We live in times collectively marked by pride. And, while pride is a problem of the human condition that has beset us from the very beginnings of paradise lost, our modern age, with the rise of atheism, rejection of God, scorn for the metaphysical, and a hyper-emphasis of the “autonomous” self, pride has taken an even more prominent place.
Largely absent from the modern psyche is any deep notion that we are contingent beings, radically dependent on things, people and factors outside our “autonomous” self. Even before we bring God into the discussion, we seem less aware today that our existence and capacity to survive is deeply rooted in thousands, if not millions of factors outside us and beyond our immediate control.
Thank God (oops, did I say that?!), that your parents met, and your great grandparents, and your great, great, great, great…grandparents met, in all the combinations necessary for you to exist. Otherwise, no you!
And let us not forget the trillions of other things necessary for all those human combinations to have happened. The earth has kept its almost perfect circular orbit at just the right distance from the Sun; the Sun and all that is necessary for its working has kept its stable burn, with no big flares or dimishments; the Van Allen belts have been up and running in the high atmosphere to deflect harmful radiation from the earth; the asteroid belt has collected asteroids and kept then from hurling on earth, Jupiter and Saturn are out there catching comets for us and keeping them away; every part of every cell of your body is functioning at a high rate of success, every molecule, and every atom too….well you get the point. We are very contingent beings.
To say that we are contingent beings is to say that our existence is not necessary, does not explain itself, and is the result of other factors and people, not us. Our existence is neither necessary, likely, nor even all that predictable.
We have discussed on the blog before that, according to the playful (but probably understated) odds of a mathematician the probability of you or I existing at all is 1 in 102,685,000. That’s a number so huge it hurts to think about it. (More on that article here: On the “Non-Probability” of your existence). There is no such thing as a “self-made man.” We are contingent, VERY contingent.
Our existence, is astonishingly unlikely and I would say miraculous. That you or I am here at all is almost inexplicable, given the number of things and people necessary for us to exist.
Even before one brings God into the picture, a little humility is called for here based on how remarkably contingent and dependent we are are. For all the braggadocio of modern man, and all our talk about autonomy, Nietzschean Existentialism, “uberman”, self-determination, self-referentialism and all other anthropocentric, prideful and bold assertions, we look pretty pathetic, when we realize how dependent and contingent we really are.
In a certain sense we barely exist at all, so dependent are we on things and people outside our self. If you can read this, thank a teacher, If you exist at all thank ten trillion (I am not exaggerating) other factors, forces and people.
And how about thanking God? Frankly everything that exists in this created world is contingent and highly unlikely by itself. At some point everything cannot exist based on nothing. There must be some one or something that is “existence itself” and does not depend on, or stand on anything, or anyone before it. And that something, that someONE we call God.
God is not some other thing in the universe, or even outside the universe. He is existence itself. To deny the existence of a non-contingent being is to deny yourself, for something cannot ultimately stand on nothing. There has to be a foundation that depends on nothing else to stand, that explains itself. For other things to subsist, there must be one who exists, who is existence itself. And that someone we call God.
All of this came to mind the other day as I was reading The Life of St Catherine of Siena by her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua. In that work he relates a conversation that St. Catherine had with Jesus (which Catherine also relates in the Dialogue). In this conversation Jesus reminds Catherine of her contingency and dependance. He also gives Catherine the secret of overcoming pride so that our ancient enemy will never outwit us. Blessed Raymond recounts the dialogue of Jesus with Catherine in this way:
The holy Virgin told her confessors, of who, though unworthy, I was one, that, at the beginning of her visions, when the Lord Jesus Christ first began to appear to her, he said, “Do you know, daughter, who you are, And who I am? If you know these two things, you will be blessed. You are she is not; whereas I am He who is. Have this knowledge in you and the enemy will never deceive you…“
[Blessed Raymond continues]: A succinct doctrine… Oh, Immeasurable wisdom, wrapped in a few brief syllables…”You,” said the Lord, “are she who is not.” Indeed, all creatures are made from nothing, for “to create” means to make something from nothing. When creatures are left to themselves they tend to return to nothing, and if the creator ceased for one moment to preserve them in existence, they would rapidly be reduced to nothing again. … The Apostle says, “…for if any man think himself to be something, whereas he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3). … And Jesus says “For without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
And [Blessed Raymond continues] here is a healing remedy, for what wound of pride can enter into a soul that knows itself to be nothing? Who can glory in anything he does? And thus, all vices are driven out by the words, “You are not”.
And here too are many anxieties diminished. For, as Blessed Raymond attests, “Whenever I or any of the other friars was afraid of any danger, Catherine would say, “What have you to do with yourselves? Leave it to Divine Providence. However much afraid you are, Providence still has his eyes on you and is always aiming at your salvation.” [Pages 62-65, selected verses].
And thus, a sense of our contingency, that compared to God, you and are “are not”; is a remedy for pride. In an era of pride, of a false and excessive sense of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and that we can “craft” reality and answer to no one, a simple reminder of our contingency is essential. And here it is given and it is put in a way that only a Saint can relate: “You are she who is not… I (the Lord) am He who IS.”
Have this knowledge in you you and you will be blessed, and the ancient enemy will never deceive you. For by this knowledge is the back of pride broken and is the basis for all humility formed.