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Let him consider that he is always beheld from heaven by God, and that his actions are everywhere seen by the eye of the Divine Majesty, and are every hour reported to Him by His angels. This the prophet telleth us, when he sheweth how God is ever present in our thoughts, saying: “God searcheth the heart and the reins.” And again “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men.” And he also saith: “Thou hast understood my thoughts afar off”; and “The thought of man shall confess to Thee.” In order, therefore, that he may be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother say ever in his heart: “Then shall I be unspotted before Him, if I shall have kept me from mine iniquity.”
One cannot read this section of the First Degree of Humility without referring to Psalm 138, which Psalm we pray every Thursday at Vespers. Saint Benedict quotes but one verse of the Psalm, but the Psalm in its entirety pervades all that he says here. Monsignor Knox renders this familiar Psalm with a compelling freshness of expression:
Lord, I lie open to thy scrutiny; thou knowest me, knowest when I sit down and when I rise up again, canst read my thoughts from far away. Walk I or sleep I, thou canst tell; no movement of mine but thou art watching it. Before ever the words are framed on my lips, all my thought is known to thee; rearguard and vanguard, thou dost compass me about, thy hand still laid upon me. Such wisdom as thine is far beyond my reach, no thought of mine can attain it. Where can I go, then, to take refuge from thy spirit, to hide from thy view? If I should climb up to heaven, thou art there; if I sink down to the world beneath, thou art present still. If I could wing my way eastwards, or find a dwelling beyond the western sea, still would I find thee beckoning to me, thy right hand upholding me. Or perhaps I would think to bury myself in darkness; night should surround me, friendlier than day; but no, darkness is no hiding-place from thee, with thee the night shines clear as day itself; light and dark are one. Author, thou, of my inmost being, didst thou not form me in my mother’s womb? I praise thee for my wondrous fashioning, for all the wonders of thy creation. Of my soul thou hast full knowledge, and this mortal frame had no mysteries for thee, who didst contrive it in secret, devise its pattern, there in the dark recesses of the earth. All my acts thy eyes have seen, all are set down already in thy record; my days were numbered before ever they came to be. (Psalm 138:1–16)
The man who, with Saint Benedict, is convinced, as is the Psalmist, that God beholds him from heaven at every moment, will not only avoid sin; he will also begin to follow the injunction of the Apostle:
Risen, then, with Christ, you must lift your thoughts above, where Christ now sits at the right hand of God. You must be heavenly-minded, not earthly-minded; you have undergone death, and your life is hidden away now with Christ in God. Christ is your life, and when he is made manifest, you too will be made manifest in glory with him. (Colossians 3:1–4)
Saint Benedict would have each man hear the Lord address him as He addressed the prophet Jeremias, saying: “I am the Lord who search the heart, and prove the reins: who give to every one according to his way, and according to the fruit of his devices” (Jeremias 17:10). Know this: God sees into your heart and mine; He reads your inmost thoughts and mine. God is more present to us than we are to ourselves. Saint Augustine says, “Thou wert more inward to me than my most inward part” (Confessions III, 6, 11). In some way, this truth greatly simplifies our prayer. When we go to God in prayer there is no need for lengthy explanations, manifestations of conscience, detailed confessions, and tortuous self–scrutinies. If one does these things — and I am not at all advising that one should — one does them for oneself, in an effort to come to better knowledge of oneself, and not for God’s sake.
God sees us far better and more deeply than we see ourselves; He knows our entire personal histories perfectly and comprehensively in a single simple gaze. There is great comfort in holding to this truth. A man can exhaust himself in trying to explain to himself and others the reasons for his peculiarities, his neuroses, his immaturity, his obsessions, and even his sins. Men pay vast sums of money to therapists in an effort to understand themselves. Self–knowledge is necessary and useful, but too much probing of oneself, too much turning over of one’s past, can lead a man into a kind of psychological quicksand. Self–knowledge is but the first step. The best therapists will admit this. After self–knowledge must come self–acceptance: “This is my history. This is my heredity. These are my deficits, my weaknesses, and my gifts”. The third step is the handing–over to God of the whole complex, messy reality, trusting in Him to salvage all that is worth salvaging, to dispose of all that toxic, and to heal and perfect those things that are infirm and incomplete.
There is another way, a simpler way, and it consists in this: a simple, adoring, act of presence to the presence of God. In this, all that needs to be said to God is said implicitly. In this, the soul is exposed to God, opened to His divine action, and disinfected, that is purified, by the radiance of the Divine Countenance. Mother Mectilde writes of this to a Religious of the Monastery of Toul in 1678:
Blessed the soul that attends faithfully to her God by this secret and admirable way of silence. Never depart from it lest you become unfaithful. If, in this silence, one should say to you, “What are you doing?” You yourself do not know what you are doing: your support is naked faith. Be content that God knows it and that He knows it through and through.
Do not take fright at any temptation, no matter what it may be. You have not yet come to the end. There are souls who, [praying] in this way, suffer terrifying temptations. It is necessary that God alone, in pure faith, be enough for you; learn to do without all the rest. If one should say to you that you do not know what you adore, be assured, on this point, that you cannot miss the mark, because you are adoring in spirit and in truth He who is, and that you adore Him all the more truly in that you gaze upon Him by means of a simple faith, as He is in Himself, without image and without distinction.
Close your ears to all the interrogations that will be made concerning your way; be content in knowing that it is your path. Do not quit it, and do not trouble yourself over its obscurity nor over the obstacles that you meet. Abide in a loving confidence in God. Many souls arrive at a certain degree of prayer, but they do not get beyond it. Saint Teresa says that she does not know the cause of this, and someone else says that the fault comes from our having too much self–love and holding back. We do not enough abandon ourselves blindly, under the best pretexts in the world.
If I followed my thoughts, I would write much on this subject, and I don’t know why Our Lord has given me so many little lights on this subject, given the abyss of my infidelities and how far I am from the purity of this way. It is true that there is a great distance from the union of love with God and the holiness that one must have to enter heaven. God moves souls along during life and He brings them to consummation at death: it is the work of His divine hand. As for your sins, do not trouble yourself looking for them. If God wants an extraordinary confession of you, He will give you the grace and light to make it. Do not worry about it.