Only the opening "yes"
April 2013 — Vol. 2, Issue 8
“Self-knowledge is so important,” writes St. Teresa of Avila at the beginning of The Interior Castle, “that I never want you to stop cultivating it.” Just a little later she reiterates that “self-awareness is your most important task.”
For St. Teresa of Avila, the journey into the interior castle of our souls to intimate union with God necessarily begins with good and true knowledge of ourselves, which she refers to as “humility.”
In a way, we can say that St. Teresa sees self-awareness as the principal fount of grace in our pilgrimages through this world. When we know ourselves well, God is able to pour grace upon grace into our lives because we are living in the truth of who we are, and ultimately the truth of who God is as well.
It is why we can also say that the discernment of our vocations begins with good and true knowledge of ourselves. There is no substitute or work around for not knowing and being aware of who we are. That is the first ingredient in discovering who we are being called to become in and with God. And so, we must be about the business of coming to know ourselves better and be more aware of who we are – both through silent reflection on our own and through interaction and conversations with others.
At the same time, however, we must be careful not to turn our pursuit of self-knowledge into a never-ending quest by expecting to know ourselves fully and completely and perfectly in this life. Then self-knowledge just becomes an idol. As St. Teresa of Avila writes, “Even though it is by the grace of God that the soul practices knowing herself, you can, as the saying goes, have too much of a good thing.”
There is a real way in which all of us will remain mysteries to ourselves in this life. The task of coming to know who we are is one we will never be able to exhaust in a lifetime on this earth. St. Paul makes this exact point, interestingly enough, right after speaking so eloquently about love (which is at the heart of all of our vocations) in 1 Corinthians 13: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (13:12).
The fact that we can only know ourselves partially is something that can easily give rise to fears in our hearts. We can become paralyzed, especially in discerning and then making the life-long commitments to which vocations invite us. How are we ever to make a commitment for life when I cannot even know myself fully now, let alone project who I will be in the future?
Yet, as St. Teresa of Avila writes, “What we really should be afraid of is obsessing over ourselves and never getting free of ourselves.” In other words, we must be careful not to get so obsessed with getting to know ourselves so fully and so perfectly that we get so caught up in ourselves that we never really set out on the pilgrimage of life – a pilgrimage that ultimately leads us into the other who is our neighbor, ourselves, and ultimately our God.
Viewed in this light we can see vocations for what they truly are: They are not the culmination or the end of self-knowledge and self-awareness; in fact, in many ways, they are the first real step in coming to discover and to be aware of who we really and truly are.
Yes, we need a certain level of self-knowledge and self-awareness to commit to our vocations. That is certainly true. Nevertheless, our vocations are only the opening word, the opening “yes” – rather than the final “yes” – in the journey of discovering who we are.
We see that most beautifully in Mary, the Mother of Jesus. When the Angel Gabriel visited her and invited her to her vocation as the Mother of God, Mary had come to enough self-knowledge to realize that this was the path made for her and to give her “yes.” It was her humble self-awareness that opened her to be “full of grace.” Yet along the way, there was so much more Mary had to learn and did learn about herself. She was still a beautiful mystery to herself. She was only just beginning to know herself. That is why she “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Those who have persevered and found joy and new life through the twists, turns, and, yes, even the stumbles, of their vocations for 5, 10, 25, or even 50 years, usually say that they now know more deeply why God invited them to their particular calling. As much as they thought they knew on the day of their Final Vows, or Ordination, or Wedding, why they were called to be a priest, or a religious, or to marry that person, they were only just beginning to discover why, to discover who they really and truly are in God. And needless to say, there are usually more than a few surprises along the way! The mystery of who we are simply continues to unfold in God’s grace.
And so what are we to do? How are we to obtain the self-knowledge and self-awareness we need to set out on our vocations without getting caught in ourselves and obsessing over who we are?
The advice of St. Teresa of Avila, in the end, is quite simple: “Let us set our eyes on Christ, our good, and on his saints. That is where we learn true humility. Then our understanding will be enhanced. Then self-knowledge will not make us timid and cowardly.”
It is self-knowledge and self-awareness that has been bathed in the light of Christ and His love for us – a light and a love reflected above all in the lives of the saints – that we come to the truth about ourselves. Yes, it is a truth that is still indistinct and partial, as in a mirror, but it is also still a truth that, as Jesus promised, we can trust to set us free to dive into the mystery of ourselves and of our God for the rest of our lives – not just in this world, but in the world to come (cf John 8:32).
For the One who calls us is faithful, and He will always see the “good work He has begun in us to completion” (Phil 1:6).
Prayer from the Tradition
Prayer of the Invocation of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
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