Self-Knowledge and Prayer

The background “music” I have chosen for this article comes from three famous people with considerable comprehension on the subject of self-knowledge. One of them finds it imperative for living with others, and two find it imperative also for our life of prayer. The first, the poet Shakespeare, has Polonius saying in Act 1 of Hamlet:

This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man.

Secondly, the great St. Teresa of Avila, describing the mansions of prayer, tells us,

It is very important for any soul that practices prayer, whether little or much, not to hold itself back and stay in one corner. Let it walk through these dwelling places which are up above, down below, and to the sides, since God has given it such great dignity. Don’t force it to stay in one room alone. Oh, but if it is the room of self-knowledge! How necessary this room is!

Finally, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, instructing his monks on prayer, says,

I wish that before everything else we should know ourselves. Right order and usefulness demand this. Right order, since what we are is our first concern; usefulness because this knowledge gives humility rather than self-importance. Thus, it provides a basis on which to build. For unless there is a durable foundation of humility, the spiritual edifice has no hope of standing. And there is nothing more effective, more adapted to the acquiring of humility, than to find out the truth about oneself. There must be no dissimulation, no attempt at self-deception, but a facing up to one’s real self without flinching and turning aside” (Cistercian Fathers, No. 7, 1976, pp. 177-178).

If God commands us to love others as ourselves, can it be superfluous to ask, “Do we really love ourselves?” Some people believe that humans are “accidents” of nature. Others hold, with Teilhard de Chardin, that we are the peak of the cosmos, who will, in grace, lift all creation to its divine fulfillment. These are radically different concepts. They, and variations of them indicate the posture we take toward life. Judith Tate wrote in her book, Sisters For the World (Herder and Herder, N.Y. 1966, p. 40), “As we perceive ourselves generically, so we perceive ourselves individually.”

One’s Own ‘Otherness’

One of the basic requirements for having true love of self is to have a correct notion of what a “person” is. Gabriel Marcel tells us that “to be is to-be-with.” He says further that a person is a person becoming a person “on the way.” To be a person, then, means to exist in relation to another, and through this relational experience, to progressively discover one’s own “otherness,” one’s own uniqueness.

In turn, the “other,” through this process, also achieves personhood. In other words, we must give ourselves, share ourselves with others. The richer the sharing, the better the sharers will know themselves and the better able they will be to become mature persons.

However, the ability to share ourselves is inseparably linked to the concept we have of ourselves, and this depends largely on our experience of being accepted by another. It is our experience of ourselves as loved and, therefore, lovable that bestows on us the capacity for an other-centered love. We must really like ourselves, be comfortable with ourselves, before we can be comfortable with others. It is this self-esteem, the feelings we have about our intrinsic worth, that conditions our self-concept, i.e., the idea we have of ourselves after the abstracting we have done to discover our own uniqueness.

It is a well-known fact, as psychologists tell us, that much of a person’s basic personality structure is set during the early years of life. Put simply, what we are to the significant persons in our life we are to ourselves. In the early years, the parents are usually these significant persons.

The feeling we have about our self-worth is elicited at a very young age and this basic feeling is influenced more or less from that time on by other “significant others” (individuals or groups) throughout our lives. Rejection by parents is not the only way a child will come to have a low self-esteem. Sometimes the influence is more subtle. We may perceive we are intrinsically worthwhile in ourselves only if we follow certain “conditions.”

Basic Lack of Acceptance

For example, “spoiled” children unconsciously perceive themselves as tools to satisfy the love needs of their parents. Other children perceive themselves as useful benefactors conferring glory on their parents by being good, successful or outstanding in some way. If this basic lack of acceptance of self as “self” persists, we will not have the ability to relate to others except in this same self-destructive way.

This hinders the possibility of becoming the unique person we were meant to be. Instead of being truly “present” to others, we will distance ourselves from others rather than have them discover our naked need of being accepted by them. Defense mechanisms such as preoccupation with things or with our own interests, having a habit of criticizing everything, or excessive timidity or excessive coldness may come into play in later years.

The experiencing and accepting of ourselves as “self” is absolutely essential for progress in the adventure of creating ourselves as persons. It is the only way we can establish, to use Martin Buber’s now well-known phrase, an “I-thou” relationship with others. Both Gabriel Marcel and Martin Buber, independently of each other, strongly asserted that one’s self-presence correlates rigorously with presence to others.

A Mystery to be Encountered

If subjects relate to others as “its” or objects, they experience themselves as an “it” also. Reversely, when related to others as a “you,” subjects experience themselves in “you” fashion. Objects, things, are always outside of us. Persons, since they are mysteries, can only be perceived in a supra-relational unity which we call “being with” another or “presence” to another. In the words of Marcel, “A subject is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be encountered.”

The conclusions advanced by these two well-known philosophers coincide exactly with the findings of psychotherapists in regard to the correlation between self-alienation and the absence of co-presence. So urgent is the necessity for people to be “with” others as persons that, if this need is consistently thwarted, the subject literally “goes to pieces” psychologically.

Being-human and being-with are equivalent. This principle is the basis for the non-directive technique of counseling advocated by Carl Rogers. He reasoned that if we can “talk things out” with another person who is warm, accepting and non-judgmental, we soon find out we don’t have to be on the defensive in order to be accepted.

Gradually we begin to find within ourselves positive elements in our personality as well as the negative and hostile attitudes which, up to this time, have dominated our life, and that these, no less than the other elements, are being accepted as part of the whole that constitutes us as persons.

Acceptance is the human, experienced sign which unlocks our God-given potentialities for self-realization. We can truly say that our being is always a “received” being; received from others who freely give their “selves” to us. Self-fulfillment is therefore always achieved “thanks to” others.

At the same time, strange as it may seem, to use the words of Romano Guardini (The World and the Person, Henry Regnery Co., Chicago, 1965, p. 127), “Personal love begins decisively not with a movement toward others, but away from them.” What he means is that as we release others as objects, and through our non-judgmental, accepting attitude, we cease possessing them and allow them to have an “open space” in which to move about freely to discover their own uniqueness.

‘I-Thou’ Relationship with God

The persons are then able to make a strong affirmation of themselves as selves with all their strengths and weaknesses. They are then able to answer to their own “who-ness.” They are able to affirm: “I belong to myself. I cannot be used by anyone else. I cannot be replaced by anyone else. I am in harmony with myself and in charge of my own actions.”

What conclusions can we make from these considerations? The truth of the matter is that we have been called to enter into an “I-Thou” relationship with God, the infinitely unique One and infinite community of Three unique Persons. The implications behind this are staggering. We are called to enter into a person-to-person relationship with God. Further, as fully human persons, we are to love God, whom we do not see with our whole being, and love our neighbor, whom we do see as we love ourselves. How (or whether) we love ourselves therefore is crucial!

SISTER PENROSE, O.S.B., a member of the Benedictine community of St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minn., is a tutor for the African Sisters attending The College of St. Scholastica. For 18 years, she was editor of the journal, Spirit & Life.