Know Thyself – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Matthew 23:1-12

The sixth Temple of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, was rebuilt at Delphi in 320BC. Inscribed into the temple were the words “Know Thyself,” a popular pearl of wisdom, both then and now, attributed to a host of Greek sages from Pythagoras to Socrates, but whose origin has probably been lost forever. To “know thyself” has a variety of possible meanings, including as a warning against hubris or as a call to control one’s emotional life. But, the most compelling sense of that phrase, especially in light of the Gospel, is knowing who we are in the truest sense, the kind of knowing present in the depths of our heart. It’s this kind of knowing that allows us to claim our inner spiritual wisdom and authority.

In contrast to such inner authority, the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day held religious and spiritual authority for the Jewish people. Jesus said they sat on the seat of Moses, possibly referring to an actual seat they taught from in synagogue, but certainly, metaphorically referring to their role in maintaining and passing on the tradition of Moses, particularly as expressed in religious law.

Jesus also said to follow the scribes and Pharisees teachings, but not do as they do, because they did not themselves practice what they taught. I suppose that’s not too surprising given how often Jesus accuses them of being hypocrites, both for their actions and words, even accusing those on the seat of Moses of hindering people on their way to entering God’s Kingdom.

As I read today’s gospel passage, I remembered my early experiences of religious authority. As a young boy, I felt a natural pull towards the beauty and goodness of God’s presence and its manifestation in the world, especially as an expression of God’s love and compassion. And I remember being confused at what seemed to me very un-Christian like behavior from the priests and nuns in the school and church I attended. To be sure, this wasn’t universally true, but my attention was focused on the “bad apples,” since their behavior seemed so at odds with my experience and understanding of Christ’s light and truth.

Eventually, that sense of hypocrisy, and my experience of severe bullying in a predominately Christian community, led me to leave the church, and, in fact, leave behind all thoughts of reconciling the God I knew as a boy with the God as presented by those with religious authority. It took around 40 years or so for the seeming separation between myself and God to be healed. And, surprising at the time, it wasn’t a new experience of religious authority bringing me back to church, it was a deepening sense of self knowledge, of who I am in relation to self, God, and the world.

In Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a man says to the prophet, “Speak to us of Self-Knowledge.
And [the prophet] answered, saying:
Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.
But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge.
You would know in words that which you have always known in thought.
You would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams.”

For the prophet, to know thyself meant much more than learning about the personal self, but rather remembering what our hearts already know to be God’s truth. Religious authority can feed our desire to put this truth into concrete terms, but all religion ultimately springs from a simple remembering of the spiritual truth within us. This truth shines like the Sun even now, and it’s also found through scripture and tradition, themselves based on the Self-Knowledge of those who came before us.

The holders of religious authority, whether they be scribes, pharisees, imam, rabbis, priests, nuns, gurus, spiritual teachers, or monks, are, of course, just people. And being just people, there is a significant danger in giving authority over our spiritual journeys to those in positions or roles granting religious authority. The danger comes from putting such authority figures on a pedestal, focusing on either their actions in the world or teachings they offer which veer away from the central message of the gospel.

Our responsibility as custodians of our own unique path, is to discern the heart of teachings and tradition, and, most importantly where the teachings are pointing. If we hand over our sense of inner spiritual authority to someone else, and they behave in word or deed contrary to divine truth, we will be left disillusioned, hurt and confused, or left with a very bad role model to follow.

Ultimately, we have only one true teacher, the Holy One, to whom Jesus was always pointing, and whom we find when we journey to know ourselves, discovering the authority lying within. For Gibran’s prophet this authority, our True Self, is like the secrets of the days and nights. Ralph Waldo Emmerson in his poem “Know Thyself,” says God’s indwelling within us, as us, as all there is, is unknown to thousands, clouded and shrouded within our bosom. Gerard Manley Hopkins called our shared identity and oneness with Christ an immortal diamond buried beneath this poor potsherd of a person.

But, why all the talk of secrets and hiddenness? For some, that might be a bit off-putting, as if it’s being suggested that the entrance to God’s Kingdom requires some special effort, joining an exclusive club, or the acquisition of some rarified intellectual knowledge. I think it helps to consider what something being hidden or secret might mean to a child. For a child, something being a secret or hidden is really more of an invitation than anything else. And so, this aspect of hiddenness is itself the invitation to discover our True Selves, to discover God waiting there responding to our discovery with pure joy.

And to be fair, it’s not really that well-hidden, not much of a secret. It’s like Hopkins’ beautiful, immortal, diamond is at rest just below the surface of a small pool of water. We tend to live, mostly out of habit born of our nature and circumstances, with the diamond’s radiance hidden by ripples on the surface of the water. But all it takes is just the briefest moment of stillness, for the water to become transparent, giving us a glimpse of the treasure buried below.

“Our hearts will know in silence the secrets of the days and nights,” and so the greatest gift we give ourselves is moments of stillness and silence where we practice catching a glimpse of the immortal diamond within, our True Selves. It might come as a surprise that practice would help, but practice helps anytime we’re attempting to increase our sensitivity to something. In the first week of massage school, the instructor would place my fingers on someone’s back, and ask “do you feel the dryness of the myofascial tissue, the bunching up of the muscle fibers,” and I would stare blankly back at him. But, over the next couple of years of practice the sensitivity of my fingers increased, until I could sense things I didn’t even know were there.

Lent is a wonderful time to practice silence and stillness, allowing us to discern with ever greater sensitivity the whispers of our hearts. The insight arising with any great spiritual truth always feels like remembering, because our hearts, our True Selves in Christ, already know by participation and identity the holy image imprinted there. Resting in silence and stillness lets us listen closely for God inviting us to discover the immortal diamond hidden just below the surface of often turbulent waters. Just a glimpse as the waters calm, and we share in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Gibran’s prophet tells us that the soul doesn’t so much walk upon a straight line of the truth, but more unfolds itself into a truth, a truth the Holy One has crafted for each unique person, and planted within us. It’s a seed we allow to flourish, and a Sun we allow to shine, when we journey inward, knowing ourselves truly, and learning to trust the wisdom and authority within.

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