Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by my friend Br. Athanasius, OP. Full disclosure: it was an event I planned for our young adult group because I knew what an outstanding speaker he is (as it is with the Dominicans) and the topic is heavy on my heart: that of mercy. In true Dominican-Br. Athanasius style, though, he took it to another level: while planning, we discussed mercy as a good and relevant topic, particularly in the context of the Year of Mercy. Yet where I thought of mercy in the general sense of what we show to others, he thought of mercy as it relates to ourselves: self-forgiveness, which equates to knowing oneself. And knowing oneself, as God created us, is critical in order to be close to Him. He asked us: how do we come to know ourselves?
Let me explain: God has made us in a certain way. Each one of us is an individual, so infinitely unique, that it is something of an imperative to be that someone He created us to be, and until we are, we will be miserable. To deny yourself is to deny God's plan for you. Yet for so many it is easier to live behind the mask; it is frightening to go deep, look at your weakness, and see that you are in fact not your successes, you are not the things you own, you are not of this world. In truth, you are not at all the author of your own existence. Can you look at that directly, and see that God's love is the only real thing holding you together? Saints are the people who have come face to face with this knowledge, accepting how dependent they are on God. This is everything. This is what so many saints talked about, this is the point of the Church, this is the purpose of life. It's everywhere. St. Catherine of Siena: "Be yourself and you will set the world on fire." St. Theresa of Avila: "Self knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility."
Br. Athanasius shared how St. Therese, the Little Flower, expressed the dependence on God that is a hallmark of self-knowledge:
"Since He has granted it to me to understand the love of the Heart of Jesus, I confess that He has chased all fear out of my heart. The memory of my faults leads me never to rely on my own strength, which is nothing but weakness; but even more this memory speaks to me of mercy and love. When we throw our faults, with a complete filial confidence, into the devouring furnace of love, how could they not be totally consumed?" St Therese's Letter in 1897
Then we discussed The Great Divorce by CS Lewis, in which characters that represent various incarnations of our own self-deceit in this life get a chance to leave a purgatory-like place for Heaven. But many of them can't, because it's simply too real. It requires of them to drop the mask, to open their eyes, to forgive themselves, and it simply is too much. They can't go deep. They prefer to live a half-life in purgatory.
This is what I am afraid of. If there is anything in this life to fear, it is the possibility of living a life half-lived, in hiding, far away from the light of God's love where you can convince yourself everything is fine, even if it's not real. And you don't care that it's not real. There is a great plunge into self-knowledge, a moment you decide to ask yourself, Who am I in relation to reality?
How strange is it to realize that hell is self-deception? That, truly, to sin is to mask who you are, how God made you?
This is one of those things I will pray on, and turn over in my mind, for the rest of my life. I do not know if I have explained this accurately or have done any justice to what Br. Athanasius spoke, but I know it aches in my heart and must be expressed. And I know there are consequences to taking off the blinders and choosing self-knowledge, but then, I also know God is with me - God is all there is, after all. He is the ultimate reality. Everything else falls away.