What would you consider to be the single most important thing in the whole world? Or, framed in slightly different terms, what would you identify as most important for your existence and well-being? Some people would answer in terms of finding God. Many would speak of love, security or happiness.
Thomas Merton tells us what he considers the most important thing in the whole world—that on which all of the things I have just mentioned depend. He says: “There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”
To suggest that knowing God plays an important role in Christian spirituality will not surprise anyone. To suggest that knowing self plays an equally important role may, however, set off warning bells for some. Perhaps it is just the sort of thing you might expect from a psychologist. Yet an understanding of the interdependence of knowing self and God has held a lasting and respected place in Christian theology. Thomas à Kempis argued that a humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning, and Augustine’s prayer was “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.”
Christian spirituality involves a transformation of the self that occurs only when God and self are both deeply known. Unfortunately, this important insight has been largely forgotten by the contemporary church. We have focused on knowing God and tended to ignore knowing ourselves. The consequences have often been grievous—marriages betrayed, families destroyed, ministries shipwrecked and endless numbers of people damaged by the church and well-meaning but dangerous people of religious influence.
Leaving the self out of Christian spirituality results in a spirituality that is not well grounded in experience. It is, therefore, not well grounded in reality. Focusing on God while failing to deeply know ourselves may produce an external form of piety, but it will always leave a gap between appearance and reality. This is dangerous to the soul of anyone—and in spiritual leaders it can also be disastrous.
Thomas Merton really was right. There really is nothing more important than finding God and myself – but we will only do so when we realize that truly this is but a single task!