr is the providence and grace of God.
... We may think that we are not getting old, but we should know the truth of the matter each morning as we try to lift our resistant body from its arthritic sleep.
... We may think that we will never die, but looking at the constantly passing tide of time around us and feeling the gradual deterioration inside us, we should know the fact that each day of life is a step towards death.
... We may think that someday we will be wealthy, that someday we will control the world, that someday we will find the true love of our lives, but we should know that all of these are only possibilities and some of them are quite remote.
It is thus that we can think of things that never were and willfully forget nasty things that actually were. It is easy to do. In order to forget, all we need do is not pay attention. For example, sometimes (especially at long meetings) people talk to us and we have no idea what they are saying because our minds are elsewhere. Our mind must have the permission of our will before it can pay attention to our present or remember our past. (The Trinity, 11.15) It is not difficult to forget when others tell us how rotten we are and remember only their praises. Indeed, such selective attention and remembering may be the source of much of our daily peace.
This creative remembering of a self that "never was" is an innocent diversion as long as it does not stand in the way of seeing myself for what I am now. My self is not only my present state but also my past history and misrepresenting the latter can be just as destructive as ignoring the former. Like it or not, I am a continuum and an understanding of what the true "ME" is NOW rests on an honest awareness of my PAST. I am my history and to see myself now I must try to remember honestly what I have been, as disconcerting as that memory may sometimes be.
As Augustine tried to do in his Confessions, I must not hide from myself the foibles of my youth or the passions of my adolescence or the excesses of my young adulthood or the thirst for fame and power of my productive years. I must not forget my past because the residue of these past times, be they good or bad, remains a part of my self now. The vices overcome and virtues developed are a sign of present strength and the passions still unconquered are a sign of my continuing weakness.
The nobility of my present self is created as much by vices conquered as virtues maintained. It is good to remember that and not live my days as a "make-believe" self. The miracle of my present true self is that I have somehow survived my history without too much damage to myself or others. Facing my self past and present honestly, I can be thankful for the folly that might have been while regretting the stupidity that sometimes was.
PART II: WHAT THEN CAN I KNOW ABOUT MYSELF?
Once I begin to look at myself honestly my experience and my faith reveal some characteristics which (I know) are common to all of us ... indeed common to the whole human race as it exists now in these days after Eden.
THE CRACKED SELF
Let us start with the humbling fact that we are all somewhat "broken". As Augustine and Paul tell us we have been put in the furnace of time and have come out half-cracked (Commentary on Psalm 99, 11)
As a result, the pursuit of eternal happiness is for every one of us a story telling of frequent starts and stops. With the exception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, every human life is the tale of twisting and turning down the road to heaven. We do not make our way through life like an arrow plummeting straight and true towards the goal. We are more like TOPS, spinning perilously down the path, lurching now to one side and now to the other, sometimes falling off as we lose momentum, needing to be picked up and gently nudged towards our destiny.
Augustine was convinced that because of our inborn cracks that cloud our mind and weaken our will, none of us can live a life entirely free of sin. (Sermon 181, 1) The ordinary human being, indeed every human being, will fall short of the perfect life. The best that humans can accomplish is to stumble through time and enter eternity in a slightly charred condition. They will have "survived" rather than conquered.
The beginning of salvation for these slightly singed souls is in humbly admitting that they are indeed cracked. To do this they need to be cured of the misconception that they do not need the help of God to change their lives. (Sermon 130A, 6-9) For them to pretend otherwise would be both disastrous and silly. It would be like going into a doctor's office and pointing out what is right rather than what is wrong. (Commentary on Psalm 32/2, 12)
But such an admission of weakness is not always easy. To do it we need a little help from our divine friend.
THE GRACE-FILLED SELF
Augustine did not need to read scripture to discover the fact that he was "cracked." He had proven that fact by his own life. But after his conversion to Christ he came to see that the reason why, despite his weakness, he was sometimes able to do the right thing was because of a second fact about himself. He was still "cracked" to be sure, but he was also "grace-filled." He came to realize that he was not alone in his battle to reach his ultimate end, perfect happiness with God in heaven. He had help from God not only to know the right thing to do, but to choose to do it once known.
Once he recognized the fact that his life was indeed grace-filled, he suddenly realized a third wonderful fact about himself: God lived in the depths of his self. As he wrote to the grieving widow Italica:
You must not think of yourself as left alone. Christ lives deep inside you and is present in your heart through faith. Letter 92, 1.
THE FRAGILE SELF
It is good that God is with us because our voyage of self-discovery quickly reveals the distressing fact that we are fragile beings, held in existence only by the support of a benevolent God. (Sermon 335B, 4)
Augustine describes our existence here on earth as being more fragile than a spider's web. A web is secure as long as it is not touched but we cannot continue to exist unless we are touched and supported by a force beyond us. (Commentary on Psalm 38, 18) We are something like party balloons temporarily expanded to enhance a festive gathering. The delicate air of "being" easily escapes if not preserved by the gentle pressure of God's hand. It is for this reason that Augustine described our earthly lives as fleeting as rising smoke. (Sermon 216, 4)
No matter how satisfying this life is, I must be ready to move beyond it. I must not reject my life now, tenuous as it may be, but, also I must not be too attached. It is only reasonable for me to be ready for the thread that holds me alive to finally break. It makes sense to follow Augustine's sage advice:
Learn how to let go of the world before it lets go of you.
Sermon 125, 11
THE IMPERISHABLE SELF
Being able to let go of this life becomes especially important, once we recognize a further fact about ourselves revealed by Faith. Mortal we may be in body but in our spirit we are imperishable.
Believing in my immortality does not make my life any less fragile. But now, it appears to me not as a short thin line in human history, a mark of no consequence in the scheme of things, an existence that will cease without causing great ripples in the stream of time. Now I see it as a minute dot at the beginning of a noble line that is infinite in length. From this perspective I can see that what happens in this life is not as important as what will happen in that eternal life after death. (Sermon 65, 8).
The message of faith is that I am fragile to be sure, but I am also a being with infinite possibilities. For each of us the words Paul wrote to the Romans, can become true:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will bring your mortal body to life also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.
Romans 8, 10-11.
THE BEAUTY OF MY "SELF"
This is a further fact that the journey into self (when enlightened by Faith) should reveal. We and every human being is beautiful! and this in a very special way. (Letter 205, # 1)
The difference between the grandeur of the human and the grandeur of the rest of the universe comes down to this: the non-human universe is beautiful because it was made through the "likeness" of the beauty that is God; the human spirit is beautiful because it was made as a reflection of the "likeness" of God. (Incomplete Commentary on Genesis, 16.59)
Indeed, the essential beauty of the human being cannot be destroyed by the ravages of passing time. We grow old only on the outside. As Augustine wrote to his friend, Paulina:
The inner self is renewed day by day, even though the outer self is falling apart. The trick is to raise up the spirit of that inner self where you will not die when your outer self begins to deteriorate. In your inner self you will not waste away even when your life has become weighed down with years.
Letter 147, 2.
Inside, the beauty of the spirit remains always young. The inner self can be reborn even as the outer self decays day after day. (On True Religion, 40.74) Even in our old age we can remain as young in spirit as a child. (Commentary on Psalm 112, 2)
We should try our best to grasp the truth of our inner beauty because if we never grasp its wonder, it will be hard for us to begin to love ourselves. If we declare "I hate myself" it can be only because we have discovered no beauty, no value anywhere in our person. We have looked at our inner self and have found nothing to love.
This indeed is a sad state of affairs because only by recognizing the beauty of our inner self can we be encouraged to choose life and look forward with anticipation to a life that goes on forever. In the beauty of our inner selves we will discover the hand of the God who made us to be beautiful. Only in recognizing our inner beauty can we come to see our true value.
THE VALUE OF MY "SELF"
We humans are the best things in creation, and we are all equal in this noble position. There are no "second class" human beings precisely because all humans have the same nature which reflects God. Our glory is that we carry within us the image of the Divine. Our burden is that we carry that precious image in a vessel that is imperfect. But even in our somewhat disabled existence, a life that has bruised us in its passing, we are still alive and are still able to make decisions that can create a better future in eternity.
All of creation is good but we are the best and have within our power to act that way. It is for this reason that, however disreputable we may seem to be to ourselves and others, we may always apply to ourselves the sentiments of Augustine:
If you are going to praise the works of God, you should begin with yourself for you too are a work of God. Commentary on Psalm 144, 7.
THE LOVE OF SELF
If we have come at last to value ourselves, to respect the goodness in ourselves, then we are prepared to take the next step: to love ourselves. There are good reasons for doing so. Faith tells me that the only reason why I as an individual have the ability to love is because God himself has given me the power to love. (Sermon 34, 2) God has also supplied the highest object worthy of my love by revealing himself through the Incarnation. In the person of Jesus Christ, God shows (though "through a glass darkly") something of the goodness and mercy and gentleness of Divinity. Finally, through the influence of grace, God supports my act of love by influencing me to love what should be loved, drawing me out of myself by making love of neighbor and God more desirable than staying selfishly involved only in my self, an egocentrism which would cause me to lose myself forever. (Sermon 34, 7)
We must find some beauty in the self if we are to love it, and beauty is created by love. Augustine was convinced that as hideous as human beings may become because of sin, they should always remember that God has made every person's soul beautiful. (Commentary on the Epistle of John, 9.1.1) It is a strange and wonderful thought: God makes our ugliness to be beautiful. That is exactly what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did through his life and death. He came in his beauty to take up our ugliness and destroy it.
If we cannot love ourselves it is because of our own weakness, our own "cracks." This is indeed unfortunate because only when a balanced and appropriate love for self has been accomplished, will we be ready to take the next step in our search for and union with God. Before we can escape from self in a productive way, we must love our starting point: the depths of our own self.
FINAL CHALLENGE: FORGETTING & ESCAPING SELF
But we cannot stay inside our "selves," suddenly enthralled by the beauty we find there. Having come to appreciate ourselves, in order to take the next step towards God and final happiness we must now forget about ourselves and move on. This is necessary because perfect happiness cannot be found in our isolated self any more than it can be found in the fleeting goods of the external world. In some way or other, after all of our strenuous effort to get in touch with ourselves, we must now "forget" our selves and move beyond the cramped borders of our own person. We must turn our attention to other persons and to God. It is only by thus "forgetting" self that we can discover the fullness of self, the self now not isolated in some solitary box but embraced by and embracing divine and human lovers.
Forgetting self establishes the condition for moving farther in our search for perfect happiness but the force that will actually move us is our love for those beyond ourselves. It is a strange but true fact: we can only make ourselves holy by emptying ourselves of ourselves, escaping ourselves and reaching for that one good that will perfect us, the good that is God. Augustine expressed this truth in the advice he gave to his friends in a sermon. He told them:
Don't stay trapped inside yourself. Rise above yourself and place your self in the hands of the God who made you. I have the audacity to tell you that you indeed must die to self. This is necessary because if you have died with Christ, then you will seek only those heavenly goods that are far above yourself.
Sermon 153, # 9
The fact of the matter is that we cannot achieve happiness unless we become like gods, becoming that sacred place created by our sacrificial love for those beyond us. This is the place where God dwells in time. It is the place where we will eventually come to enjoy God forever in eternity.
How we reach that place through love of others and love of God is a complex topic and its discussion must be reserved for another time and another place. But if we have discovered our true self and are prepared to move on, we will have accomplished the first part of Augustine's prayer
Oh unchanging God, let me know myself; let me know you.
and will be well on the way to accomplishing the second.
A PRACTICAL POST-SCRIPT
Facing up to self is not only the first step in our journey to the vision of God. It is also the foundation for any peace that we can find in this world. Augustine said that only when we have peace within can that peace spread to the family, the community and the world at large. (City of God, 19.13.1)
Augustine told his people an important principle about dealing with life. He said to them:
People say, "The times are evil! The times are troubled!" But we ourselves are the time. Whatever we are like, that's what the times are like. Let us live good lives and the times will become good. Sermon 80, 8.
We have no control over our times: whether we will get a good job, whether we will find a true love, whether we will get sick, whether we will die, whether our children will have a happy life, and (yes) whether our country will go to war. We have little control over what people, even our leaders, will do.
All that we can control is how we react to the times of our lives ... whether we can preserve a modicum of peace within during the good times and bad times. But to do that we must first "Know ourselves," accepting our condition, realizing that in good times and bad God lives within us and "willy-nilly" is dragging us into the future.
When I was little, I used to fear riding the big roller-coaster in Wildwood New Jersey. It was not too bad when I was going up. I was at peace, enthralled by the sights and the exhilaration of being at the top. It was when we plummeted back to earth that I began to scream. I was plunging into the depths and I seemed to have no control over my destiny. I learned to develop an inner peace by never again going near that instrument of torture with its uncontrollable ups and downs.
Unfortunately, we cannot avoid the ups and downs of this roller-coaster that we call life. All we can do is try to develop that inner peace that allows us to deal with both the good times and bad times ... to realize that in good times and bad we are of value, we are loved, we are not alone on our life's ride.
As I learned on my roller-coaster experience, even the most frightening, terrible ride must come to an end. The ride will be over, and I will step happily from this little vessel that is my life just now into the arms of infinite love. With that conviction, we may not be able to bring peace to the world, but we may be able to survive our wars with some degree of peace deep within our very selves.
Professor Burt's presentation was part of a four-part series on Augustinian Spirituality, sponsored by the Office for Mission Effectiveness at Villanova University. This text has been graciously provided by the author and is posted with permission. It may not be reprinted or retransmitted for public use without permission of the author. Brief quotations may be taken from the text without permission but must carry appropriate attribution.
For more information about this program, contact the Office for Mission Effectiveness.