Many of the spiritual doctors, most notably St. Teresa of Avila, emphasize that spiritual growth must begin with knowledge of self.
However, this “self-knowledge” is not quite what we think of today. When the spiritual doctors tell us to “know thyself”, they are not principally meaning that we must learn our personal strengths and weaknesses (though, of course, it is very important to recognize our principal vice), but they are rather directing us toward knowledge of the human condition. “Self-knowledge” refers, first and foremost, to an understanding of the human soul, the faculties, the virtues (and vices), the gifts of the Holy Spirit, etc.
It seems to us that most errors which priests make in giving spiritual direction stem from a lack of understanding of the human person. Indeed, the Doctor of Prayer (i.e. Avila) says that most errors early on in the spiritual life come from a lack of self-knowledge.
Preparation for the Total Consecration: Week 1, Knowledge of self and sorrow for sin
As we near the end of the “first week” of the thirty day preparation for the Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary (i.e. days thirteen through nineteen, from March 5th through March 11th), we take a moment to consider the theme of this first week: Knowledge of self and sorrow for sin.
St. Louis-Marie’s primary focus on this week is humility. He directs us to recognize our lowliness, to think of ourselves as worms, to see that we depend entirely on God. We strive to recognize how wretched we are and how needful of grace, only then can we appreciate the great gift of redemption through Jesus which is transmitted to us also through Mary.
De Montfort is not particularly concerned with “self-knowledge” in the sense in which we will discuss it in this article, that is, knowledge of the human condition and of the workings of the human soul. However, to understand virtue and vice (as well as the intellect, will, imagination, etc.) will be a great boon to recognizing how great is the human soul as God made it, and how wretched we have made our souls through sin.
Further, we will have at least the beginnings of an understanding of how to grow in the spiritual life.
You are like a boat
So, what exactly are virtues and vices? What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit? How do they interact? What is sanctifying grace? Etc.
In order to understand these realities, which are the core of the spiritual life (since the path to holiness can be summed up in this: Growth in the virtues, especially in charity), we will use the analogy of a boat.
The boat is your soul, on the way to happiness in heaven
First, the boat is your soul. As the boat is upon the waters, which are sometimes turbulent and other times calm, so too your soul is in the world and is sometimes assailed and other times left at ease.
The boat is going to a far off port, so too your soul is called to attain to heaven. Just as the boat has a destination, your soul is directed toward happiness.
But, of course, the boat needs some means of attaining this goal (the distant port), some way of crossing the waters. So too your soul needs to be propelled forward to happiness, to heaven.
The oars are cardinal virtues
In order to move forward and reach the port, the boat has oars by which it is propelled. The oars are part of the boat and are powered by people within the boat. Hence, they are in the boat and under the control of the men of the boat.
Your soul has something like oars, these are the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. By these virtues (especially by acts of these virtues), you are propelled forward towards happiness in heaven. Like the oars, the virtues are in you and are under your control – you are able to make an act of these virtues as you will.
Even when we think of the infused virtues (which are different in kind from the acquired virtues of the same name: such that infused prudence is a virtue really distinct from acquired prudence), these are put in you by God but are yet under your control. Hence, even though you do not acquire infused justice through your own effort, but have it directly infused into your soul (for example, at baptism), nevertheless the virtue once infused is under your control. You are able (at your will) to make an act of the infused virtue of justice – rendering unto God true worship, for example.
All the virtues (excepting the theological virtues) are symbolized by the oars.
The rudder is the theological virtues
However, in order to reach its port, the boat needs something more than forward propulsion, it also requires direction. So that the oars drive the boat on the proper route, a rudder is needed. This rudder orients the boat to the desired goal.
Your soul also needs to be correctly oriented. The virtues (and acts of the virtues in particular) drive you forward, but in order that you may attain supernatural happiness, you require a supernatural “rudder”.
Thus it is that God, by grace (and generally through baptism), infused into your soul the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. By these theological virtues, your soul is given a new supernatural orientation – you now are directed not to a merely natural happiness, but to a supernatural happiness (i.e. heaven).
Like the oars, the rudder is under the control of the men in the ship. So too, once they are infused, the theological virtues are under your control. At your own choosing, you are able to make an act of faith, of hope, or of love. Once the virtue is in you (by the grace of God), it is within your power (being moved interiorly by grace) to exercise the virtue.
The sails, the gifts of the Holy Spirit
But the oars, as good as they are, move the boat forward only slowly. Thus, it is most fitting that the boat have sails by which it is propelled forward much more quickly by the wind.
Consider the sails of a boat: They are truly in the boat and part of the boat, but they do not move the boat forward by any power within the boat. Rather, it is the external force of the wind (which is wholly outside the control of the men on the boat) which fills the sails and gives the boat forward motion.
Your soul also has sails: The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord). These gifts are somewhat like the virtues, insofar as they really are stable “things” in your soul. However, they are diverse from the virtues insofar as they are not really under your control.
This is the great difference between the gifts and the virtues: While you can make an “act of faith” at your willing it, you cannot make an “act of the gift of wisdom” at your will. Rather, it is only by the special inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as from an outside force (rather than in the form of an interior movement of grace), that the soul is able to make acts from the gifts.
The gifts are really in you, they are truly part of your soul. And, when the Holy Spirit moves you through one of the gifts, he is moving you by something within you. However, like the sails of a ship, the moving force is exterior to your soul.
The boat and your spiritual life
Just as the sails are the glory of a ship, so too the gifts of the Holy Spirit are the glory of your soul. The perfection of the spiritual life consists in living more and more from the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In order for the gifts to be operative, it is necessary that the soul be wholly docile to the (usually) gentle inspirations of the Holy Spirit.
That being said, the most important part of the ship (in terms of reaching the port) is not really the sails, but the rudder. So too in the spiritual life, the most important realities are the theological virtues. While the gift of wisdom may be the crown and glory of the interior life, the theological virtue of charity is its heart.
What about the “dark night”?
In the center of the boat, there is generally a room for the most precious cargo. This center is hid away, deep within. Those men working the sails and oars and rudder know nothing of this center.
So too, the soul has a center. Here, deeper than the imagination, even deeper than the faculties of the intellect and the will, in the very essence of the soul – this is the place where sanctifying grace resides. Here, in the heart of the soul, is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (and of the whole Trinity).
This is why, sometimes, we can be united to God even when we do not feel united. This is why there is sometimes a “dark night” (two, in fact). We are at the oars or the rudder or even the sails, but God is much deeper.
The imagination is so far from the center of the soul, it can know nothing of what takes place therein. Even the intellect and the will, being only faculties of the soul and not the essence of the soul itself, do not clearly perceive who dwells within.
But God will draw us deeper, through darkness, to an un-knowing transcending all knowledge. Then the oars will be stilled, and even the rudder, the faculties all suspended and our house being now at rest, we will go forth into the night (the light of which is brighter than the sun, but beyond our perceiving) – and there, deep within, we shall find our Beloved.