While the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers us, we can take concrete steps to move toward a life marked by ongoing conversion. Consider the following four-part formula:
Self-knowledge, guided by Revelation, leads to understanding.
Understanding, inflamed by Love, leads to metanoia.
Metanoia applied, leads to action.
Action surrendered, leads to conversion.
In today’s post, we’ll look at the first step: self-knowledge.
What is this self-knowledge? It’s an awareness of who we are and who we are not. With perfect self-knowledge, we would see ourselves just as God sees us. We would become sharply alert to God’s blessings, his gifts, and his presence. We would recognize the movements of sin within us and our tendencies to oppose God’s will. We would be conscious of our actions and the real motivations behind them. Without self-knowledge, we would be oblivious — unaware of God’s presence and any need for reform or conversion.
Obviously, we often don’t have this kind of understanding. Our human condition, with our biases and with all the distractions and attachments of life, blind us. Easily deceived, we fall prey to our selfishness and pride. What, if anything, can we do to regain our sight?
A Three-Legged Stool
First, we need the help of the Holy Spirit. Pray for His help; turn to Him at all times.
Second, we seek the truth through reflection. We begin by attending to our thoughts, actions, and the events of life. We listen to God speaking in our hearts and through our experiences. Then, we interpret what we discover by examining these findings under the light of God’s Revelation.
This third leg, Revelation, sums up what God has revealed about Himself, transmitted through the Sacred Scriptures and Holy Tradition. The Church interprets God’s Word, and the saints, through their teaching and their actions, help us to apply what we have learned.
Here’s an example. I’m a people person, but I’m also very goal-oriented. Some time ago, while reflecting on the events of the previous day, I recognized a trend where I would rush through my encounters with others so I could complete a task. But was this really a problem? After all, I had responsibilities to fulfill. The Church teaches how God made each of us in His image; to be shown respect and treated with dignity. I then saw that when put under pressure, I would sometimes treat people more like objects than as holy creatures, motivated by a desire to look good when others would see how reliable and capable I was. It wasn’t that my goals lacked importance, but I wasn’t always handling situations in the right way.
What practical steps can we take to increase our self-knowledge? Let’s listen to some advice from the gentle and wise Bishop of Geneva, St. Francis de Sales.
St. Francis urges us to step back and examine ourselves and our actions on a regular basis — daily, weekly, and annually. The Daily Examen, recommended by St. Ignatius of Loyola, is an excellent habit to develop. You can learn more about the Examen at The Daily Examen. Our self-examination should often lead us to make Holy Confession, so on the flip side, establishing the routine use of this sacrament will become an occasion for self-examination.
Finding areas in need of change during self-examination is not that difficult. We don’t need to scour every little conversation, thought, or action. We have difficulty because we can be blind to the truth, even when it’s right before our eyes. Sometimes we have sinful patterns that have existed most of our lives. And sometimes it’s even more subtle — a matter of holding back in how we give our lives over to the Lord.
One word of caution. While self-examination is a worthy practice, it should never lead us to excessive introspection or obsession over our weaknesses. St. Francis tells us that upon recognizing a fault, we should immediately confess it, make a firm resolution to reform, and then move on.
Establishing a discipline of daily devotion and prayer is perhaps the single most important step we can take toward the pursuit of ongoing conversion.
Francis urges us to use a prayer of meditation. Many people struggle with this form of prayer due to distractibility or uncertainty about how to proceed. If you’ve had these struggles, consider using meditation aids, or seek out the guidance of a mentor or spiritual director.
Listening to the word of God
We regularly read and meditate upon the scriptures. We should also take advantage of approved spiritual works, devotions, and stories about the lives of the saints.
St. Francis highly recommended that we place ourselves under the guidance of a spiritual director — a person of prayer who is trained to help others on our spiritual journey. Unfortunately, finding a spiritual director is not always an easy task. If you’re not sure where to turn, try contacting your diocesan office for help.
What is a holy friendship?
A true friend is one who encourages, or “gives us courage,” to receive God’s best. Sometimes we do this through supportive words like “You can do it,” or “I believe in you.” At other times, we build courage through correction. A true friend will not let us fall victim to evil, and if necessary, he or she will give us a swift kick in the pants.
You may need to give your friend permission to speak to you this way because American culture teaches us to measure friendship by how much we accept others and their behaviors, rather than how well we love.
In his Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis speaks of three ways we learn about God’s will: His commands, His counsels, and inspirations. God’s commands tell us what God requires of us. His counsels direct us to what He recommends. Inspirations are movements of the Holy Spirit that inspire us to love and live a holy life. We need to cultivate a receptivity for these moments when God calls us and tugs at our heart.
Spiritual retreats are an opportunity to briefly step back from the cares and activities of secular living to gain clarity and perspective as a disciple of Christ.
Many retreats offered today take place over several days. Make it a goal to attend a retreat once a year.
Francis also speaks of a kind of retreat that we can make several times a day. These are occasions when we briefly withdraw from temporal concerns into an interior solitude. I’ll be writing more about this solitude in a future post.
Next Stop: Metanoia
The understanding we build is only a beginning. To go further, we need a change of mind and heart, or metanoia, and we’ll be turning to St. Augustine as our next guide.
Conversion 101: Self-Knowledge is the third in the six-part Conversion 101 series about energizing your spiritual life through ongoing conversion.