Our culture’s many distractions can prevent us from looking inward, from taking the time to heed the Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” and embark on a path of inner growth and flourishing.
With this in mind, the Lumen Christi Institute organized a symposium titled “The Interior Life: Literary, Psychoanalytic, and Spiritual Perspectives” (January 28), featuring presentations by University of Chicago professors Bernard McGinn, Jonathan Lear, Lisa Ruddick, and Rosanna Warren.
Bernard McGinn—Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology and of the History of Christianity in the Divinity School and the Committees on Medieval Studies and on General Studies—made the case for a proper understanding of the inner life from the Christian perspective, titling his talk “The Promise and Perils of Introspection.”
The Christian mystics, McGinn explained, believed there were good forms of cultivating the interior life as well as bad ones.
“True introspection is not finding ourselves, in a sense of who we are on our own, but should rather should be an exercise in finding who we might be, especially in the eyes of God,” said McGinn, describing the aim of interiority in the mystical tradition. Ultimately, the interior life is a relational life, a dialogue between the self and God. If approached the wrong way, self-reflection can turn into self-absorption, which in essence imperils the soul.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine, though a classic example of inward reflection, are not the whiny writings of a self-interested soul. “Augustine, by going within, is not interested in getting to know himself,” argued McGinn, that is, in focusing on “this one-time oversexed proud ambitious North African lower middle-class kid on the make.”
On the contrary, Augustine desired not to know himself, but to know himself in relation to God. “He wants to know who he can be under divine guidance as his life goes on.” In The Confessions, Augustine recognized the limits of reason in his life. He discovered that one cannot know oneself by one’s own efforts but only by the exercise of confessio, a threefold dialogue with God which involves admission of helplessness in the face of evil, a grateful praise to God for rescuing us from our faults, and finally admission that it is not our own reason that can save us but only the truth of faith as revealed in Christ. “For Augustine, to become a true self—the self that we are meant to be—is not to strengthen our inner autonomy or to realize individuality, whatever that might be—but rather to strive for a deeper appropriation to the soul’s nature as made in the image and likeness of God.”
As Augustine famously declared, “God is deeper within me than my inmost being and higher than my highest point.” This signifies that “to go within is to be drawn above,” to allow the transcendent source to take us up, to elevate our souls.
McGinn then presented on two figures deeply influenced by the Bishop of Hippo’s search for the true self in God: the 14th century Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck and the 16th century Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila. Van Ruysbroeck, for example, claimed that if inner consciousness is enjoyed only for itself, that is, apart from the gift of charity, it becomes sinful and destructive. “In other words, introspection can be perilous.” Teresa of Ávila had a similar perspective on interior reflection. Rejoicing that she had turned away from her days as a self-serving nun and finally found her true self as a result of God’s action in her life, Teresa incisively remarked: “May the Lord be praised who freed me from myself.”
Rosanna Warren—poet and the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago—explored the positive sides of interiority. There is a basic human impulse to seek solitude and silence for the sake of contemplation and exploring the mysteries within. A reason that human beings withdraw, Warren said, is that “the vision of God calls for attention.” As the 14th century Renaissance poet Petrarch found, “it is difficult to see Jesus in a crowd.”
“My experience of contemplation as it is undertaken in the artistic life is that it is not solipsistic,” Warren remarked. “It requires discipline, practice, and form, and it often involves an erotic impulse, redirected from tangible objects to spiritualized ones.”
Another method of going within—not for communion with God or cultivating artistic creativity but rather for healing—is psychoanalysis, created in the late 19th century by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud.
Jonathan Lear—the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy and is the Roman Family Director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago—shared his experiences as a psychoanalyst to reveal the difficulties involved in the introspective process. While we may be tempted to get lost inside, it is difficult to discover what exactly lies within.
“Freud hit upon the fundamental rule,” said Lear, “’try, if you can, to say whatever it is that comes into your mind without any censorship.’ That’s it.” Though the rule is so elegant and simple, “nobody can follow it,” Lear said. “What is quite astonishing is that as people try to speak their minds, they can’t do it. They fall silent. Often things break into their minds, they get interrupted.” What one discovers is that “a lot of interiority isn’t available to consciousness.”
Paying attention to one’s interior life can be a deeply transformative experience.
But, as Lisa Ruddick—Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago—has found over the course of her academic career, we aren’t always encouraged to look within. The modern university is filled with professors who are like “rolling tanks of knowledge,” who don’t speak from a place of authenticity, who develop defensiveness against vulnerability and spirituality. Though Ruddick is a Buddhist practitioner, she encounters many students who approach her and say: “don’t tell anybody, but I pray.”
To Ruddick, it seems that academia has unfortunately created an environment that corrupts and inhibits the interior life—leading students away from their “true selves.” What students need is “encouragement and nourishment” to that vulnerable part of their souls. They should not feel ashamed for seeking psychotherapy, for praying—for choosing to look within. What worries Ruddick is that intellectual discourse cannot distinguish “between selfish introspection and an amplifying introspection that brings you closer to wisdom.”