A bitter irony of Original Sin is that it has made us simultaneously more self-focused and less self-aware. Despite our thinking so much about ourselves, we have little self-knowledge to show for it.
Fallen man is, in the Psalmist’s words, incurvatus nimis – exceedingly bowed down, turned inward on himself. Our thoughts are self-referential. The self becomes the center of gravity for our thoughts, words, and actions. This is pride, plain and simple. From it come all boasting and haughtiness as well as fear and insecurity. Whatever manifestation our pride takes, it always results in a lack of concern for others. Or, very likely, a concern for the other not as other but, bending the arc back to oneself, as someone who affects me.
Despite this extraordinary self-focus, we still suffer a shockingly superficial understanding of ourselves. Our self-referential thinking is only to the superficial self. We remain on the surface of things and fail to delve beneath the surface to our authentic longings and desires. The impact on others is obvious: the one with a surfeit of self-interest and little self-knowledge can show little charity to others.
Our Lord touches on this tragic reality in today’s Gospel. The hypocrite is one who lacks the awareness – or perhaps the willingness to be aware – of the wooden beam in his own eye, even as he notices the splinter in his brother’s. He cannot assist his brother because of his lack of self-knowledge. Thus, Jesus directs us to the interior life, to “the fullness of the heart” that produces either good or bad fruit. Unless we take that self-knowledge seriously, we cannot bear fruit in good works for our neighbor.
So the Christian life, in its constant fight against our wounded human nature, should be a constant inward and outward progression. First inward, to know ourselves as we really are and not as we superficially think ourselves to be. Then outward, to genuine regard and love for the other as other and not as an extension of our own self-love. This is the paradox of the Christian life: the more inward we go in self-knowledge, the more capable we become of going outward in love of neighbor.
With Ash Wednesday coming, we can approach the disciplines of Lent with this inward/outward progression in mind. We can engage our Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving with a view to lessening self-focus and growing in the self-knowledge that enables self-giving.
Perhaps a deeper praying of the Psalms is in order. Saint Josemaría observes, “There are few things more at odds with Christianity than superficiality.” Such superficiality keeps us from knowing our real longings and desires. We limit them to the here-and-now, to the worldly, and even the carnal. The Psalmist shows us the true path: O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. (Ps 63:1) When we allow these words to shape our minds (as Saint Benedict counsels), then we break through the surface, into a deeper awareness of the real longing that we typically anesthetize. Then, as legitimate as our temporal needs may be, we realize the deeper need within us.
The privileged subject of Lenten prayer is our Lord’s Passion and Death. The extremity of his suffering displays the depth of divine love for us sinners. It should also shock us out of a superficial treatment of our sin and rebellion. But that requires that we pray and not just say prayers. Saint Alphonsus Liguori’s words in his Stations of the Cross might seem foreign to us, but they convey the reality, and we should make them (like the Psalms) our own: I love you, Jesus, my Love, above all things. I repent of ever having offended you. Never allow me to offend you again. Grant that I may love you always; and then do with me as you will.
Fasting is surface warfare. It targets those carnal desires that sit on the surface of our souls, not so that we can be without desire but so that we can go deeper and know our real desires. As a parishioner said to me years ago about the Eucharistic fast, “Father, how can you hunger for the Word of God on a full stomach?” That truth about the Eucharistic fast applies to all fasting. If we spend our time seeking to satisfy our hunger and thirst for food and drink – or whatever – then we will not experience our deeper hunger and thirst, for God.
Finally, almsgiving has a twofold effect. First, it rids us of the possessions and money we use to make ourselves feel sufficient. Only in so doing can we come to know God as our true wealth and everlasting possession. Second, it puts our “needs” in the proper perspective. What we think we need is clarified when we take seriously the destitution and suffering of others.
Inward and outward. This is the pattern of the saints. It is the Apostle Paul disappearing for years in prayer and then spending his life as a missionary. It is Saint Catherine of Siena retreating to her “cell of self-knowledge” and then bursting forth in apostolic action. It is Mother Teresa first adoring Christ in the Eucharist and then serving him in the poorest of the poor. May it be our pattern as well.
Image: Vanity  by Jan Sanders van Hemessen, c. 1535-40 [Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France]
You may also enjoy:
George Herbert’s Vanity 
Helen Freeh’s In Praise of – Real – Fasting