In a way it is quite simple. To be a spirit is to be a self. To be a self is to be self-conscious. It is to be able to say “I am”, and to be aware of myself in the act of being myself, in relation to all other things that are not myself. We assume, but
cannot prove, that other animals do not have this self-awareness. (Nothing in what follows would need to be changed if that turned out to be false.) As both St Augustine and, later, Descartes, saw, “I am” is about as obvious as anything gets.
So we can’t avoid philosophy. The more we reflect on the experience of prayer, the more we are forced to adopt a phenomenological approach, meaning a reflection on phenomena as experienced by the subject. But it is a sad fact that philosophers quickly get themselves into a tangle. So, for example, the question arises of how phenomenology avoids sliding into solipsism – the idea that only I exist. I wrote about this in in Beauty in the Word (Endnote 5). It seems to me now I should add, following Balthasar, that the “I” comes to consciousness of itself through relationship with another (such as the mother); all else that exists situates itself “in between” selves and in relation to them. It is the love between I and Thou that “creates the distance of the I from everything else,” as D.C. Schindler writes in his article on “Metaphysics Within the Limits of Phenomenology.” If we accept this, we find there is no problem of “intersubjectivity,” as there was for Edmund Husserl (founder of phenomenology).
Phenomenology also proves the existence of God. Within myself I can distinguish two levels of “I am” (equivalent to Balthasar’s “fourth distinction”). My “I” is precarious, and needs to be sustained from moment to moment. It is therefore something “received,” even if the source remains mysterious. Edith Stein talks about this in Finite and Eternal Being (p. 55). Experience proves to me that there must be a deeper “I” that is secure and eternal (p. 59), for I exist and yet I do not contain my own reason for existing. I am not my own ground. That which sustains me must be its own act of existing, must be “necessary” being, otherwise I would not exist – and nor would anything else. This I AM (capital letters) is “closer to me than I am to myself.”
I AM is the God within – within everything. This phenomenological insight is confirmed by the revelation to Moses that God’s name is I AM. He tells the reluctant prophet, “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:15). God’s name is himself. It is so sacred that the Jews only allowed the High Priest to pronounce it once a year in the Holy of Holies – the “secret room” of Israel. When God says “I” it is the very act of Being, the primordial act of language, the principial Word.