"There is nothing which gives greater security to our actions, or more effectually cuts the snares the devil lays for us, than to follow another person’s will, rather than our own, in doing good."

St Philip Neri

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"If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel."

Thomas á Kempis

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"Spiritual persons ought to be equally ready to experience sweetness and consolation in the things of God, or to suffer and keep their ground in drynesses of spirit and devotion, and for as long as God pleases, without their making any complaint about it."

St Philip Neri

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John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 




by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

First Maxim: The Knowledge of God and the knowledge of self

By the ladder of sanctity, men ascend and descend at the same time

All Christian sanctity is contained in two things: the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of self. 'Lord, that I may know Thee' cried St. Augustine, 'and that I may know myself'. A short prayer, but one opening out on to an infinite horizon. The knowledge of God elevates the soul; knowledge of self keeps it humble. The former raises the soul to contemplate something of the depths of the divine perfections, the latter lowers it to the abyss of its own nothingness and sin. [1] The amazing thing is that the very knowledge of God which raises man up, at the same time humbles him by the comparison of himself with God. Similarly self-knowledge, while it humbles him, lifts him up by the very necessity of approaching God in order to find solace in his misery.

Marvellous ladder of sanctity, whereon men descend even as they ascend. For the true elevation of man is inseparable from his true humiliation. The one without the other is pride, while the latter without the former is to be unhappy without hope. Of what use would be the most sublime knowledge of God to us, if the knowledge of ourselves did not keep us little in our own eyes? Similarly, would we not fall into terrible despair, if the knowledge of our exceeding meanness and misery were not counterbalanced by our knowledge of God? But this two-fold knowledge serves to sanctify us. To be a saint, we must know and admit that we are nothing of ourselves, that we receive all things from God in the order of nature and grace, and that we expect all things from Him in the order of glory.

By the knowledge of God, I do not mean abstract and purely ideal knowledge such as was possessed by pagan philosophers, who lost their way in vain and barren speculations, the only effect of which was to increase their pride. For the Christian, the knowledge of God is not an endless course of reasoning as to His essence and perfections, such as that of a mathematician concerned with the properties of a triangle or circle. There have been many philosophers and even theologians who held fine and noble ideas of God, but were none the more virtuous or holy as a result of it. The knowledge we must have is what God Himself has revealed concerning the Blessed Trinity; the work of each of the Persons in creating, redeeming and sanctifying us. We must know the scope of His power, His providence, His holiness, His justice and His love. We must know the extent and multitude of His mercies, the marvellous economy of His grace, the magnificence of His promises and rewards, the terror of His warnings and the rigour of His chastisements; the worship He requires, the precepts He imposes, the virtues He makes known as our duty, and the motives by which He incites us to their practice. In a word, we must know what He is to us, and what He wills that we should be to Him.

This is the true and profitable knowledge of God taught in every page of Holy Scripture, and necessary for all Christians. It cannot be too deeply studied, and without it none can become holy, for the substance of it is indispensably necessary to salvation. This should be the great object of our reflection and meditation, and of our constant prayer for light. Let no one fancy that he can ever know enough, or enter sufficiently into so rich a subject. It is in every sense inexhaustible. The more we discover in it, the more we see there is yet to be discovered. It is an ever-deepening ocean for the navigator, an unattainable mountain height for the traveller, whose scope of vision increases with every upward step. The knowledge of God grows in us together with our own holiness: both are capable of extending continually, and we must set no bounds to either.

Now this knowledge is not merely intellectual knowledge: it goes straight to the heart. It touches it, penetrates it, reforms and ennobles it, enkindling it with a love for all the virtues. Anyone who really knows God cannot fail to possess a lively faith, a firm hope, an ardent love, filial fear, a complete trust in Him in times of trial, and an entire submission to His holy will. He fears no difficulty in avoiding evil, nor in doing good. He complains of no rigour in God's law, but wonders at its mildness, and loves and embraces it in all its fulness. To the precepts he adds the counsels. He contemns earthly things, deeming them unworthy of his attention. He uses the things of this world as though he used them not. [2] He looks not at the things that are seen and are temporal, but presses forward towards those that are eternal. [3] The pleasures of this world do not tempt him, nor its dangers imperil him; neither do its terrors alarm him. His body is on earth, but his soul, in thought and desire, is already in heaven.

It is from the sacred Scriptures, rightly studied, that such knowledge is drawn, but many read them without understanding them, or understand them only according to the letter and not the spirit. The sacred writings are the principal source of all that God has pleased to reveal to us of His essence and perfections, His natural and supernatural works, His designs regarding man, the end He wills him to attain, and the means conducive to that end. Therein we see that God is the beginning of all things; that He governs all and intends all for His glory, and has accomplished all things for Himself, there being no other end possible for Him. We see the plan, the economy and sequence of religion, and the intimate connection of the rise and fall of empires with that supreme end. In a word, all that man needs to know concerning his salvation and that can fill his soul with fear, veneration and the love of God, is to be found in the tradition of the Church and Holy Writ, and there alone.

True, this knowledge is to be found in the writings of the saints also, and in other pious works. These are, however, but a development of what is contained in tradition and Scripture, and are good in the measure in which they express their meaning more clearly, and explain them more fully.

But, above all, this knowledge is to be found in immediate intercourse with God by prayer and meditation. Come ye to Him and be enlightened, sayst he Psalmist. [4] God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness whatever. His presence casts out darkness in him who prays. Indeed, the soul comes away from prayer better instructed concerning divine things, than learned men are by all their study. Many a simple and unlettered soul, taught in the school of divine Love, speaks of God more fittingly and nobly, more fluently and fervently, than the ablest doctors who, unless they are men of prayer, speak and write of heavenly things in a dry and uninspiring manner, devoid of grandeur, warmth and fervour.

But besides this knowledge, which may be called illuminative since it appertains to the mind, there is another kind of knowledge which consists in sensitiveness and is the portion of the heart. This is sweeter, stronger and deeper. It is a kind of experimental knowledge given by God of Himself and of His presence. He seems to say to the soul: O taste and see that the Lord is sweet. [5] The advantage of this knowledge beyond the other is that it binds the will to Godmuch more strongly. Here the soul no longer acts of itself; it is God Who acts in it, and sets it aglow with a spark of His own bliss.

St. Antony knew God after this manner, when he complained that the sun rose too early and put an end to his prayer. So did St. Francis of Assisi, when he spent whole nights repeating with wonderful gladness the words: My God and my All. This sense of God, this experimental knowledge, has been the desire of all the saints, and the fruit of their union with Him. But if God is to give Himself thus to us, we must give ourselves wholly to Him; for, as a rule, He bestows this great grace on none but His best beloved. When, like St. Francis, we have given up all things; when God becomes for us, as for him, our sole good, then we may as truly and as earnestly say: My God and my All.

To explain this experimental knowledge of God is impossible. What is solely the heart's concern presents no idea to the mind, and is not to be expressed in words. How can we expect words to express supernatural things, when they are inadequate to represent mere natural affections and feelings? But for one who has not experienced them to call such things dreams and fancies, is the same as to deny the effect of natural love on the heart, because one has not experienced it. What is certain is that this sense of God elevates the soul to a greater height than any illuminative knowledge can do, and renders it capable of heroic designs and of the greatest sacrifices.

The knowledge of ourselves is no less precious and no less necessary to sanctity than the knowledge of God. To know ourselves is to render ourselves justice. It is to know ourselves exactly as we are; to see ourselves as God sees us. What does God see in us? Sin and nothingness: no more. That is all we can call ours; all the rest comes from God, and must be attributed to Him. When we know ourselves thus, what must be our humility, our contempt and hatred of self?

I am absolutely nothing. From all eternity, I was not, and there was no reason why I should exist, nor why I should be what I am. My existence is the simple effect of God's will: He bestowed it on me as it pleased Him, and it is He Who keeps me in being. Were He to withdraw His all-powerful hand for one instant, I would fall back into nothingness. My soul and body and the good qualities of both, everything that is estimable or pleasing in me, comes from God. On that foundation my education has done its work, and, seen in its proper light, that very education is more the gift of God than the fruit of my own industry or application.

Not only what I am, but what I possess, what I enjoy, all that surrounds me, whatever I meet with wherever I go--all comes from God, and is for my use. I am nothing; and, apart from God, all else is nothing. What, then, is there to love and esteem in myself or in others? Nothing but what God has freely given. Whence it follows that in all that is of itself nothing, and exists only by the will of God, I must only love and esteem God and His gifts. And this is a strong foundation for humility and the contempt of self and created things.

But this is not all. I am sin, by my own will, by the abuse of my most excellent gift of liberty. When I say 'I am sin', what do these words mean? In the first place, they mean that in the depths of my nature, and even by my having been brought out of nothingness, I have the unhappy power of offending God, of becoming His enemy, of transgressing His law, of failing in my most essential duties, and of falling short for ever of my true end. And this power is so inherent in me as a creature that nothing can separate me from it. Since the Fall, the power of sinning has become a tendency, a strong inclination, to sin. Through Adam's fault, I lack the perfect equilibrium of liberty in which I would otherwise have been created.

In the second place. After having arrived at the age of reason, I have actually sinned and have been guilty of a great number of offences more or less grievous. There are very few, indeed, who have retained their baptismal innocence. As for venial sins, which are always serious, the greatest of saints --Our Lady excepted-- have not been exempt from them.

Thirdly, there is no sin, however great, that I am not capable of committing, if I am not always on my guard, and if God does not preserve me from it. It needs only an opportunity, a temptation, an act of unfaithfulness, to induce the most fearful train of consequences. The greatest saints believed this of themselves, and we would do well to have the same holy fear.

Then, having fallen, I am absolutely incapable of rising up again by my own strength, or of truly repenting of my sin. If God does not open my eyes and move my will, and extend to me a helping hand, all is over with me. I shall add sin to sin, shun amendment, and harden my heart and die impenitent, a frightful evil which I must always fear, no matter to what degree of virtue I have attained.

But still this is not all. To my wretched inclination to evil is added an equal distaste for what is good. All law is irksome to me and would seem to threaten my liberty. Every duty is unpleasant, every virtuous act costs an effort. Besides, in myself, I am incapable of any supernatural act, even of thinking of or planning any. I am in constant need of special grace, to inspire good actions and to help me in carrying them out.

In such a state, which is that of my whole life, how can I think well of myself? Of what can I boast? Is there anything of which I have not reason to be ashamed and confounded?

This is the self-knowledge imparted by faith, and borne witness to by my own feelings and experience. The purest and sanest of philosophers would never have taught me half as much. Man has ever been the chief object of the study and consideration of philosophers; but the most eminent genius, with all its penetration and researches, has never been able to arrive at a real knowledge of self. That, to my mind, is a most humiliating thing. If faith does not enlighten me, it is greatly to be feared that reason alone will never tell me that I came from nothing, and that God is my Creator. It is very doubtful if it ever told any of the ancient philosophers that truth. They were all ignorant, it would seem, of this primary relationship between man and God, which is the foundation of all the rest. And how strangely at a loss they were in consequence of their ignorance regarding the origin of man. What curious absurdities they uttered on the subject. And our modern unbelievers, refusing the light of revelation, have not fared much better.

As concerns our tendency to evil and repugnance for good, the inherent frailty of creatures, the nature of sin considered with regard to God, and the necessity of grace, the most religious philosophies had only a faint glimmering on some points and clear notions on none. Generally speaking, they were involved in complete darkness.333 What did they know about the matter, then? What no one can be ignorant of: namely the miseries of life, the weakness of childhood, the infirmity of age, the natural defects of mind and body, the passions and their tyranny and disorder, the inevitableness of death but without any certainty of a future state. This was a wretched, miserable sort of knowledge, and made most philosophers bitterly revile nature, and accuse her of treating man like an unjust and unnatural stepmother. For the little they knew, they were right, of course, and the destiny of man must have appeared to them the more deplorable, since they could find no remedy for their troubles, either in their own vain systems or in the false religion of the people.

Yet they were offended rather than humbled by this knowledge, distressing as it was, because it was, in reality, too imperfect. For while unable to fathom the depth of our misery, it offered nothing to counterbalance the little it was able to perceive.

It is otherwise with our own holy faith. Whilst making man little in his own eyes, deeply humbling him and reducing him to a state of nothingness, and even of less than nothingness, at the same time it supports and comforts him and gives him hope; showing him what great reason he has to trust in God. More, it inspires him with a noble idea of himself, since it reveals to him his true greatness, the nobility of his faculties, his closeness to God, the sublimity of his destiny, the fatherly care of Divine Providence, the inestimable grace of redemption, and the price paid for his soul by the incarnate God. It also teaches him to respect his body as the temple of God, destined to share one day, by a glorious resurrection, in the soul's eternal happiness.

This is the knowledge that religion gives us concerning our human nature, and this light is sure, for it derives from an abiding revelation. It is bright and penetrating, and is constantly increased by the study and practice of the faith. It crushes our human pride, when we think of what we are in ourselves, and elevates the soul when we contemplate God's plans in our regard.

But in addition to the motives for humility furnished by the study of the Gospels and the practice of the moral law, God has other ways of deeply humbling those whom He destines for a high degree of sanctity. He makes them feel that their light is darkness, and their will weakness; that their firmest resolutions count for nothing, and that they are incapable themselves of meritoriously correcting the smallest fault, or of performing the tiniest act of supernatural virtue. He allows them to feel the greatest repugnance for their duties; their pious exercises are painful and almost intolerable because of the dryness, listlessness and weariness with which they are assailed. The passions they fancied dead come to life again and cause them strange conflicts. The devil tempts them in countless ways, and they seem abandoned to the wickedness and corruption of their own hearts, so that they see in themselves nothing but sin and a violent inclination to sin.

In the light of His infinite holiness, God shows them the impurity of their motives and the selfishness of their aims, the stain of self-love on their good actions, and its poison in their virtues. He reproaches them with their negligences and cowardice, with their faithlessness and self-seeking, with the desire for approbation and human respect. He brings them to hate and despise themselves for their ungrateful abuse of His many graces.

For their yet greater self-abasement, He appears to turn His face from them, and deprives them of all sensible gifts and graces, leaving them in miserable nakedness, from the sight of which they shrink, yet to which they cannot close their eyes. He seems to be angry with them and to forsake them. On the other hand, He allows men to suspect their piety and call it hypocrisy, to disturb them with calumny and persecution. And this, not only on the part of wicked men and ordinary Christians, but also on the part of persons of good understanding and exemplary life who, whilst decrying and ill-treating these servants of God, fancy that they are honouring their Master. Our Lord Himself, the Saint of saints, willed to bear all these miseries and contumely, and greater yet than these, because He made Himself the Victim for sin. And upon His own beloved friends He bestows a precious draught from the same bitter cup. Thus, perfecting them in humility, He perfects them in sanctity, making them proof against all temptations.

Let us ascend, then, and descend by this wonderful ladder of the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. With the help of grace, ascend as high as you can, and descend as low as you can; and, when you have done all in your power, ask our divine Lord to use all the means, known only to Himself, to raise you and lower you still further.

Strange paradox! The more we ascend, the less are we conscious of ascending; and the more we descend, the less we feel like having done so. Yet it is true. The more one advances in the knowledge of God, the more inadequate will our concepts of what He is and what He merits appear to be. So, too, the deeper we penetrate in our knowledge of ourselves, the more convinced are we that we do not despise or hate ourselves enough. Only thus shall we become both exalted and humble, and all unconsciously sanctified.

1. Cf, Ps. xli. 8: Abyssus abyssum invocat... Deep calleth on deep
2. Cf. I Cor. vii. 31
3. Cf. Sic transeamus per bona temporalia, ut non amittamus
aeterna: Collect for third Sunday after Pentecost
4. Ps. xxxiii. 6.
5. Ps. xxxiii. 9.