Self-Knowledge and Judgment

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True, my conscience does not reproach me at all,
but that does not prove that I am acquitted:
the Lord alone is my judge.
Therefore, do not make judgement before the appointed time,
until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and will manifest the motives of our hearts,
and then everyone will receive praise from God.
1 Cor. 4: 4-5

Those of us of a certain age will recall that one of the most powerful, and perhaps controlling, images of our early catechesis was that of the “last judgment.” When “tempted” to commit one of the many “sins” of childhood, we would often think of the description we’d been taught of our appearance before God at the moment of our death. Would we want to stand before God and have brought to light what we now think we are doing in secrecy and darkness? Perhaps rightfully, as we began to realize that fear is not the most gospel-oriented and emotionally and spiritually healthy of motivations, those central fear-based images and teachings receded, if not disappeared as formative influences in our spiritual lives. Our view of God became re-oriented more faithfully to the teaching of today’s gospel, where the Kingdom of God is actually the gathering feast of sinners and outcasts. We are not called to appear before God as perfect and sinless, but rather as self-aware sinners who know their need to be loved and forgiven.

In today’s reading from Corinthians, Paul contrasts our judgment with that of the Lord when he returns. It is the Lord who will “bring to light what is hidden in darkness and manifest the motives of our hearts” which, in large part, are now “hidden in darkness” even from ourselves. Because, as we said yesterday, “our vision is sponsored by our blind spots,” our judgments are always missing the mark. It is only in God’s presence and in the light of God’s truth that the motives of our hearts can truly be known.

In this light, a proper sense of “judgment” is vitally important to our spiritual formation and to our hope of living a discerning life. Even though total self-honesty and spiritual clarity are always beyond our reach, it remains important for us to live the question: “When all is brought to light and the true motives of my heart are revealed, what will I look like? What will be the true meaning of this action, of these words, of this relationship?” Or, to put the question of “judgment” another way, will Jesus recognize the person whom I present when I encounter him face to face? Am I living in my choices, in my work, in my relationships, the person that God has created — or have I come to live out a “shadow” of the unique life that God has lovingly brought into existence?

At the heart of the spirituality of St. Catherine of Siena lies her call to build a spiritual cell of self-knowledge. She recognizes that it is only as we approach true knowledge of ourselves and our motives that we can come to know the knowledge of God’s goodness. This is the teaching of Jesus throughout the gospel. The good news is addressed to the sinners and the outcasts because their need gives them “ears to hear” God’s redemptive and forgiving love. When Pope Francis chooses to define himself with the words “I am a sinner.” he is not speaking metaphorically or homiletically. It is only when we recognize ourselves as a sinner that we can know the goodness and love of God, and that we find ourselves participants at the banquet that is not exclusively for the self-righteous but rather is open to any human being who recognizes his or her need of God.

Living discerningly requires, above all, that we appraise a situation in light of the reality of our sinfulness. Perhaps one way to practice this, at any moment of decision, is to remember the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” If we can check all in us that would move with urgency and violence to “fix” things or people, we may allow the space wherein God may be able to work God’s way, and we may be able to offer ourselves as a servant of that way.

Build yourself a spiritual cell, which you can always take with you, and that is the cell of self-knowledge; you will find there also the knowledge of God’s goodness to you. There are really two cells in one, and if you live in one you must also live in the other, otherwise the soul will either despair or be presumptuous; if you dwelt in self-knowledge alone you would despair; if you dwelt in knowledge of God alone you would be tempted to presumption. One must go with the other, and thus you will reach perfection.

Catherine of Siena, Letters

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