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Fr Billy Swan

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. Could you do it? Hardly.

Yet this is what our culture is asking us to do – to know ourselves and become ourselves, without the aid of something or someone who acts as a kind of mirror to help us to see ourselves as we truly are. This is the culture often described as the culture of self-invention where the power of the human will determines who we are and who we want to be. But does this stand up to scrutiny? Can we really know ourselves without reference to someone else or do we need a mirror to see all there is to see?

In the Scriptures, the Psalmist prays: “O God, you search me and you know me…You created my innermost self, knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139). Here is an acknowledgement 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 self was seen and understood. Take for example the person of Zacchaeus whom everyone detested because of his unjust tax collecting. To a disapproving mob, Jesus declared that “this too is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). By his encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus held up a mirror to him and helped him see his divine dignity.

To the prodigal son who had also lost sight of his dignity and begged to be treated as a hired servant, his father’s welcome and celebration held up a mirror before him so that he could see that he was still his son (cf. Luke 15:11ff). When Jesus first met Peter, we are told that the Lord “stared at him” (Jn. 1:42) with a look of love that pierced him through, implying 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 (cf. 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 and boasted he was willing to die with Christ. But again, Jesus’s look of mercy held up a mirror that revealed his cowardice and fear. This was the same loving gaze that fell on Peter after his denials, 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.

This importance of knowing God and knowing oneself was picked up by St Paul when he famously 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). In this text, Paul admits that his present knowledge of God is only partial but will be fully revealed in the future. He then connects this knowledge of God with knowledge of himself. He believes that only God fully knows him and so to know himself as God knows him will only take place over time. Knowledge of God holds the key to knowing himself.

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” (Jam. 1:23-24).

The great St Augustine developed this theme of knowing God and oneself perhaps more than anyone in the history of the Church. 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”. He then prays: “O unchanging God, let me know myself; let me know you. That is my prayer” (Sol. I, 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). Elsewhere he closely connects knowing/loving oneself and knowing/loving God: “Do you want to love yourself? Love God with your whole self and you will find yourself. If you stay confined within yourself, you will lose yourself. If you only love yourself, you will fall away from yourself and go wandering among things that are outside yourself” (Sermon 179a, 4). 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” (Sermon 330, 3).

In the Twelfth century, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) pointed out that “if you lack self-knowledge you will possess neither the fear of God nor humility” (On the Song of Songs II, Sermon 36, 5-7). St Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) directed the gaze of believers to the mirror of the cross. He wrote: “Christ who is your life is hanging before you, so that you may look at the Cross as in a mirror…Nowhere other than looking at himself in the mirror of the cross can man better understand how much he is worth” (Sermones Dominicales et Festivi III, pp. 213-214). Similarly, St Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) urged her sisters to look daily into the mirror who is Christ: “Look into this mirror every day, O Queen, spouse of Jesus Christ.... In this mirror shine blessed poverty, holy humility, and charity beyond words” (Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, FF, 2901-2903).

Another great saint who has much to teach on this topic of self-knowledge is St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). She writes: “Reflect on this my dearest children. 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: that through no merit of hers but by his creation she is the image of God” (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).

According to Blaise Paschal (1623-1662), knowledge of God is required for us to see both our dignity and pride: “Knowledge of God without knowing our own poverty makes for pride. Knowledge of our own poverty without knowing God makes for despair . Knowledge of Jesus Christ lets us be present both to God and to our poverty” (Pensees, 8, 556).

In more modern times, drawing from this rich body of Scripture and tradition, Vatican II stated that: “Only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). 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, not even understands who he is” (Caritas et Veritate, 70). Finally, for Pope Francis, vocational discernment by young people involves seeking “that unique and mysterious plan that God has for each of us… It has to do with the meaning of my life before the Father who knows and loves me, and with the real purpose of my life, which nobody knows better than he” (Christ is Alive, 280).

With all this in mind, it must be admitted that in our increasingly secular culture, the more we lose sight of the person of Christ and the more the Christian story recedes from our collective memory, the more we human beings are forced to make a self-referential interpretation of our existence. In the absence of an interpretative mirror, the question: “Who do you think you are?” can be confusing for many and an answer elusive. While the Christian narrative functioned as a source of meaning for centuries, it is receding from the cultural horizon with no alternative narrative to replace it. As people like Justin Brierley have pointed out, this loss of Christ and the Christian story from humanity’s horizon is “leading to a lack of meaning, an identity crisis and the anxiety produced by living in a world without a story to live by” (The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, 63).

So, 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. While I have been born to parents and into a family in a specific 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 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 that future, Christ calls me to be his disciple, to be part of his Church community, to do his work and to make a difference. This vocation that he has given me fills my life with meaning. My existence began in God and is sustained by God. My future and destiny is to be united to the mystery of that divine love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is me. This is who I am. So never be afraid to look into this mirror. For it is only in this mirror can we see the truth of who we truly are. Lord, help me to know you and know myself. Amen."


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