Saturday, January 10, 2015

Why Self-Knowledge Is Difficult

Notes from Fr. Jules J. Toner, S.J., A Commentary on Saint Ignatius' Rules for the Discernment of Spirits: A Guide to the Principles and Practice (St. Louis, MO: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1982), 41–44.


Aside from the distorting effects of our fallen nature, there are two fundamental reasons for the difficulty of attaining self-knowledge: 1) "the natural bent of our attention"; 2) "the complexity and mobility of our psychic experience" (41).

1. Our attention wanders seemingly aimlessly, drawn by present sensibles, current feelings and their relations to their causes (beliefs, worries, anticipations, regrets, etc.). The flux of consciousness is so fast and fluid that it's hard to identify single factors and motions, unless they are especially pronounced or prolonged.  Sometimes we dismiss what is important, thinking it is unimportant, and sometimes we exaggerate what is less important or an aftereffect.

2. The inner motions of our experience are so interrelated and numerous that often it is hard to begin somewhere, and once we have begun, it is hard to isolate one motion. Hence motions that God may introduce into us for spiritual purposes may end up being passed over as said above; they are "never brought to the scrutiny of faith-enlightened intelligence and integrated into our Christian life of free choice and love" (42). And on the other hand, due to ignorance and lack of self awareness, evil motions can hold a sway over us.

It must be remembered that awareness is difficult but possible, even necessary, to advance in the spiritual life. Repeated effort will increase the capacity for self-reflection and understanding.

Those who think that they are an open book to themselves should be warned. "They are probably reading their hearts very superficially, finding what they want to find or what they have been led to expect to find. Their easy confidence may be a barrier to real self-knowledge, which is not easily achieved" (43).

There is a great need for prayer, especially to the Holy Spirit, a prayer of trust and openness. The Holy Spirit can give us a superabundance of helps to come to understand ourselves and develop self-reflection. He alone can protect us from deceptions.

Finally, we need help from others, help from, say, St. Ignatius' rules and experienced guides. These are the human helps, or natural guides, through which Providence works and perfects in order to bring us to supernatural guidance.

Ignatius notes in his rules that these are "some rules," implying that they are neither exhaustive nor univocal. Their application must be adapted to circumstances, guided by an experienced, learned, and holy director. This application falls under the realm of prudence and discretion (44)

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