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a man closely reading the Scriptures

Who Do You Think You Are?

February 22, 2024

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Imagine if you had never seen yourself in a mirror or viewed an image of yourself in water. Along comes a friend who asks you to describe yourself and your features. Would it be possible? Hardly. 

Yet this is what our culture is asking us to do—to know ourselves without the aid of something or someone who acts as a kind of mirror to help us to see ourselves objectively. This is the culture often described by Bishop Barron as one of self-invention, where the power of the human will determines who we are and who we want to be. But can we really know ourselves without a reference from someone or something else?

In the Bible, the Word of God acts as a kind of mirror that enables us to see both our shadows and high calling. In the Old Testament, the prophet Nathan is sent by God to David, and while telling him a story of a greedy rich man, held up a mirror before David, who was appalled by this man’s behavior. David was shocked into repentance when Nathan said to him: “You are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7). On the positive side, in Psalm 139, the author prays: “O God, you search me and you know me. . . . You created my innermost self, knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Here is an acknowledgment of a basic truth that we easily forget—that we did not create ourselves but have been created by Another who knows us. In the New Testament, Jesus came to reveal the Father to humanity but also to reveal humanity to itself. Through his teaching, actions, and interactions with people, his life was a kind of mirror in which people’s true selves were seen.

For example, when Jesus first met Peter, we are told that the Lord “stared at him” (John 1:42). This hard look implies that Christ knew everything about him. When Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from the path of suffering, Jesus held up a mirror to Peter that must have shocked him, revealing to him that his words were not motivated by God but by Satan (Matt. 16:23; Mark 8:33). Jesus had the measure of Peter and anticipated his failings. At the Last Supper, Peter was full of false courage, but Jesus predicted his denials. After his sin, Jesus’ loving stare again fell on Peter, causing him to weep bitterly—a gaze of love but also of truth that enabled Peter to see the flaws in his human nature that he could not see for himself.

Without God, man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is.

This theme of knowing God and knowing oneself was picked up by St. Paul when he wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. At present, I know partially; then I shall know fully as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Here, Paul admits that his present knowledge of God is partial but will be fully revealed in the future. He then connects this knowledge of God with knowledge of himself. Knowledge of God holds the key to knowing who he is too.

In his letter, St. James describes the Word of God as a kind of mirror that is needed to know ourselves: “Anyone who listens to the Word and takes no action is like someone who looks at his own features in a mirror and, once he has seen what he looks like, goes off and immediately forgets it” (James 1:23-24).

Perhaps more than anyone in the history of the Church, St. Augustine (354-430) developed this theme of knowing God and oneself. At the beginning of his Soliloquies, we find the following exchange between himself and his interlocutor, Reason:

Reason: “What then do you want to know?” 
Augustine: “I wish to know God and the soul.”
Reason: “Nothing more?” 
Augustine: “Nothing at all.” 

Augustine then prays: “O unchanging God, let me know myself; let me know you. That is my prayer” (Sol. 1.2.7; 2.1.1).

Like St. Paul, Augustine believed that only God knows the mystery of who he is and therefore knowing himself is a grace he prays for: “O Lord, you alone know what I am . . . there is much about me that even my spirit does not know” (Confessions 10.5.7). For Augustine, to live without God is to run away from ever knowing yourself: “When you leave God out of your life and love only yourself, you flee from yourself” (Sermons 330.3).

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Another great saint who has much to teach on this topic of self-knowledge is St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). She writes: “We can see neither our own dignity nor the defects which spoil the beauty of our soul, unless we look at ourselves in the peaceful sea of God’s being in which we are imaged” (Look at Yourself in the Water). For Catherine, God is a gentle mirror in which we see all that we need to see: “In the gentle mirror of God, the believer sees her own dignity” (Dialogue, 13, 48). With the words of God on her lips, Catherine urges us to be “born anew in the stable of self-knowledge, where by grace you will find me born in your soul” (Dialogue, 157).

In more modern times, Vatican II declared that: “Only in the mystery of the Word made flesh, the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). In continuity with the Council’s teaching, Pope St John Paul II taught that “a human being . . . cannot answer the question about who he or she is without at the same time declaring who his or her God is” (1st Jan. 1985). Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI stated with typical laconic clarity: “Without God, man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is” (Caritas et Veritate, 70).

Therefore, in the light of this wisdom, what then is the answer to the question “Who do you think you are?” The following is an attempted answer, sketched in the mirror of Christ and the Christian story.

“I believe I am a beloved child of a God who created me, who knows me, and loves me. Because he created me, my Creator knows me better than I know myself. Therefore, the better I know God, the more I come to know and understand myself as well. While I have been born to parents, a family, and in a specific culture, place, and time, my identity is not limited to these particulars but is transcended by a higher divine identity that God has conferred upon me at my baptism and that comes from my faith in Christ.

I am connected to my fellow human beings in a bond of solidarity and compassion. I am part of a wonderful universe, created by the same God who created me. I can only know myself in relation to the world I am part of.

By keeping Christ’s humanity and divinity before me like a mirror, I see myself as I truly am. I see my gifts, my dignity, and my call to be a saint. I also see my imperfections, my faults, and sins. I can see these blemishes only in the light of his beauty and goodness. God’s Word in Scripture tells me that although I am one of billions who have ever lived, I still matter and am unique.

As I make my pilgrim way on earth towards my destiny with God, Christ calls me to be his disciple, to be part of the Church community, to do his work, and to make a difference. I belong to him. The vocation he has given me fills my life with meaning. My existence began in God and is sustained by God. My future is to be united to the mystery of that divine love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Being united to that love now and in the future is the key to my joy. This is who I am.”

The psychologist Carl Jung once said that “modern man confronts himself as a stranger” (Mysterium Coniunctionis, 498). Let us not be strangers to ourselves but know ourselves in the mirror of Christ and his Word. Let us make the prayer of St Augustine our own: “Lord, help me to know you and know myself.”