September 19, 1999, 25th Sunday: Chapter


ALL THE WAYS OF A MAN ARE OPEN TO HIS EYES, BUT THE LORD PONDERS HIS SPIRIT (Proverbs 16:2). This text from one of the enlightened wise men, inspired by the Spirit of God, touches upon one of the most enigmatic of mysteries: the nature of the human person. He adverts to the fact that God alone can comprehend the depths of our spirit. The human being, in so many aspects well known to all thoughtful people, will always remain an unresolved, deep mystery, not only to others but even to himself. We surprise even those who know us best, our parents, our intimate friends at times with our opinions and actions; not rarely we surprise our self by what we think, or say, or do. And, as St. John Chrysostom observes "...who understands well the essence of our own soul, or rather, who understands it at all?... how is it in the body, it is not even possible to know that. (Sur L'Incompréhensibilité de Dieu, V Paris 1951, p274)?"

After many centuries of observation, reflection and careful study, the very large question of just what a human person is continues to exercise the best minds and most elevated spirits in our times. There is no generally accepted and adequate definition or detailed description that rallies the support of a wide spectrum of thoughtful minds. Yet hardly anything is more properly our concern and in our interest than to know who and what we are. Emily Dickinson in 1864 made her contribution to the literature touching this theme, acknowledging her perplexity even while recognizing she was well known by nature and nature's God.

Nature and God- I neither knew/ Yet Both so well knew me/ They startled, like Executors /Of My identity./ Yet Neither told- that I could learn-/ My Secret as secure...("The Com plete Poems of Emily Dickinson", Boston 1960, p. 834).

This was not her first treatment of the topic. A few years earlier she had an insight into the rela tive unimportance of social identity that gave her a freedom from concern for the approval and even the understanding of others. This realization gave her a large-hearted freedom when it was a question of public opinion that enabled her to treat the issue of renown and popularity, so earnestly pursued by most authors, with a playful spirit. Her whole life witnessed to her uncommon unconcern for recognition.

I'm Nobody! Who are you?/Are you- Nobody-too? /Then there's a pair of us?/ Don't tell! They'd advertize- you know!

How dreary- to be- Somebody!/ How public- like a frog-/ To tell one's name- the livelong June-/ To an admiring Bog (op. cit., p. 133)!

What is a human being? Who am I? A god? a fallen angel? A rational animal? A spiritual machine? An epiphenome non in a purely material universe? A transcendent creature made in the image of God and destined for union with Him for all eternity? These are some of the answers given today to this ageless question. Long before the most famous of the Delphic Oracles, "know thyself", was uttered, various thoughtful persons had devoted themselves to the study of the human being in an attempt to establish a satisfactory reply to the question: "Who am I?" The human self has been interpreted by an endless series of philosophers and theologians from Heraclitus and Socrates down to the present day. Pierre Courcelle has written a three volume work on the subject tracing out the history of this maxim (Connais-toi Toi-Même, Paris 1974) . As it was transmitted and taken up by various thinkers and educators its meaning was modulated, sometimes rather radically. He has shown that the earliest con text for this precept was religious and moral. Man should avoid all forms of pride, know that he is on a level inferior to the gods and not presume to undertake matters beyond the capacities of his mortal nature. Later Socrates transmuted it into a philosophical quest. Whereas Plato considered it an instrument of moral and spiritual perfection, Xenophon, on the other hand, treated it as prudent advice that would contribute to worldly success for the politician. Origen interpreted the verse from The Canticle of Canticles, "If you do not know yourself, O most beautiful of wo men, follow after the tracks of the flock", as implying the obligation to seek self-knowledge, thus giving divine sanction to this pursuit. His ample treatment of this verse included a citation "Scito teipsum" taken from the Greek philosophical writings, which he maintained derived from Solomon, the author, as he thought, of the Canticle. In his way of reading the text Origen introduced this theme into the Catholic exegetical tradition. He stands at the head of a long series of theologians and exegetes who considered the search for self-knowledge to be integral with the most elevated of Biblical spiritualities (cf. Courcelle, I. p. 98ff).

The verse cited above from Proverbs, without claiming to provide a complete answer to the question as to man's nature, implies a view of the human person, stated in a very concise formulation, that proves to be profound and most provocative of reflection. No matter how clearly we see ahead in our life there always remains something in our every decision and act that escapes our vision and eludes our control, but which is known to God. It is, then, impossible to have an adequate grasp of the individual person without understanding the relation of his deepest self to God. The dimensions of the human heart are undefined. There arise in us thoughts and desires, interests and attractions that surprise us at times. Some of these are beautiful beyond description; others repellent in their perversity and moral ugliness. Who consistently sees himself as others view him? Who can be sure of what it will cost to remain faithful to a promise that he makes freely, with enthusiasm, once the conditions of his life changes?

That these kinds of questions are irrepressible is evident from all sides. Already in the book of Proverbs we can observe this issue emerging repeatedly. As if to accent this truth, the inspired author repeats himself in slightly different words a few verses later: "The heart of man disposes his way, but it is the Lord's to direct his steps (6:9)." Still again he returns to this insight, finding a third formulation that expresses a variation of this theme: "Every way of a man seems straight to him, but the Lord weighs the heart (21:2)." How often we find that even after careful planning and much forethought we cannot be sure we will speak in keeping with our intentions. Our author had observed as much repeatedly: "A man's part it is to prepare his soul, but the Lord governs the tongue (6:2)." Nor can we grasp fully our own motives and still less the manifold influences that enter into our actions, for: "The steps of man are directed by the Lord. What man can understand his way (20. 24)?" Sometimes we surprise ourselves by the effectiveness of some observation we make; at other times we end up saying just the wrong thing, or speaking in the wrong tone. How elusive the movements of our spirit once we allow it to go forth into the world whether in speech or act! How hidden from our conscious mind are some of our deepest motivations and conflicts!

Yet nothing escapes the wisdom and providence of God. Even the plans of tyrants and criminals remain subject to his purposes and are made to contribute to his ends. "There is no wisdom, no prudence, no counsel against the Lord (16:30)." The most careful of plans and diligent preparations of rulers and their armies can be foiled for : "The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but the Lord gives the victory (16:31)." Kings have great powers and authority, but they too are made to serve God's purposes, even unknowingly: "Like the divisions of streams so also the heart of the king is in the hand of God. He will bend it wherever he wishes (21.1)"

These various sayings from the book of Proverbs are as true today, after some thousands of years, as they were when first formulated. Even to himself the human person remains a mystery. No one has been able to elaborate a description of the human character that comes near to explaining fully its psychological development and functioning. Much less has any thinker or researcher been able to provide a satisfying account of the full range of operations of the human spirit, that deepest component of the human personality. Indeed, as we have just been informed by the sacred author, such a project is unrealistic simply because we remain free and our freedom is subject to the subtle and energizing effects of grace, that is to say, of the living Savior and of his Holy Spirit. "Who knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? Likewise, no one knows the things of God save only the Spirit of God (1Cor.1:11)."

Seen from the outside, to be sure, people can seem to be in full control of their decisions and their lives; many have a strong sense of their motivation and purposes in their actions and choices. We may gain the impression that some individual we are dealing with or observing has much insight, the fruit of intelligence and experience reflected over. Moreover, repeated success may have confirmed the good judgment and industry of the individual, as it were, affirming his harmony with his surrounding society and world. Still, even in such a case, the decree of the Lord remains decisive: "The steps of man are directed by the Lord. What man can understand his way (20. 24)?" In reading the successful man's dairy after his death, so often we find that he experienced his own life very differently than he appeared to others. Or when some one close to him writes a memoire we find he was perceived by his intimates very differently than he presented himself. George Orwell had maintained, somewhat wryly, that every man's life, when inspected from the inside appears as a series of failures. So true is this that we feel a spontaneous mistrust of the person who presents himself as a success, or who praises himself. Is he real? Has he lived deeply? He seems to be shallow, not to say a bore.

Yet it remains true that we have a firmly rooted tendency to experience failure in an undertaking as an implicit imputation of moral guilt. Even when our reason and our conscience tell us we did our best we are prey to some measure of self-condemnation and so are vulnerable to the criticisms of those who chose to judge us unfavorably in the failed affair. This imputation of guilt often adds to the burdens of the poor. They are made to feel at fault for their condition, for their inability to provide more adequately for their needs and the needs of their families. The same holds true in the case of those who lose a war. Though they may have had the better cause and fought more valiantly, commonly they are made to feel responsible for the sufferings and worsened condition of their nation, and are treated as inferior as well. Sickness too, especially when it is prolonged or severe, is felt as failure and a source of guilt or inferiority, even when it is not brought on by our own indiscretions or imprudence. Since sooner or later everyone falls sick save those who die suddenly, all need to learn to cope with the frustrations and sense of failure that so often attack the patient who has become a burden to others.

So many kinds of occurrences, in short, are beyond our control and yet are interpreted by others or even by our self as a cause for criticism and even condemnation that it is imperative for a healthy and happy life that we learn how to confront such events with effective means. Surely one of the most efficacious is the insight that allows us clearly to delineate our responsibility and to confront it with confidence. It seems to me that this is one of the functions of the texts that the author of Proverbs sets forth. We are to learn how limited we are in determining the outcome of our best efforts. For "The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but the Lord gives the victory (16:31)."

That does not imply that preparations are useless. We are required to make full use of the talent and energy that God bestows on us, as Jesus stressed in his parable of the talents. At the same time that we engage our self fully to our tasks we are to be aware that we can see only partially what it is we are about. However qualified we might be for any given undertaking, yet its full significance and impact inevitably escapes our comprehension and success is not ours to decree.

All too often we observe the truth of this axiom in the action undertaken by the most astute and best informed of persons. This kind of happening is frequently chronicled by historians as we can verify in the recently published work "The American Century", by Harold Evans. Even the best qualified leaders of our government were repeatedly surprised by the results of some of their most careful plans and programs. The instances are numerous. Nowhere does this appear with greater clarity than in the Vietnam war. The men in charge, both civilian and military, were highly trained, intelligent and dedicated to the country. Yet they contributed mightily to the loss of life, wealth and values that ensued upon the pursuit of their high-minded aims. One often comes away from the study of history and from the biographies of the famous with the renewed conviction that the higher wisdom is truly hidden from the wise and prudent of this world, and that, in all truth "The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but the Lord [alone] gives the victory (Prov. 16:31)." And "The steps of man are directed by the Lord. What man can understand his way (Prov. 20. 24)?" Still more evidently does it appear that wisdom is from the Lord and must be revealed by the Father: "No one knows the things of the Lord save the Spirit of God."

When we consider this state of our human condition we begin to grasp with a greater apprecia tion the reasons why the greatest of spiritual teachers insisted so much on self-knowledge. What am I made for? What is it that I can reasonably expect of myself in life? What can I hope to achieve today? Everyone has to deal with such questions and none of them can be answered effectively without considerable knowledge of self in the concrete. More than psychological insight is required to answer such questions; it takes spiritual experience that yields some measure of knowledge of God, of his will and his revelation. Learning by prayer and the experience of attempting to put God's law into practice gradually creates in us a sense of the way in which we are to remain open to God's intervention whether it favors our view of what should be the outcome or thwarts it. The most penetrating of the Greek poets had already understood that there is a wisdom that is learned through assimilating the lessons taught only by suffering.

Zeus, whoever he might be...has established by law that he who learns must suffer. And, even in our sleep, trouble, bringing memory of pain, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and though we be unwilling, comes wisdom. With constraint the awful grace of divine powers comes to us.... Justice so weighs matters that suffering is the price of wisdom (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 160...177-183; 250, 251 Cambridge 1963,).

Few men have the strength of mind and force of character required to walk the path of suffering that leads to a wisdom whose reward is at best vaguely glimpsed. When the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus, he came, not merely to teach the higher wisdom of the cross, but effectively to gain for all this awful grace of God. He did more than point out the way to a saving wisdom; he made it accessible to all. This heavenly wisdom is based on humility, meekness and obedience. It is open to those who like children show a trusting faith that salvation is a gift of God obtained through the cross of Jesus.

This view of the way that leads to fully redeemed and achieved humanity through being elevated by a gift given through a divine initiative is in full accord with the doctrine of Proverbs presented in the first part of this talk. At the same time it transcends the limited and vague horizons of the ancient author, giving an infinite perspective to the search for meaning and happiness and sharpening the outlines of the goal. Later Christian theologians and mystics based their spirituality on the revealed truth that we are made in the image of God. By the very structure of our humanity we are created for life with the eternal God who is not a distant, unknowable deity, but a loving Father who reveals himself in his Word made man. More, he gives us his Son that we might be assimilated to him through a loving faith that welcomes the divine gift of the Spirit of holiness. In progressively appropriating the graces offered us we are restored to the likeness to God in Christ that is the perfection of our nature. With variations on this theme some of the most holy and learned spiritual writers have devised extended answers to the question: "What is man?"

They have also pointed out the obstacles to arriving at a personal response to the admonition they repeated in agreement with the early Greek writers: know yourself! Gregory the Great, basing himself on a broad and penetrating experience of men and affairs, concluded that it is curiosity about others and the world around us that beguiles our senses and distracts us from attending to our own inner life and so prevents our arriving at self knowledge. The solution is to obey the injunction given by the prophet Isaiah, as St. Augustine had already indicated: "Return, sinners, to your heart."(Is. 46.8, cf. Augustine, Confessions IV. 12- cited by Courcelle, op. cit., 209, whose development I follow here) There, in the recesses of our heart, we will find the benefits bestowed on us by God to enable us to overcome the dividedness that is within. This is the work of conversion to which Gregory devotes so large a part of his spiritual teaching. In this he is a faithful disciple of St. Augustine and of Benedict as well. He notes that the reason Jesus has a preference for the poor and sick is that they suffer the contempt of the world and this causes them to turn inward. This is illustrated by the parable of the prodigal son who, upon suffering neglect and hunger, "returns to himself" and decides to go back to his father. This return to the heart in humility is the path to contemplative wisdom.

The God whose wisdom made us and whose providence turns our heart in the directions He has in mind for the realization of His plan is a loving Father. The only proper manner of relating to Him is that of a trusting child. We are called upon to show this trust by welcoming His only begotten son come in the flesh to lead us into His presence by conforming us to his own image. To know our self is to realize that we are made to participate in the very life of God the Father through re-establishing the likeness to His divine son and our Redeemer. We cannot know our self except in the measure that we belong to God, live by His life, and are transfigured by His Holy Spirit.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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