Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness….
St. Isaac the Syrian
The ancient Greek saying, “know thyself,” has been attributed to at least twelve ancient authors. In its original sense, learning to know oneself was a spiritual odyssey leading to the knowledge of God. Unfortunately, nowadays “know thyself” is often reduced, perhaps for the sake of building self esteem, to “know what thou art good at,” or “know thy gift,” or in a religious context, “know thy ministry.” It seems that the most important thing nowadays is that everyone feel that they are important, that they are good at something; and that this feeling of confidence and importance is what makes human beings healthy.
The Orthodox Church fathers and mothers, however, see things very differently. They see self esteem as the problem, not the solution. They consider that so long as one has high self esteem, one can not really begin to experience humility, which is the chief attribute of God–at least it is the chief attribute of God demonstrated in Christ’s condescension to become human–and it is the beginning or foundation of the ladder of virtues leading to Christlikeness.
According to St. Isaac the Syrian, “so long as the heart is not humbled, it cannot cease from wandering.” And this wandering of the heart is, in my experience, the most common cause of wandering away from God–in my thoughts and in my actions. My heart wanders, so my mind wanders; and because my mind wanders I find myself doing and saying things that offend my neighbors and loved ones and put a kind of wall between my conscience and God. God seems far away, not because God has moved, but because I in my mind and heart and actions have wandered away.
Knowing one’s weakness, according to St. Isaac, leads one to pay attention, to be watchful. Because I know I am weak in a certain area (in that I quickly judge other people, for example), I become watchful. I know that I easily judge others, often before I realize that I am doing it, so I watch myself closely. And this careful watching of the self lest I fall into the same trap that I always fall into, St. Isaac says, “treasures up watchfulness” which delivers a person “from the laxity that dims knowledge [of self and of God].” In this patristic pattern, it is not the overcoming of weaknesses that helps us grow in our relationship with God and love of neighbor (although that is a gradual byproduct of growth in godliness). It is rather our increasing watchfulness as we become more and more aware of our weaknesses that makes us aware of the Grace of God in our life, increasing our experiential knowledge of God and love of neighbor.
As a priest, I often find that some people are ashamed to come to confession because they have nothing to confess except what they always confess: “I’m still struggling to control my anger” or “I still battle with lustful thoughts” or “I still judge others quickly and harshly” and there are many other possible regular, besetting sins (BTW, I am not referring to anyone in particular; these are general categories and examples). It seems that we have been bitten by our culture’s self-esteem bug. We think that the goal of life Christian life is to get to the place where we no longer know of any weaknesses. We wrongly think that the goal is to become strong, to come to the place where we know our strengths, our gifts, our ministries, and what we have to offer. We think the goal is to no longer be aware of any weaknesses. Such a state is death, not life. It is delusion, satanic delusion. Satan was the one who saw only his gifts, and becoming puffed up in pride thought they were his own. Seeing our weakness is our salvation.
When we read the lives of the saints we notice that the most holy are also the ones who know most deeply their sin, their weaknesses. St. Paul said, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” It is in the deep knowledge of our weakness, of our utter dependence of God, that we really come to know God. It is the beginning of humility, which is the beginning of godly virtues. It is the narrow path, the door, of our salvation. Truly blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know their weakness.