There are two spheres of knowledge in which every one who is endeavouring after any growth in the spiritual life must be making some advance. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of self. We can all readily perceive the necessity of growth in the knowledge of God as essential to any development of the spiritual life. The connection is obvious. "This," said our Lord, "is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent." A certain moral sympathy is absolutely necessary as a condition of friendship, and holiness consists in friendship with God. If we would be in any sense the friends of God, we must have at least that desire for holiness without which such friendship would be impossible, the growth in the knowledge of God is the deepening of this friendship. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not the truth."
But the knowledge of self is as necessary for the spiritual life as is the knowledge of God. It is at once a condition and an effect of this knowledge. The more we grow in the knowledge of God the deeper our knowledge of self, and if we would attain to any knowledge of God there must be some knowledge of self. When Isaias saw the Lord's Glory in the Temple there was at once a deepening sense of his own sinfulness, "Woe is me, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I have seen with my eyes the King, the Lord of hosts". For the soul is created in the Image of God, and it cannot approach His Presence without perceiving how unlike it is to Him in whose Image it was made. To know God is to know self. To have no knowledge of God is to walk in darkness, to have no absolute standard by which to gauge and measure oneself. Those who shut God altogether out of their lives are able to live in stupid if not happy ignorance of what a failure their lives are.
And yet there are few things more surprising, when we come to think of it, than our ignorance of ourselves, nay, more than ignorance, for ignorance only means failure in knowledge, but we go beyond that, for we are, many of us, not only ignorant of a great part of our own character, but we often imagine ourselves to be quite different from what we are. It seems almost impossible that it should be so, did we not know it to be only too true.
How is it possible for a man to close his eyes to the most patent and pressing facts connected with himself, involving the gravest consequences, which are perfectly evident to every one except himself? We are often amused by hearing others giving their opinion of themselves and their gifts and powers. We are amused, sometimes amazed, that their estimate is so utterly different from what those who have but a very slight knowledge of them can see at a glance to be the true one. We hear people boast of gifts that every one except themselves know they do not possess, or on the other hand men of great powers and influence tormented with an almost morbidly low estimate of their capacity. And yet we do not consider that perhaps we too are as completely mistaken in our judgment of ourselves. Most of us have known in some time of our lives what it was to be accused of some fault in our character which we repudiated at the time with indignation begotten of the sincere conviction that the accusation was untrue, and yet perhaps years afterwards we found ourselves mistaken and that the criticism was correct. How is it possible that such a thing should be? Listen to two friends discussing and criticising one another, what is more common than the tone of protest or repudiation with which some fault or some virtue is discussed, and yet do we not feel naturally inclined to say, "Surely the man must know himself better than his friend can know him, if he says he hasn't that gift or fault who can know whether he has or not better than himself?" We do not say this because experience has proved to us how often the critic is right and that in many cases a man is the worst judge of himself.
Indeed one may have a very deep knowledge of human character in general, and yet be profoundly ignorant of one's own character. We look with the same eyes, yet the eyes that pierce so easily through the artifices and deceptions of others become clouded and the vision disturbed when they turn inwards and examine oneself. And moreover it is to be remembered that self-knowledge has nothing to do with mere cleverness or intellectual insight, but is largely if not entirely moral.
When we consider how intensely self-conscious is the age in which we live, and the amount of time that most people spend upon themselves one way or another, what an absorbingly interesting study is that of the human heart, and all the more interesting when it is one's own, we are amazed that we are, nevertheless, most of us, so lacking in self-knowledge, that very often our latest acquaintance could tell us things about ourselves that we should refuse to believe, yet that are undoubtedly true.
No sooner do we become thoughtful and begin to pray and try to get near God than all this comes upon us with an overwhelming sense of incapacity. How are we to advance? what are we to struggle with? Deep shadows are seen to lie across the soul but we cannot tell what casts them. We feel held back from God but we cannot grasp and bring to light what it is that holds us back. We know well, indeed, some one or two prominent sins which have dogged our life's path for years, and against these we struggle bravely and are conscious that God is helping us - but of these we are now scarcely afraid, such faults are visible, tangible, in a sense healthy, inasmuch as they can be met and fought face to face, but it is the unseen, the impalpable, the mysterious, that paralyses even the strongest men, and to these the soul has now awakened. There are ghostly fears that flit about the background of the soul, stirring up evil, suggesting all kinds of doubts and fears. We hear the silent footsteps of unseen foes hurrying hither and thither. We find ourselves at times excited by an unreasonable antagonism to the God, Whom, with all our reason and all our hearts, we long to cling to and to serve. At other times the heart is wrung dry of every emotion, every serious thought is chased from the brain, till kneeling before God with silent lips and dull vacant mind we feel almost hopeless. "If I only knew what it is that holds me back, if I could only see the enemy I should not fear to fight him, but I now begin to realise that there is a life within of which I know nothing, that my mind has formed, habits have grown, and strangers have entered and taken possession of my heart and I know them not, neither their nature nor their name."
The soul on awakening to God wakens to the sense of its ignorance of itself, and the impossibility of making any decided advance without self-knowledge. It is at such moments haunted with the thought of the possibility of having been insincere in confession, or that there is some unforgiven sin binding it to earth, or at others it fears delusion, fears that it has never really repented and that the prayers and Communions that seemed earnest were the mere result of emotional excitement. Verily, it is possible to imagine anything when one finds oneself the victim of effects traceable to no known cause, on first awakening to the fact that one is practically a stranger to oneself A stranger, that is to say, to a whole inner world of motive, of complex aims and wily thoughts that slip off into the darkness as we try to turn upon them the light of conscience, leaving us with a deepening sense of alarm and restlessness. We are surprised and shocked when, as sometimes happens, we find some strong motive or passion or ambition standing like a draped form whose expression we cannot catch, in the very council chamber of the soul, arguing with the reason or threatening the conscience or stimulating the imagination to take its side and plead its cause, standing there with the ease and bearing of an honoured counsellor whose words are wont to have weight, and the voice is as of one in authority; but when we strive to grasp and unveil it, that we may detect its origin, the voice is suddenly hushed into silence and it is gone. We are awakened to the knowledge that motives sway us which we cannot analyse, and yet which seem to have gained position and power long ago, though we have only now become conscious of their existence.
It is only in moments of retirement or of prayer, when the soul is hushed in silence and we pass in spirit through its various chambers and corridors, that, if we suddenly find ourselves face to face with such a presence, we are able to recognise its nature, and at once trace many of our gravest failures to its agency. Whence did it come we ask ourselves? How long has it been there? How did it gain admittance? That pride that somehow found entrance to the heart and set itself to watch and manipulate our thoughts at their very source. We have seen it now for the first time face to face and it has been like a revelation, it has explained a vast deal that was hitherto incomprehensible, the reason of those hours of despondency, of that bitterness towards people of which we were quite conscious, indeed, but never knew the cause of before, of that spiritual lassitude, yes, of the victory of that temptation which we hated and fought yet could not overcome. We see it all now, we are like a man who discovers a thief in his house, a discovery which explains many losses he could not understand before. We have found that all unconsciously an enemy has entered the soul, taken up his abode there and used its God-given powers to injure itself and to dishonour God.
Such moments of insight reveal to us in a startling way how little we really know about our own inner life. How we have grown and developed and formed unconsciously to ourselves.
But it is not only at such times as the first awakening that the soul is conscious of its ignorance of itself. As we advance in the spiritual life and in the practice of systematic self-examination we are often surprised by the discovery of vast unknown tracts of the inner life of the soul. They seem like great plains stretching out in mystery and wrapt in mists that sometimes for a moment lift, or sweep off and leave one looking for one brief instant upon great reaches of one's own life, unknown, unmeasured, unexplored. Men stand at such moments breathless in wonder and in awe gazing upon these great tracts upon which they have never looked before, with kindling eyes and beating hearts; and while they look the mists steal back till all is lost to sight once more and they are left wondering if what they saw was reality, or the creation of their fancy. Or sometimes they see, not far-stretching plains which fill the soul with an awestruck sense of its expansiveness and of how much has been left absolutely uncultivated, not these plains but mountain peaks climbing and reaching upwards till lost in the Heavens, echoing it may be with the voice of many streams whose waters fertilise and enrich those small tracts of the soul's life which have been reclaimed and cultivated and which many a man has thought to be his whole inner self, though he never asked himself whence those rich streams had their source. Now he sees how their source lay in unmeasured heights of his own inner being whose existence he never dreamed of before. In one brief instant they have unveiled themselves. He looks again, and they are shut out from his eyes, there is no token visible that he possesses such reaches, such heights of life. The commonplaces of his existence gather in and crowd upon him, the ordinary routine of life settles down upon him, limiting and confining him on all sides, the same unbroken line measures his horizon, such as he has always known it, the same round of interests and occupations crowd in upon his hours and fill them, the pressure of the hard facts of life upon him are as unmistakable and as levelling as ever, bidding him forget his dreams and meet and obey the requirements of the world in which he lives. And yet the man who has caught but a momentary glimpse of that vast unknown inner life can never be the same as he was before; he must be better or worse, trying to explore and possess and cultivate that unknown world within him, or trying - oh, would that he could succeed! - to forget it. He has seen that alongside of, or far out beyond the reach of, the commonplace life of routine, another life stretches away whither he knows not, he feels that he has greater capacities for good or evil than he ever imagined. He has, in a word, awakened with tremulous awe to the discovery that his life which he has hitherto believed limited and confined to what he knew, reaches infinitely beyond his knowledge and is far greater than he ever dreamed.
Such glimpses come to men at the most unexpected times and in ways which it is impossible account for, often in moment s and under circumstances that one would have said were most unsuitable. I think it has probably been the experience of not a few to be startled almost in the act of some great sin, or before the excitement of it has well passed away, by a sudden reaction and a vivid breaking in upon their souls of the sense of great spiritual possibilities. The spiritual side has awakened to protest and convince the man that he is not wholly animal. Certainly there is no influence more deadly to the spiritual nature than sensuality, and yet I venture to assert that in the moment after some grievous fall many a man has been conscious of the deepest spiritual yearnings. And such desires are not to be lightly put down to self-deception, they are in truth more real than the sensual, they rise up to face a man on the road to ruin and to show him clearer visions of the possibilities that he is setting at naught. Often such outbursts of spiritual longing, while yet the stain of sin lies deep and fresh upon the soul, lead men to do and say things that seem so unreal that those who know them well are tempted to call them hypocrites. But there is nothing further from their minds than hypocrisy, they are simply passing through one of those strange awakenings of the soul, in which they are torn with such convulsive movements in this direction and in that, towards the beasts and towards God, that in one instant they pass from the most degrading to the most spiritual frame of mind; no wonder those who look on misjudge such men. They do not understand themselves. The sin has been the occasion of the momentary lifting of the mists that hung over the vast unknown heights of the inner life, and the man has been staggered by what he has seen.
Or again, how common it is for one who lives a very self-indulgent, idle, easy-going life, who has never known what it is to forego a pleasure, to come suddenly face to face with a person whose life is one constant act of sacrifice. Such a life appeals to certain sentiments that are dormant - if they are not developed - in every human heart. They see the objective expression of those inarticulate feelings and their souls are stirred to the depths. Buried beneath the oppressive and deadening influence of years of self-indulgence, the spirit of unselfishness and sacrifice is appealed to, and for one moment it rises and cries out, "Here I am, I too could once have led such a life as that An unknown life, within the hardened crust that seemed to be the whole life, makes itself felt. The soul awakens to perceive possible heights and depths within it that it had never imagined.
On the other hand, what a strange scene and what a striking instance of men's ignorance of themselves was that at our Lord's Last Supper when He said to the Apostles, "One of you shall betray Me," and they began every one of them to say, "Lord, is it I No sooner had they been told that one of them should be guilty of this awful crime than the words seemed to act upon the Apostles with the strange result of revealing to each of them its possibility - as they looked within it seemed to them as if they were capable of unknown depths of evil, as doubtless under the stimulating Presence of our Lord they daily perceived new and yet unmeasured heights of devotion and sacrifice. The effect of our Lord's words upon those holy men amidst all the sacred surroundings in which they were uttered is a startling and typical instance of the way in which the sudden presentation to the mind of some great sin reveals to it possibilities of evil hitherto unthought of. The depths seem to open beneath and reveal unfathomed capacities of sin. Surely it is no exaggeration. The soul is capable of eternal growth in love and hate, and at such times when any fresh knowledge of it's capabilities is granted, though it can see at most but a little way, it can feel the depths and the heights that are possible.
Such occasions as we have been considering give to the soul, in a moment, an outburst of light upon its inner self, revealing a vast and wide-reaching side of the character it never knew before.
But there are times in some sense more bewildering, when a man is made aware not merely of what he was ignorant of in himself, but how completely he misunderstood himself, how different he really is from what he had thought himself to be - and I do not know that there is any occasion which brings this out more strikingly, even alarmingly, than the effect of a sudden great change in the circumstances of one's life.
What revelations have been disclosed by illness, or by bodily or mental suffering! Under their rough handling sometimes in a few years a character becomes so changed that it is almost impossible to recognise it. And yet we cannot say that suffering or sorrow made these changes, in the sense that they engendered in the soul characteristics that were not there before, no, they did but develop them or reveal them. All unknown to that pleasant easy-going nature there lay within it germs - perhaps more than germs - of discontent, bitterness, repining and lavish selfishness, and when the sun of prosperity sank behind the dark night of suffering all this night brood of evil awakens into active life.
How often, again, one looks forward to some great event that will change the whole environment and interest of one's life. A person anticipating such an event looks forward and plans and considers. He asks himself what effect this will produce upon his character, will he be better or worse for it, will it make him stronger or weaker, will it draw out the spirit of sympathy or of antagonism. He places himself in imagination - and he has perhaps a very vivid imagination - in his new surroundings, he lives in them and brings all possible contingencies to bear upon himself that he may as much as possible gauge and measure himself so that he may not be taken unawares. At last the event so long anticipated comes to pass and all the forecasts prove to be utterly wrong, the effect upon him is different altogether either from what he hoped it might be or feared it would be. The man placed in the setting of circumstances different from those which he had long been used to, finds that he is utterly unlike what he had imagined himself to be. His hopes and fears were alike miscalculations. He had planned that the same man as he had known himself, should be in these new surroundings. There was to him, as he looked forward to the change, but one uncertain quantity, and that was the new material or moral or religious world in which he was to find himself. As to these he had made no mistake, the mistake lay in supposing that he knew the person who was to be placed amidst these circumstances. There he was completely mistaken. No sooner did the change take place than he found that he no longer knew the man. He was amazed to find himself wholly different from what he had imagined himself to be. New faults came to light, new virtues sprang to his defence, old temptations came to life in the new soil, and he finds that the mere change of external things shows him to be altogether a different person from what he had thought.
It is one of the strange powers in human nature to weave so closely into the texture of its life things that are altogether external to it, that soon it fails to separate the personal source of thought and activity from the sphere of its actions. One gets quickly into a mechanical round of life. One meets with the same people, one goes through the same routine of duties, and the interaction of these external things day after day and year after year produce effects that one can readily see, but in course of time the outward things are lost sight of as causes, and the man judges of himself and his surroundings as one. He has not, for instance, realised that the constant companionship of one who is full of gentleness and love draws out on his part a response of affection and gentleness which is not developed at; all in other departments of his life or in dealing with other people; yet because the surroundings of home are mellowed by influences that draw out a sympathetic response, the man looks upon himself and is considered by others as gentle and kind-hearted; he has never had his home disturbed by things that irritate him. The external things have so far responded to the interior tastes that in this respect at any rate he is wholly ignorant of what the effect of a constant jar between these would be. At last, in the course of years, the perfect adjustment between the outward surroundings and the inner state is so complete that the fact of their making, so to speak, but a mechanical combination is lost sight of, and the man looks upon himself and his environment as one and the self-same thing, he has swung so long with the movements of the machinery that he has been unable to detect where the movement of the machinery ends and that of his own personality begins. Then suddenly this combination comes to an end, he finds himself amidst surroundings different from those which he had been accustomed to, and these new circumstances act upon different elements in his character which had not in the former state of things been brought prominently forward, and the result is, the man does not recognise himself, the effect of the change baffles all his forecasts, all his resolutions. He is at loose ends, external causes that used to produce quick response from within have ceased to act, and the response has consequently ceased to come; other things that acted as barriers to protect some weakness or defect from revealing or developing itself have been removed, and the effect of all this is much like that of removing the metal from the mould before the cooling process is completed.
Thus it happens that some great change taking place in middle life acts as a revelation of character to many a person, revealing dispositions, defects, habits, of which they were wholly unconscious.
Again, I think that not unfrequently the very knowledge that many do possess of their own character blinds them to any deeper knowledge. There are in most people some one or two more or less strongly marked characteristics, and of course multitudes of others no less real, though not so clearly defined. Now it often happens that the mind is so constantly taken up with the observance of these more marked characteristics that these very subjects of interest and study keep it from going deeper and analysing the more subtle and delicate movements that are taking place and having their way in the soul. Indeed this is sometimes the case to so great a degree, that while the mind is watching and taking pleasure in the action, and as it may seem development, of some well-defined virtue, it is utterly unconscious of the quiet working of a brood of petty vices and snarling passions that are steadily eating out the foundations of the very virtue upon which the attention is fixed There have been moments when, if these people had not been so blind, they might have felt the very edifice that they took for granted was so strong, shake and tremble beneath the assault of some temptation that had nothing directly to do with it. The foundations had begun to give way. Hidden away, so to speak, underground, out of sight, that hissing brood was at work, and he whose soul was the scene of all this remained in complete unconsciousness of what was in progress within him. At last the work is completed, the virtue is undermined and falls. And then not uncommonly a curious thing takes place in the soul. The virtue that was almost a natural characteristic has filled so much space in the thoughts and life of the soul that the mind instinctively turns to look at the old landmark, and in a short time this virtue simply transplants itself from the moral life to the imagination. The person who practised it for so long, now begins to dream about it, and eventually to imagine that he practises it And this hideous and yet by no means uncommon trick which he has played upon himself is the outcome of being content to rest with a very partial and self-evident piece of self-knowledge. Had the person whose soul was the scene of this tragedy from the first formed the habit of sounding the unknown depths, of looking into those parts of his character which were hidden from him, such a disaster never could have happened.
The partial knowledge therefore that satisfies so many is in itself a very serious danger. In some cases the mind will dwell, as we have been considering, upon some virtue which conceals from it a steady deterioration in other directions. When the conscience is for a moment awakened by a sense of uneasiness; and a feeling that there is danger, it is lulled to rest by a few minutes contemplation of the solid proportions of the virtue that fills the forefront of the soul. One is apt to think, for instance, when alarmed it may be by the sense of the powerlessness to pray and the consciousness of a growing separation from God, "After all, I can't be really falling away while I am so unselfish or so patient". This is the piece de résistance, this it is to which the mind instinctively turns in moments of uncertainty, and this in fact so fills the horizon of the moral life that the eyes are blinded to the true condition of affairs.
In other cases it is not a virtue but a sin which blinds the soul to further knowledge of its true state. One grave sin, probably springing from the natural temperament, so absorbs the mind that it becomes incapable of perceiving, on the one hand, a steady rallying of the powers and a stir and movement upwards throughout the whole region of the moral life, which ought to fill it with hope, as the presage of a coming victory; or, on the other, an ever-spreading deterioration, a springing up all over the inner life of the rank weeds of neglect. The mind turns always to the same point, gauges all by that one sin, "it is no worse than it was, therefore I am no worse; it is no better, therefore I am no better". But it does not perceive how though the sin itself seems stationary the will is gradually weakening in all directions and losing all power to hold out against the pressure of any strong inclination, or, on the other hand, gradually growing in strength and purpose. The knowledge of that one sin closes the eyes to any further knowledge, even that of the baneful and deadly influence which is spreading from it throughout every department of the moral life. There is a certain appearance of self-knowledge arising from the fact that, as the victim of this condition of things says, he knows how bad he is, whereas there is nothing farther from the truth. He is unable to tell how bad he is except in this one particular, and in all else he neither knows how bad or how good he is, or whether he is deteriorating or improving.
If therefore there is to be any spiritual growth, there must be a growth in self-knowledge. We cannot make any serious attempt to conquer our sins till we know what they are.
First, then, we must get our minds clear on one point which is likely to be very misleading. Self-knowledge, in the sense in which we use the word in the Christian life, is not by any means a necessary consequence of self-analysis. One may have a considerable power of self-analysis and display much skill in the way in which one is able to dissect oneself, and yet have no proportionate self-knowledge. Self-analysis leads no more necessarily to self-knowledge than the analysis of another person's character necessarily involves the knowledge of that person. We know that it is not so with others; if we have any doubt about it we can soon put it to the test Here is some public character who lives more or less before the world. You have watched and studied him closely, read all his utterances and tried in every way to get at the man's inner character, and you have formed your estimate of it carefully and reasonably, and you say you know him through and through. Some time afterwards you meet this man, and somehow or other the first half-hour's interview leads you to alter all your conclusions. You see clearly that your analysis, so far as it went, was correct, but there were other things - it is impossible to say what - that you had not considered, or knew nothing about - a tone; an atmosphere, that breathed round and through all that you had analysed, giving its tone and colour to all, and in a most unaccountable way modifying, if not wholly altering, your conclusions. That something, that tone, or colour, or whatever you may call it, is personality; it is that which combines and blends and harmonises all the different parts of the character, bringing into working relations the most paradoxical elements. There is as much difference between the estimate you formed of the man by your analysis and that which has been the result of that half-hour's interview as there is between a thing that is dead and living. You smile as you think of the judgment you had formed of him before you had met him - it was so true and yet so utterly false; so limited, so biased, so inharmonious - it was like a caricature. And yet, as you compare it with the true estimate which you have now made it is difficult to say where you went wrong, and still more difficult to discover how a few minutes? conversation has so altered your opinion. It was not by any means merely owing to what he said, though now and again some few words seemed to send a shaft of light from his very heart and reveal it - but it was not that alone - it was that and a hundred other things too. The whole person radiated out influences that interpreted him - a look, a trick of manner, the expression, the tone of voice - but who can tell what - everything blended and harmonised a number of different, sometimes directly opposite traits, and produced that extraordinary impression which can be produced by personality alone. You studied the man, so to speak, apart from his personality, and it was like trying to understand a man's expression by the study of his skeleton.
Now it is, not altogether indeed, but to a certain extent, the same with the study of oneself. Self-knowledge is a far deeper and more comprehensive thing than self-analysis, indeed one might have a very deep self-knowledge with little power of self-analysis. There is that subtle thing the self that has to be dealt with which eludes all analysis. I may know various things about myself, I may to a certain extent understand the working of my mind, I may watch with interest the conflicting elements struggling for the mastery within me, I may be intensely introspective and spend long periods of time in analysing and docketing the litter which a day's work leaves scattered about my soul - and yet I may have never hitherto come face to face with that inmost self which sets the machinery I have been studying in motion, and which blends all the scattered fragments of knowledge about myself that I have been able to bring together.
I think that this kind of self-knowledge, like the knowledge one gains through contact with another person, is moral rather than intellectual. Doubtless the intellect has Its work and office in both cases, but as surely as one will never attain to any intimate personal knowledge of another by the intellect alone, so surely one will never attain by it alone to the knowledge of oneself. Much therefore of the self-examination which takes not uncommonly the form of an intellectual pursuit after certain dimly defined characteristics which ever seek to escape our scrutiny, or of a strenuous effort to disentangle motives and aims as closely interwoven as a chemical combination - much of such self-examination fails to give the results which the time and labour and earnestness expended upon it deserve. The inmost self wraps itself round, like the silk-worm in its cocoon, with the outcome of its industry and activity, and through this process of search we are but unravelling the silk thread, not getting to know the living centre from which it was spun.
And how then are we to get beneath the surface - to reach to the self? How are our self-examinations to reach any deeper than self-analysis? It is easy to state the difficulty which all are conscious of, but how is it to be met?
I would suggest one or two lines of thought which, if followed out, will I think at any rate put one somewhat in the way of self-knowledge.
I believe that there are few people who have not at one time or another in their lives been startled by the power of self-revelation that comes to them through other people. I do not mean the judgments of others passed upon them, at any rate not the spoken judgments, nay, not even the silent unspoken judgments coming from look or manner, which are often more severe than those which are uttered in the sternest language. I do not mean this, I mean the flash of light which often pierces through a dense fog of self-deception or of misunderstanding of oneself, merely from the presence of another. There are few of us I think who cannot say to some one: "You have been the light of my life". "In thy light I have seen light." "Your life has been the light of my soul."
Surely it is so. You have come for a moment into the presence of one whose life is a silent but most eloquent rebuke of the inmost tone and temper of your own life; and as you stand within the radiance of such a presence you feel at once what you ought to be, what you might be, and what you have failed to be. Had you been told what now you see, you would not have believed it, nay, you would have protested with honest indignation that the criticism was most unfair, but standing there in the presence of one who reflects in a remarkable way those virtues in which you specially fail - your characteristic failures hidden as they are from your own eyes - you see and judge yourself. Such is the mysterious power of personal life. In his completeness you see your own incompleteness, in his success your own failure. A person - in all the strange attractiveness of character comes before you, the incarnation of forgotten ideals and of unrealised ambitions, smothered and stifled under a rubbish heap of worldliness, selfishness, sloth, and the living image of what you perhaps once dreamed you might be - pierces through all that overlies and weighs upon the soul and calls forth a faint reflection in its mirror. In seeing what you might have been you see what you are.
For instance, there is one who is living a life of utter selfishness, never denying a fancy or a desire, and complaining about every little unpleasantness that comes, as such things must come, into the most sheltered life. Such a person is brought by chance into the presence of one whose life is a prolonged act of physical suffering combined with ceaseless work for others. These two lives are brought into contact. No word of judgment is spoken - but one of those two leaves the presence of the other self-revealed and self-condemned. The shabby and earth-stained reality stands face to face with the ideal fought for and attained, and in the light of that presence it sees light.
Now such experiences, real, and most searching as they are, are but hints, pointing us to a more perfect method still by which to attain self-knowledge.
The more perfect the life that crosses our path the clearer and more penetrating the light that it all unconsciously sends flooding our souls. Is it not possible then to bring ourselves into the presence of one who is absolutely perfect? Surely we can. And all the light that other lives shed upon us are but faint glimmers compared with that which flows from the Presence of Jesus Christ. "His Life is the Light of men." "In His Light shall we see light" in all its fullness.
Our self-examinations deteriorate often I think into an interesting and often unilluminating piece of self-analysis because it is, so to speak, conducted in the dark. It should be done in the Presence of One who realises all our noblest, often our forgotten, ideals. Our self-examination is not an abstract thing, it should be the comparison of ourselves with the most perfect, and at the same time most stimulating standard. What a different thing it is to rise from our self-examination with the knowledge that our prayers are poor and cold and feeble, but that we cannot help it, which may be perfectly true, and with the knowledge gained from the comparison of our prayers in their coldness with the prayer of our Lord in His agony, or the cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me". In this latter case we have learned how mild and complacent has been our acceptance of coldness in prayer, or on the other hand how it has led us to cry out in our effort, to smart with the sense of loss as we utter the cry of dereliction. One state is the knowledge of a fact that may leave us no whit the better, perhaps more indifferent as we get used to recognise it with complacency, the other is a spiritual experience, it is something that leaves the soul better or worse for the knowledge.
Or again, how different it is to rise from one's self-examination with the technical piece of dry unradiating knowledge of the fact that today one has given way six times to irritation whereas yesterday one only gave way five times, or, on the other hand, with the knowledge that has come to one's soul from the comparison of oneself in the presence of the irritating circumstances of one's life with the example of our Lord, say, when He was smitten on the Face by one of the High Priest's servants, or when He was in the presence of Pharisee or Sadducee who was striving only to catch Him in His talk. The knowledge gained in the one case is purely intellectual, in the other case it is far more, it is again a spiritual experience. In presence of that unruffled calm, of that unfailing love, one sees oneself and is self-condemned. One gets a moment's glimpse of a nature all sore and bitter and on its defence against men who are not loved, of an inner life of irritation and disturbance where self reigns and all things are judged by the standard of one's own personal taste. The Light from the Presence of our Lord is that of which Simeon spoke, "This child is set that out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed," and of which the Psalmist spoke when he said, "Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his ways, even by ruling himself after Thy Word," that Word which took Flesh to be our example.
Therefore if we would attain to any true self-knowledge, let our self-examinations be conducted in the Presence of our Lord, with an ever-deepening knowledge of His Personal Life. Such examinations, however poor and low the life that is revealed by them, will not be discouraging, but will be found to be at once humbling and stimulating. "He kills and He makes alive. He brings low and He lifts up." In that wondrous Presence there can be no lurking remnant of pride, still less of hopelessness. The revelation quickens hope and stimulates action.
But once more. The great method of gaining any knowledge from Nature is by experiment The students of Nature no longer sit at home and speculate, they go out and question her. In a very true "sense the same may be said of the moral life. We are put here upon earth, so to speak, to be questioned. And the answer that God listens for, is not the answer of the lips but of action. This is the true meaning of temptation. Each temptation is a question put to the soul. "What kind of a being are you, do you love God, or the following of your own inclinations?"
Now, as God permits temptation as a means by which we reveal ourselves to be on His side or against Him, we cannot do better than resort to somewhat of the same method to gain self-knowledge.
If you would attain to any real self-knowledge therefore, do not be content with speculation as to what you may be, or what under certain circumstances you might be. Test yourself, find out what you are by experiment. Do as you would do if you would gain any fresh knowledge of Nature, question yourself by action.
For instance, you have a general and indefinite belief that you are not uncharitable or sharp-tongued, or disposed to gossip. In your self-examination you do not find any sharp rebuke of conscience in such matters. But do not be content with that, put yourself time after time through the day to the test of experiment and watch for the answer given you by facts. Resolve, for instance, in the morning to mortify yourself in speech so many times, half a dozen, or a dozen times in the day. I think the result of a few days' effort to keep such a resolution will be no small surprise to you of how much you fail, and how unmodified you are with your tongue; there is nothing easier than to place ourselves in ideal states of mind - there is no more rude awakening than the facts which result from experiment. The first question put to Nature in the form of experiment has exploded many a philosopher's dream, and one day's experiment in certain unexplored regions of the moral life has resulted in a rude but healthy awakening from mistaken dreams about oneself.
Or again. You say and you believe that you are not really self-indulgent, that you take your food and sleep for the sake of health, not for the pleasure they afford in themselves. Well, try this theory about yourself, test it by experiment Resolve to practise so many acts of mortification in those matters of food which in no way affect the health but merely the palate, or arrange for yourself the full measure of time that your health requires for sleep, and then rise promptly to the moment, put these things to a few days' test and see if your theory about your indifference in matters of self-indulgence be correct
The answers that such experiments give bring with them the conviction of truth and are often like rifts in the clouds that befog us, enabling us to get a true estimate of our strength and weakness. In the light of such experiences self-examination becomes more serious and more real, we find after a few months that its character has changed in an unaccountable way, and that the best way in which the change can be described is by saying that the sphere of self-examination seems to be transferred from the study of details to the knowledge of a person. We are, no doubt, examining the details of daily life, but they are not mere isolated or dry facts, we see them emanating from a living person whom we appear almost to have discovered, and it is the facts seen in the light of this personal life that changes their whole character. To use a comparison that is applicable within certain limits, it is like one watching the action and movements of bodies under the power of gravitation before the law was discovered, such a person would see a multitude of different acts isolated and disconnected moved in a manner that seemed more or less orderly, but without meaning and without connection. Then we may imagine the great discoverer, in the moment of his discovery looking with kindling eyes and beating heart upon the same phenomena. Wherever he looks all things are under the same law. An apple falling from a tree is like a beam of light through a sphere everywhere cracking and rent with fissures and showing the whole interior in a blaze of light. Before he saw effects, now he sees effects in the light of their cause.
So it is with oneself, the surface of one's life gets somehow broken through, and we see the throbbing pulsation of that mysterious source of action - the self.
So may we persevere, in such ways as we have been considering, or in any of those manifold ways in which God is wont to teach those who are in earnest, determined that we will not rest till we have penetrated through the many chambers and corridors, thronged with those strange forms that huny hither and thither bringing news from without or carrying out orders from within, filling all with the noise and tumult of their activity, till we have forced our way through all this and entered into the presence chamber and lifted the veil and seen ourselves face to face.
- text taken from , by Father Basil William Maturin