Tag Archives: Self-knowledge

Homily: Self-Knowledge & the Knowledge of God

Sunday, February 4 (O.S., January 22), 2017: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Apostle Timothy of the Seventy (ca. 96). Monk-martyr Anastasius the Persian (628). Martyrs Manuel, George, Peter, Leontius, bishops; Sionius, Gabriel, John, Leontus, Parodus, presbyters; and 377 companions in Bulgaria (817). Martyr Anastasius the Deacon of the Kyiv Caves (12th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius, Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

modern1St Antony the Great taught that to know God, I must first know myself. For St Antony and the fathers of the Church, self-knowledge is the road to the intimate, experiential knowledge of God. If we think about this for a moment it makes sense. God’s first revelation for Himself to me is, well, me.

Created as we are in the image of God, we are each of us also a revelation of God. This is why self-knowledge is the way to God. God reveals Himself to me.

The readings this morning make clear to us the importance not simply of self-knowledge but accurate self-knowledge. Too frequently, I allow a partial or even false self-understanding to influence my behavior. The Church in Corinth is an example of this.

Many in Corinth embraced to Gospel but they misunderstood what it meant to be free in Christ confusing it with permission to engage in immorality. While they knew themselves as free they didn’t understand the nature of freedom.

Seen in this light, St Paul telling the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” is nothing more or less than asking them to remember who they are. And who are they? They are temples of the Holy Spirit called to “glorify God” not only in words but in their deeds. In effect, the Apostle tells the Church at Corinth become who you are!

The obstacle to this, to become who I am, is there for us to see in the Gospel.

Like many of us, the young man in the parable has a picture in his head of who he is. It’s important to keep in mind that the young son doesn’t say to his father, “Give me my inheritance so I can waste it on prodigal living with harlots and loss living.” No, and like many of us at 18 or 19, he asks for what is his so that he can strike out on his own. It is only when he acts on this self-image that he discovers its wrong.

The son discovers what all of us at one point need to discover, what the Christians in Corinth discovered, that freedom doesn’t mean the absence of responsibility. Rather, Christ makes me free precisely so I can embrace my responsibilities.

Again, it is likely that the young man didn’t want his inheritance to spend it on riotous living. But, and again like many college students, he discovered that his new, independent life, brought with it new burdens for which he simply wasn’t prepared.

He didn’t strike out on his own to live a life of immorality. Instead, he slowly succumbed to ever greater temptations until he discovered that lost he was no longer free. Little by little, his freedom evaporated until he found himself envying the pigs the garbage they ate.

In that moment, he saw not only the depths to which he sunk but, in coming back to himself as the parable says, he understood that freedom exists so that we can serve others.

Having come back to himself, he rises from his humiliation and returns to his father. But now, rather than being a demanding son, he returns as a servant. Like God the Son in His Incarnation, the boy lay aside what is his by right. Like Jesus, he “empties himself and takes the form of a servant” (see Philippians 2:7).

Finally, the boy sees himself as he is. He comes to understand that it is in service to others, in the practical works of charity, that we find ourselves. In Christ, God has made us free not, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, for immorality but charity. We are made free for sacrifice and it is in and through our sacrifices that we find not only God but our neighbor and ourselves.

What about us? What must we do?

If we would find God and learn to love Him and our neighbor, we must first turn inward. And, looking at ourselves as we must, first of all, accept ourselves as we are. This doesn’t mean saying that everything we see in ourselves is good–much of it isn’t–but that we don’t turn a blind eye toward what we see.

Without self-acceptance, there can be no repentance, no reform our lives, and so no growth in love for God or neighbor.

It may sound strange but the key to the kind of self-acceptance that leads to repentance and growth in charity is rooted in gratitude. If I would grow in the knowledge of God and love for my neighbor, I must first thank God for the gift of my life. And not only this. I must also thank Him for the knowledge of my failures as much as for my successes.

When God reveals my sinfulness to me He is also at the same time revealing His love for me, His willingness (with my co-operation) to heal what is broken in me, to restore me to a greater wholeness of being.

Listen again to St Paul’s words: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” In revealing our sinfulness to us, God shows us the way forward from bondage to sin to the freedom and joy that are the “fruits of the Spirit” (see Galatians 5:22-23).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God asks us today not only to know ourselves but to do so so that we can become who He has created us to be. This morning through St Paul’s words to the Corinthians and Jesus’ parable, God says to each of us, lay aside your sin, stop listening to the lies sin tells you about yourself, lay aside the fear that sin brings and find the courage to become who you are!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Formation: Personal, Communal and Social

There are three foundational elements to discovering and incarnating our identity in Christ: Accurate self-knowledge, wholesome self-acceptance and appropriate self-expression.

Accurate Self-Knowledge. First of all I have to know who I am in Jesus Christ. While psychology (and the other social and natural sciences) can be helpful here, the kind of self-knowledge I need is broader and deeper than the merely empirical. Psychology tends to offer us insights that are differential rather than integrated. What I mean by this is that psychology and the other sciences tend to look at the parts instead of the whole. A holistic, integrated vision of the person transcends the merely quantifiable. Consonant spiritual formation requires is a transcendent form of self-knowledge. It isn’t enough to understand the different pieces of our life. We need to know how those different pieces fit together and work (or not) to help us become more like Christ.

Wholesome Self-Acceptance. This isn’t a matter of saying “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” to borrow the title from Thomas Anthony Harris’s bestselling self-help book. While you and I are both ok in some ways, we are definitely not ok in others. (In fairness, though optimistic about the human person, Harris doesn’t argue that everything about us is morally good. A major motivation for writing the book is to help people overcome dysfunctional modes of relating to self and others.) Like self-knowledge, self-acceptance is self-acceptance in Christ. This means I know accept not only my strengths but weakness; my sins as well as my virtues. Without self-acceptance, repentance is impossible. This is because I refuse to acknowledge my own sinfulness. Other times (and sometimes at the same time) my lack of self-acceptance means I remain indifferent or ignorant of the presence of God’s grace inviting and fostering my transformation.

Appropriate Self-Expression. Challenging as they are, self-knowledge and self-acceptance are still relatively easier than the third element of spiritual formation. Learning to express myself appropriately requires that I take into account not only who I am but also who I’m speaking to as well as the immediate and broader context of our conversation. So for example, ways of talking that are perfectly appropriate between a father and his child are not appropriate when a husband is speaking with his wife. Or, to take another example, though my preaching style tends to be informal it isn’t as informal as how I speak with my friends when we go out to dinner. Self-expression in Christ is a matter of both prudence and technique. I need to first understand the situation (“prudence”) and then, based on this understanding, have the practical ability (“technique”) to express myself in ways that make sense in the moment.

While I’ve emphasize the theological character of spiritual formation (i.e., becoming who God has called me to be in Christ), everything here is to some degree applicable to all human beings. The reason is because spiritual formation isn’t concerned simply with fulfilling a series of formal religious obligations—even if those obligations are Christian in nature—but of fostering the flourishing (or lasting good) of the person.

And though we are concerned here with the person, this model of spiritual formation isn’t limited to the person. Communities too need to know and accept themselves. They also need to learn how to express themselves in healthy ways. Forming healthy communities (whether Christian or not) is first of all a matter of helping members realize their own personal vocations within the community. But just as the person is always part of a community (in fact, multiple communities), the community itself is part of the large society and ultimately the whole human family. This means a wholesome community fosters not only the good of its members but does so with an eye to serving the common good of the wider world.

This concern for society will necessarily be less concrete, more diffused than the community’s concern for its own members of the person’s concern for his or her own spiritual formation. Learning to move back and forth between the different levels of spiritual formation—personal, communal and social—is one of the chief tasks of our life in Christ. While we can’t neglect any, we don’t have the same moral responsibility for fostering human flourishing in each dimension. My responsibility become less as the horizon of my concern becomes wider. Failure to take this into account is one of the chief failures of spiritual formation.

Wholesome spiritual formation requires balancing the personal, communal and social dimension of our Christian life. While the latter two are important, finding the right mix of all three begins in our personal spiritual formation. Without accurate self-knowledge, wholesome self-acceptance and appropriate self-expression, our social involvement will inevitably become dissonant and we risk doing a lasting harm to our own relationship with Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Grgory