Flight and Self-Knowledge
In Part 2 of this series of posts, I mentioned that even in the very first mansion of Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila cautioned against being too eager to fly to the mansions of contemplation, encouraging people instead to learn the humility that comes with self-knowledge, without seeking to fly too soon. In the First Mansion, Chapter 2, she spoke of self-knowledge as more important than flight, associating it with the room where humility is practiced in the Interior Castle -- with emphasis added here to references to self-knowledge, humility, and flight:
I do not know whether I have put this clearly; self-knowledge is of such consequence that I would not have you careless of it, though you may be lifted to heaven in prayer, because while on earth nothing is more needful than humility. Therefore, I repeat, not only a good way, but the best of all ways, is to endeavour to enter first by the room where humility is practised, which is far better than at once rushing on to the others. This is the right road;—if we know how easy and safe it is to walk by it, why ask for wings with which to fly? Let us rather try to learn how to advance quickly. I believe we shall never learn to know ourselves except by endeavouring to know God, for, beholding His greatness we are struck by our own baseness, His purity shows our foulness, and by meditating on His humility we find how very far we are from being humble.
I mentioned that I would probably write about self-knowledge in this next post in the series, although technically, self-knowledge is somewhat tangential to St. Teresa's dove metaphors. As mentioned before, her flight metaphors must be read together, including this mention of a preference for self-knowledge and humility rather than the flight of advanced contemplative prayer.
There are several reasons for pausing to write about self-knowledge.
First, it is important to notice that her dove and butterfly metaphors do not encourage the flight of contemplation without proper preparation. The butterfly emerges only after it has built a cocoon and has undergone a metamorphosis within it. The dove can only soar after growing, watching the flight of other birds, and learning in stages how to fly.
Second, it is important to mention that the preparation she mentions, and the self-knowledge that she has in mind, are concepts of prayer that are often misunderstood.
Lastly, it is important to notice that her own reason for mentioning self-knowledge in this context is that people often over-estimate the state of their own spirituality, thinking that they have advanced to a greater level than they really have. In pride, there is a tendency to want to skip the foundational levels of basic prayer, thinking that one has already advanced beyond that point. Not so, warns St. Teresa, but rather the only way to advance in prayer is by way of humility, and not by trying to skip ahead to contemplation.
"Self-knowledge" is a concept that St. Teresa would have known from medieval writers who spoke of self-knowledge, as she did, as a knowledge of our own unworthiness of God's grace that we gain from getting to know God and ourselves in prayer. To speak of that as "self-knowledge" in no way undermines the importance of the knowledge that we gain about ourselves from others, and she also placed great importance on having a wise confessor, on what we learn from being in relationship with other people, and reflection on our inner lives separate and apart from what is learned in prayer. Yet, an understanding of the concept from medieval mystics whose writings she knew will shed more light than an understanding of the writings of present day psychologists whose writings she would not have known.
In a post a week ago, I compiled quotations from several writers, beginning with St. Augustine and ending with St. Teresa of Avila, on Prayer, Self-Knowledge and Humility. That will set some context on the history of the mystical view of "self-knowledge" known to St. Teresa of Avila in the 16th century.
Blessed Angela of Foligno's Influence on St. Teresa of Avila
One of the medieval sources known to St. Teresa who wrote a good bit about this kind of "self-knowledge" was Blessed Angela of Foligno, from the late 13th and early 14th century. Both St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross were influenced by The Book of the Blessed Angela ("Memorial"), which was available in Spanish translation in the sixteenth century. That influence is discussed by Paul Lachance, O.F.M., in his Introduction and Notes to Angela of Foligno: Complete Works (Classics of Western Spirituality Series).
As discussed by Paul Lachance, Balthasar Alvarez, S.J., who was one of St. Teresa's spiritual directors, "quotes entire chapters taken from Angela's writings in his Exhortations to his novices." (n. 220 to the Introduction). Two quotations from St. Teresa's writings, he says, are known to have been influenced by Angela's writings. Those appear in one of her poems and in her writing about trials in the Sixth Dwelling Place of Interior Castle. (note 218). Neither of those two quotations concern self-knowledge.
On Angela's writings about self-knowledge, Lachance says, "The theme of self-knowledge as a foundation stone for the spiritual life was quite widespread in the Middle Ages. The basic source for it was the widely read and copied Confessions of St. Augustine." (Note 8 to the Memorial). Lachance also mentions that the theme of self-knowledge is central to Angela's spirituality, treated in numerous Instructions (Note 105 to the Memorial). He also says that "Every step of the Memorial speaks about it in one form or another." (Introduction). Angela's spirituality drew from that of earlier medieval mystics. In turn, Angela's Memorial influence St. Teresa of Avila and probably St. John of the Cross (Introduction).
While St. Teresa's concept of self-knowledge could have come from others, as it was common in medieval spirituality, it is likely that three of St. Teresa's primary sources for her understanding of that concept would have been Angela's Memorial; whatever St. Teresa learned of Angela's Instructions from Balthasar Alvarez; and St. Augustine's Confessions. St. Teresa mentioned in her Life that she had read the Confessions of St. Augustine.
Self-Knowledge in the Memorial and Instructions of the Blessed Angela
Angela's scribe wrote of 30 steps that Bl. Angela had described in her spiritual journey. Her First Step was the awareness of one's own sinfulness, with a great fear of hell. The Second is confession; the Third penance; and the Fourth a growing awareness of God's mercy and forgiveness. The fifth step is the knowledge of self, in which the soul sees only its defects and condemns itself as deserving hell.
In the Fourth Supplemental Step of the Memorial, Angela wrote of a vision she had of God's power and the smallness of creation, while at Mass in Assisi, in which God told her, "Behold my humility" and she saw God's humility toward people. She added that, "because I had understood the power of God and perceived now his deep humility, my soul was filled with wonder and esteemed itself to be nothing at all -- indeed, saw in itself nothing except pride." At first she was reluctant to receive communion, until God said to her, "I who am worthy make you worthy," giving her great joy.
In the Fifth Supplemental Step of the Memorial, she wrote about the ways spiritual people can be deceived. Among them, she said, God sometimes allows deception in order to preserve a person's integrity, to keep someone from overstepping their limits, until the soul has been led to "complete knowledge of itself and complete knowledge of the goodness of God" which we have only when led to "the full knowledge of truth." She explains that full knowledge of the truth:
"The soul is first of all so filled with knowledge of itself that it does not seem to it that it could be filled more fully, nor can it be aware of anything else or remember anything else. And at that moment, it suddenly comes to the awareness of the goodness of God. It sees both together in a totally undescribable way."
In The Instructions, which St. Teresa may have known primarily from Balthasar Alvarez, Angela most clearly associated self-knowledge with prayer, in Instruction III, Part II:
"The purpose of prayer is nothing other than to manifest God and self. And this manifestation of God and self leads to a state of perfect and true humility. For this humility is attained when the soul sees God and self. It is in this profound state of humility, and from it, that divine grace deepens and grows in the soul. . . . I cannot conceive anything greater than the manifestation of God and self. But this discovery, that is, this manifestation of God and self, is the lot only of those legitimate sons of God who have devoted themselves to true prayer."
Accordingly, to Bl. Angela, the purpose of prayer is to better know God and ourselves in a way that leads to true humility. St. Teresa, in the section of Interior Castle quoted above, essentially echoes Bl. Angela in saying that there is nothing more needed than humility while on earth, as Bl. Angela implies as much in saying that she cannot conceive anything greater than the manifestation of God and self, which leads to humility. St. Teresa also echoes Bl. Angela in saying that "we shall
never learn to know ourselves except by endeavouring to know God," after Angela wrote that the manifestation of God and self is only given to people who devote themselves to true prayer.
Accordingly, St. Teresa of Avila's concept of self-knowledge needs to be understood in the context of the writings of the medieval mystics, primarily Bl. Angela of Foligno. As for Angela, St. Teresa spoke of self-knowledge as primarily the awareness of God's greatness and our unworthiness in comparison with His glory, together with the joyful awareness of God's grace that is given despite our unworthiness. This self-knowledge, learned in prayer, leads to a humility that is essential to contemplation.
Self-Knowledge in the Interior Castle of St. Teresa of Avila
In addition to the portion quoted above from the First Mansion of Interior Castle, St. Teresa also makes other references to self-knowledge as an important aspect of prayer. In that portion of the First Mansion, she says that it is important " enter [the Castle] first by the room where humility is practised." While thus making self-knowledge a "room" of the first mansion, she does not limit self-knowledge to only the first mansion, nor does she describe the first mansion as being made up entirely by self-knowledge. Instead, this self-knowledge is important to every stage of prayer.
In the translation of Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., that phrase is translated as, "enter first into the room where self-knowledge is dealt with rather than fly off to the other rooms." It is thus one room, and not the entirety of the First Mansion.
In the Third Mansion, when she speaks of the nestling bird (also quoted in Part 2 of this series), she speaks of the benefit of having a spiritual director who already "knows the world for what it is," to help a person who is in the Third Mansion to better know himself. St. Teresa suggests this, rather than doing one's own will, even for people who are not in religious orders. Thus, the "room" of self-knowledge is still important in the Third Mansion. The principle of learning from someone who is more advanced in prayer is there illustrated by the principle of the nestling who learns to fly through watching the flight of other, more mature birds:
"It is encouraging to see that trials which seemed to us impossible to submit to are possible to others, and that they bear them sweetly. Their flight makes us try to soar, like nestlings taught by the elder birds, who, though they cannot fly far at first, little by little imitate their parents: I know the great benefit of this."
Here, in speaking of the role of a spiritual director in furthering self-knowledge, she has in mind a spiritual director who is a "parent" as a person more accomplished in prayer. Obedience to such a person is helpful because it enables the "nestling" to learn from the adviser's example: by watching the adviser's own self-knowledge and humility before the grandeur of God and conforming to it. What is there learned is the benefit of the adviser's own prayer, in which the spiritual adviser has already gained an awareness of God's greatness, our unworthiness, and God's grace, leading to humility and the acceptance of God's will.
Earlier in the same Chapter of the Third Mansion, she says this of obedience to God's will and humility:
"The object of our life must be to do what He requires of us: let us not ask that our will may be done, but His. If we have not yet attained to this, let us be humble, as I said above. Humility is the ointment for our wounds; if we have it, although perhaps He may defer His coming for a time, God, Who is our Physician, will come and heal us."
In the Fifth Mansion, again, St. Teresa mentions self-knowledge in connection with flight, this time specifically mentioning a "dove":
"LET us now return to our little dove and see what graces God gives it in this state. This implies that the soul endeavours to advance in the service of our Lord and in self-knowledge."
In the Sixth Mansion, she describes an experience before the crucifix, reflecting that she had never had anything to give God, or to give up for Him, and He consoled her by telling her that He had given her all of His suffering in the Passion so that she could offer them to the Father. St. Teresa wrote that this example "shows that we please our Lord by self-knowledge, by the constant recollection of our poverty and miseries, and by realizing that we possess nothing but what we have received from Him." The "self-knowledge" in that example is much the same as that discussed by Bl. Angela.
Continuing in the same chapter of the Sixth Mansion, St. Teresa remains clearly within that concept of self-knowledge she found in Bl. Angela of Foligno, when she speaks of three graces of a very high order:
"The first of these is a perception of the greatness of God which becomes clearer to us as we witness more of it. Secondly, we gain self-knowledge and humility from seeing how creatures so base as ourselves in comparison with the Creator of such wonders have dared to offend Him in the past or venture to gaze on Him now. The third grace is a contempt for all earthly things unless they are consecrated to the service of so great a God."
Here, St. Teresa is explicit that the self-knowledge that she has in mind is the product of seeing ourselves in comparison with the greatness of God, and how we have dared to offend Him in the past. She is also explicit that we gain both self-knowledge and humility from seeing ourselves in that light.
Later in the Sixth Mansion, St. Teresa cautions that one should never desire or pray to have favors brought by visions, which are a gift and are never deserved. Such a desire shows a lack of humility, which would preclude the possibility of such a vision. In a reference to God's mercy and the self-knowledge of being aware that we are in fact worthy of hell, as in Bl. Angela, she writes:
"I do not believe God will ever bestow these gifts on such a person, as before doing so He always gives thorough self-knowledge. How can that soul, while filled with such lofty aspirations, realize the truth that He has shown it great mercy in not casting it into hell?"
In another reference to self-knowledge and humility, in Chapter 10 of the Sixth Mansion, she is again clear that by "self-knowledge" she is referring to the knowledge that "we have nothing good of ourselves":
"Once, while I was wondering why our Lord so dearly loves the virtue of humility, the thought suddenly struck me, without previous reflection, that it is because God is the supreme Truth and humility is the truth, for it is most true that we have nothing good of ourselves but only misery and nothingness: whoever ignores this, lives a life of falsehood. They that realize this fact most deeply are the most pleasing to God, the supreme Truth, for they walk in the truth. God grant, sisters, that we may have the grace never to lose this self-knowledge! Amen."
Understanding that reference in the context of Bl. Angela's writings, we should see that she is not speaking of a lack of self worth per se, but rather of an awareness that all of our virtues and all of our good are given to us by God's grace. So, St. Teresa says that "our virtues are only lent to us" in The Way of Perfection. Likewise, the Fourth Supplemental Step of the Memorial of Bl. Angela says that God wanted to give her a grace to be useful to all who sought her, and she was afraid that it would make her proud; yet God told her that she was "only its guardian" and that she would have to return it to God to whom it belongs. For both, in saying that we have nothing good of ourselves does not imply that we have no virtues, but rather that all that we have that is good is loaned to us by God's grace, and that we must give account to God for it.
As illustrated here, St. Teresa saw such self-knowledge, always leading to humility, as essential to advancement in prayer and in our closeness to God. She raises the subject in the First Mansion, as quoted at the beginning of this post, and raises it again and again as essential to growth in prayer.
As this series continues -- returning to the metaphors of flight and, specifically, those related to her use of the dove metaphor, the concept of "self-knowledge" will come up again.