“Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.” (Mt. 5:8). Without a doubt, the sixth Beatitude pertains to sexual purity, but not exclusively so. Its scope also includes purity of charity and of faith, as well as love of truth in general. Saint John Chrysostom goes so far as to make it synonymous with the presence of all the virtues and holiness itself.
In order to receive that holiness, that cleanness of heart, it is imperative that we admit that evil really does lurk in our hearts, and that we augment it by giving in to sin. In the words of Saint James, we must “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners: and purify your hearts, ye double minded. … Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:8,10).
In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, there is a passage of rare brilliance concerning good and evil in the human heart. Having just explained to the reader his own capacity — had circumstances been different — for being the torturer and not the tortured, Solzhenitsyn explains that his book is not a “political exposé” pitting the good people on one side and the evil people on the other. An ardent anti-communist, anti-liberal, and counterrevolutionary, the great Russian thinker was not, however, a simpleton; he realized that the reality of human evil is complex. (He also realized that there do exist genuinely evil people, as he says some pages later.)
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place: sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.
Socrates taught us: Know thyself!
Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.
If Malyuta Skuratov [the feared and odious leader of the secret police during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533-1547)] had summoned us, we, too, probably would have done our work well!
From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.
And correspondingly, from evil to good.
The passage is worth reading over a few times. (The Gulag Archipelago, Harper & Row Publishers, 1973, pg. 168)
We do not purify our hearts; God does, by His grace. But because we are not Protestants, we recognize the necessity of our cooperating with grace and doing something for God’s glory and our salvation.
As we have said recently, and will keep saying, all the problems that beset us in Church and family, in State and even geopolitics have the same solution: the Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary — not simply made but actually lived.
Let us consider now one aspect of the Total Consecration. Solzhenitsyn touched on it above, when he wrote, “Socrates taught us: Know thyself!” The attribution to Socrates (470-399 BC) via the writings of Plato is correct, but that Greek maxim γνῶθι σεαυτόν (Gnothi seauton) was first attributed to Thales of Miletus (c. 624-546 BC), and was engraved on the facade of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
In short, it is old as well as wise.
Christian writers did not despise this pagan wisdom, but elevated it. Thus, Saint Augustine prayed, “O Lord, teach me to know Thee, and to know myself.” Saint Francis of Assisi asked God, “Who art Thou, and who am I?” All this makes perfect sense, for the spiritual life is a partnership between God and each of us. In order to improve the quality of this life, of this relationship, I must know both partners: God and myself. Thus we see that Saint Augustine and Saint Francis (and Saint Teresa, and Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Francis de Sales — the same could be said of the whole heavenly host!) joined knowledge of self to knowledge of God.
Self knowledge is useful at every stage in the spiritual life: as a means to combat sin, mortal and venial, and as a means to grow in perfection by rooting out bad habits and imperfections, ridding ourselves of attachment to creatures so we can be more united with God — keeping in mind that union with God is the very purpose of the Christian life. Self-knowledge has many other practical utilities, and is most necessary in improving relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, etc.
If you are preparing to make or renew your Total Consecration on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), then you will observe the week of self-knowledge from March fourth to tenth. During that time, you will be reading about Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell; about several “judgment” parables from the Gospels: the parable of the ten virgins, the two different parables of the talents (from Saints Matthew and Luke), the parable of the fig-tree, the parable of the unjust steward, and the parable of Dives and Lazarus. You will also read about the end times and the Last Judgment as recorded in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.
Saint Louis Marie wants us to look ahead to the inescapable judgment that awaits us, and, enlightened by the spirit of Christian fear and compunction, to make those changes in our life now that we will want to have made when the dreaded day comes.
Authentic self-knowledge can be disturbing, but we must face it truthfully, courageously, and humbly. Let us not be like Cain, who said, “My iniquity is greater than that I may deserve pardon” (Gen. 4:13), but rather like David, who said, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity. Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me. To thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before thee: that thou mayst be justified in thy words and mayst overcome when thou art judged” (Psalm 50:3-6). Or again, let us not be like Judas who despaired, but like Peter who repented, having “wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62) for his sin.
Our knowledge of self should make us feel compunction of heart, and this compunction should lead us to genuine conversion of life, otherwise it will become fruitless and lead us to despair, as it did for Cain and Judas. True compunction does not lead to despair but to humility of heart and hope in God’s grace. Hope, in turn, manifests itself in prayerful calling on God — knocking, seeking, and asking. And more than simply calling on God’s help, we are led to make concrete resolutions to do better by cooperating with His grace.
To be complete, knowledge of self has to comprise not only our sins, but much more, including our good qualities. In fact, it should include all that is ours: temperament, qualities and defects, natural and supernatural gifts, likes and dislikes, our personal history, our faults, our efforts, and our progress.
United to knowledge of Our Lady and knowledge of Our Lord, knowledge of self is a powerful means of purifying our hearts and sanctifying our souls. A staple of traditional piety, it is of perennial value, but we may find it especially necessary if our twenty-first century produces, as it well may, terrible Gulags of its own.