“It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is great stupidity, our own is in comparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies, and have a vague idea, because w have heard it and because Faith tells us so, that we possess souls.”Interior Castle: Mansion 1, Chapter 1 by Teresa of Avila
I have read Interior Castle three times fully, across two different translations of the original Spanish text, and referred to particular chapters over the years in my own personal study.
Often, I come back to this singular paragraph above. The section just before it reflects on the immeasurable beauty of the human soul since it was made in God’s image, and if God’s beauty is unfathomable, then so it our soul. That paragraph brought me to tears once in the King of Prussia food court just after I had gotten myself a coffee. Apprehending the beauty of our own souls means little if we have not even the slightest awareness that we even have souls, that we even have a personhood. James Finley says, “It is possible to go your whole life without ever meeting the person who lived your life.”
Self-awareness is more important than people realize. Often, in Christian circles we are taught to be self-less but you cannot “deny yourself” if you never even understood you had a self to begin with. Throughout church history (which, believe it or not, goes much further back than just the American authors you see at Barnes and Noble), there have been many saints and holy fools who wrote on the importance of knowing yourself.
- Do you know yourself?
- Do you know your wounds?
- Do you know the traumas that you act out in response to?
- Are you aware of the ways you have fallen into grooves or patterns of thought or behavior?
- Are you even willing to look in the mirror with courage and compassion?
- Again, how well do you know yourself, your own interior landscape?
The failure of the church to encourage and teach people to take an honest look at themselves is the reason we have so few saints and holy fools today. Why is this? Because what you deny or repress comes back in sneaky and more disruptive ways, and its hard to be a saint when you are incapable of self-reflection.
Teresa of Avila comments that the first three things anyone needs on the spiritual journey are…
- and Self-Awareness.
It is possible that many of us start our journey with one, or two of these things, get frustrated and so dive into the same one or two things with deeper resolution and fervor… only to get frustrated again.
So let’s define the terms, shall we?
- Prayer is the conscious awareness of the infinite closeness of the infinitely transcendent God, and the resulting connection or union with God can use words or just a directing of the will toward God.
- Humility is the honest appraisal of ourselves, not just of our faults but also of our victories. Truly humble people accept accurate correction as well as accurate compliments.
- Self-Awareness is the conscious knowledge of things about ourselves that were previously unknown, denied, repressed, etc. This is the opposite of Self-Ignorance, and operating out of processes and habits without knowing it.
With these three items/skills/virtues listed, can you tell which one you need more of? Can you assess which one you may have left behind in favor of the others?
It is my understanding that many of us have an understanding of Prayer that only defines it as conversation, but not presence. Many of us understand Humility in regards to “how well we can put ourselves down.” Many of us struggle to grow in Self-Awareness because it demands looking at the ways we have suffered, continue to suffer, and perhaps inflict suffering on others around us.
Unfortunately, we tend to understand spiritual growth according to the metric of how moral we are. Spiritual growth then has the potential to be co-opted by the larger culture telling us how to be “moral,” but spiritual growth should never be at the whim or definition of what culture says.
Growth on the spiritual journey is a complicated and simple matter. It is a windy and straight road, with many turns but only one destination. Although we have difficulty defining what a soul is, it at least concerns us with the deepest and truest parts of ourselves, the God-given gift of being Imago Dei and being aware of it. Do not take your own soul lightly, it is of immeasurable worth and beauty, and so carry it with prayer, humility and self-awareness.