“Closer to me than I am to myself”

On Saturday, August 28, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and teacher of the Christian faith. One of my favorite lines from Augustine’s writings comes in Book 3 of the Confessions, where he remembers how he wandered from God as a young man: “You were more inward to me than my most inward part,” or, as sometimes paraphrased, “you were closer to me than I am to myself.” (The Latin is tu autem eras interior intimo meo.)

It’s a remarkable statement. Who could be closer to me than me? What is more intimate to me than my own self? The answer, according to Augustine, is God. The One who made us, the One who is beyond us, also dwells within us. God is more inward to you than your very self.

It’s fascinating to read these words some sixteen hundred years later, at a time when there is great confusion about the self. We cheer “authenticity” and encourage each other to “be your true self,” presumably at any cost. We celebrate those who “find themselves” by breaking free from the constraints of culture, family, tradition, and even biology. We (mis)represent ourselves through social media, carefully curating a digital self that others will like. Much of our energy, much of our attention, is given to our own self-construction; as W.H. Auden put it, “each of us prays to an image of his image of himself.”

At the same time, we’re deeply unsure of ourselves. We feel fragmented, split into parts that do not make a whole. We feel alienated, not only from each other, but from our own desires and hopes. We feel exhausted, because the project of self-construction, like all idolatries, is life-killing. To find a way out, we listen to the podcasts, read the books, pay for the courses that will help us be a better ENFP, DiSC, 7 with a 4 wing, etc., etc. The Self-Discovery industry promises something we’re all to eager to buy: here’s The Key to unlock the secret of your true self. 

I don’t know about you, but in the midst of all this Augustine’s words sound like good news. Turns out it’s an ancient problem: like Augustine, we find we are strangely far from ourselves. In a world marred by sin, forgetfulness, and disorder, it’s just the case that we’re going to experience a distance, an alienation, within our deepest being. Perhaps, then, we should be agnostics, or at least proceed with more humility, when it comes to the accuracy and extent of our self-knowledge. We might ruefully conclude with St. Paul, “What I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.”

But there is One who knows us, who understands us totally and truly. In fact, underneath our confusion, there is a true self, which we should seek to understand and to be. But this self is only and always found in Christ, the perfect Image of God. When we wander from God, we wander from our very selves, Augustine writes, and when we return to God, we return to ourselves. We learn who we actually are by drawing near to the One who is already intimately close. True self-knowledge, then, is found in the way of prayer and adoration: “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139)

This Saturday, a week before Augustine’s feast, we’ll welcome the 2021-2022 Brazos Fellows to our community (read about them here!). The Fellows are about to embark on a very full year. They’ll read classic texts of theology and spirituality, from Gregory of Nazianzus’ Christological treatises, to Benedict’s Rule, to Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, to George Herbert’s poems—and much more. They’ll explore their individual questions one-on-one with a tutor, while also working with a spiritual director and a life coach. They’ll take on spiritual disciplines, praying the morning and evening office and practicing Sabbath rest.

What’s the point of all this? The Fellows earn no degree or certification. They won’t necessarily become more employable. They won’t be wealthier (although, as any alum would attest, they will be better fed!). All their work aims at something more fundamental: what St. Augustine called “double knowledge”—knowledge of self, and knowledge of God. Brazos Fellows take on a quasi-monastic life, guided by a shared Rule of Life, in hope of growing in double knowledge. 

Please join us in praying for the Fellows this year. Pray that through their study, prayer, and discernment, the Fellows will draw near to the God who is closer to them than they are to themselves.

For the rest of us who aren’t Brazos Fellows, we’re still called to embrace the “monkhood of all believers,” as Fr. Greg Peters puts it. Because of our baptismal vows, Fr. Peters writes, every Christian life is monastic. And the heart of monasticism is simplicity—a life that is single-minded toward God. As it turns out, this is what it means to live authentically, to really be yourself. 

At the start of a new school year, as schedules form and plans are made, I invite you to recommit to the life of prayer. Consider taking on a new practice, perhaps spiritual direction, confession, or the daily office. Consider adopting a little Rule, a commitment to seek to grow in double knowledge this year. And as we seek, may we, like St. Augustine, find our rest in the one who made us for himself. 

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