(.. that many read or hear, but only a few - unfortunatelly - put into practice, because it is hard to change a habit of life!)
During the retreat that we had this past week, many of you told me: "Father, it is something new for me, or I have never thought about that before. I realize that I am not the saint I wanted to be." The reason is that a retreat is a meeting with Our Lord, a time when you can really look at Him and listen to Him, without the distractions of the world. When you take the time to look at Him and to listen to Him, then He can reveal to you who you are. This is what we need: to know who we are.
The contemporaries of Christ had the opportunity to meet Him face to face. They have certainly felt in the deepest of their soul the piercing gaze of the Lord who knows all about you, about your life, about your thoughts, your feelings, and who knows all your sins, especially those who remain hidden in a dark corner of your soul. Realizing who they truly were, then they fell on their knees and, as Peter did, confessed their sinfulness: Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. What a grace! It is a grace to understand that you are a sinful man. It is a grace to fall on your knees and to humble yourself. It is a grace to cry for your sins and to shed tears of repentance.
Saint Ignatius had this grace in his life and he wants to share it with us. As the contemporaries of Our Lord, we can also meet Him and look in His eyes. We can let Him look in ours. It is precisely what we do in a retreat, especially with the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.
They are a conquest: a conquest over yourself as the Saint put it: to conquer oneself and regulate one’s life. But in order to conquest yourself, you first have to know yourself. And that is not so common. Saint Ignatius knows this fact and this is why he wants us to ask often God the grace to know ourselves well. Then, once we begin to understand who we are, we can ask for what we need. For example, it will be to ask shame and confusion at myself. It is not the kind of petitions we usually pray for, isn’t it? We usually ask God for a success for an exam, a work or whatever. We pray for the conversion of someone or his healing if he is sick. We pray for the Church, the souls in purgatory and many other intentions and all of these prayers are good. It is rare to pray and to ask for shame, humiliation, or confusion. The reason is that we do not know ourselves and consequently we do not know what we really need for our souls. Strange as it may seem, Cardinal Newman says, multitudes called Christians go through life with no effort to obtain a correct knowledge of themselves. They are contented with general and vague impressions concerning their real state; and if they have more than this, it is merely such accidental information about themselves as the events of life force upon them. But exact systematic knowledge they have none, and do not aim at it.
It is certainly very difficult to know yourself very well. All the Doctors and Saints agree on this matter. But difficult does not mean impossible. It means that you have to make some efforts. It means that you have to perform some particular and proper acts that allow you to know yourself.
Self-knowledge does not come as a matter of course, Cardinal Newman continues. It implies an effort and a work. The very effort of steadily reflecting, is itself painful to many men; not to speak of the difficulty of reflecting correctly. To ask ourselves why do this or that, to take account of the principles which govern us, and see whether we act for conscience’ sake or from some lower inducement, is painful.
Then we have to overcome the self-esteem that we have. Because of certain good actions we do, we think that we are not so bad. Remember the danger of being a Pharisee we were talking about last week. After all, I go to Mass every Sunday; I even go to Mass during the week; I am not a criminal; I am not a thief; I do not have any big sins to confess etc… Then you end by thinking with a false air of humility that you are certainly not perfect but that you are finally not too bad. This way of thinking is very dangerous and has terrible consequences. One of them is a judgmental mind toward others and instead of displaying compassion you just show critics and judgments. You are very good at detecting the faults of your neighbor while you even do not see your own faults. Cardinal Newman says again that if the truth were known to us, we should find we had nothing but debts, and those greater than we can conceive, and ever increasing.
We also have to consider the force of habit that is a serious obstacle to self-knowledge. We all have our habits. Some are good, many are wrong. For that reason we have to reform ourselves regularly. There is a common idea that wisdom comes with time and that the older you are, the wiser and better you are. It is not always true. In fact it is true only if you have the good habit of reforming yourselves. If you do not do this at the time or your young age, it will become more and more difficult to do it as you get older. The effects of original sin do not naturally fade with time and they even can be worst. If you have lived with illusion about yourself during the time you were younger and more active in the world, there is no reason that you will suddenly become better. It is rather the opposite that is true. You get accustomed to your own way of thinking, to your own way of living and it is just become harder and harder to reform yourself. Pride is simply the cancer of the soul and, unless you use the proper treatment to heal it, it continues to develop.
Many things are against us, Cardinal Newman concludes. This is plain. Yet is not our future prize worth a struggle? Is it not worth present discomfort and pain to accomplish an escape from the fire that never shall be quenched? Can we endure the thought of going down to the grave with a load of sins on our head unknown and unrepented of? Can we content ourselves with such an unreal faith in Christ, as in no sufficient measure includes self-abasement, or thankfulness, or the desire or effort to be holy? For how can we feel our need of His help, or our dependence on Him, or the nature of His gift to us, unless we know ourselves? How can we in any sense be said to have that “mind of Christ” to which the Apostle exhorts us, if we cannot follow Him to the height above, or the depth beneath; if we do not in some measure discern the cause and meaning of His sorrows, but regard the world, and man, and the system of Providence, in a light different from that which His words and acts supply? If you receive revealed truths merely through the eyes and ears, you believe words, not things; you deceive yourselves. You may conceive yourselves sound in faith, but you know nothing in any true way. Without self-knowledge you have no root in yourselves personally.
Yes, dear brethren, unless we have a true faith, we are in danger. And as Cardinal Newman just said, we ought to have faith not only in the words – the creed – but also in the realities that are signified by the words. This includes self-knowledge. We also know that faith without the works is useless. Faith must be followed by obedience, not only in theory but in the cursus of our daily life. It means obedience to the teaching of God and to the teaching of the Church. It means obedience to our natural and legitimate superiors. It means obedience and docility to the teaching and the admonestations of a guide. As we have already seen, this is the admonition of admonitions. This is also a powerful means of acquiring self-knowledge. For that, you have to open your soul to your spiritual director. It is certainly a most difficult thing to do, but it is your safeguard against self-illusion.
Dear Brethren, we have tried to consider during this Lenten Season, what are the necessary means of sanctification we ought to use in ordre to progress in spiritual life. Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Cardinal Newman have been our guides in this meditation. We know now what we have to do in order to do the will of God, that is our sanctification. God want me to be holy; Do I?
May our Blessed Mother give us the desire of holiness.