The Soul Care Series: Self-Knowledge

Woman journaling

 At the beginning of this series, I talked about how I was frustrated to see a mainstream publication talk promote tarots as a beneficial way to know more about oneself, so I think the time has come that this series addresses the subject of self-knowledge, which in a way is linked to the previous topic of planning around our heart’s desires. Over my years as a Christian, the question of self-knowledge has been usually dismissed as easily answered: just pray about it. As if people always know how to truly pray and most importantly they know how to discern the response from God. Last Sunday, the Mass readings for the day contained the passage in 1 Kings 19 about the prophet Elijah finding God in the whispering voice after the powerful ways in which God has spoken before did not make him manifest. Bishop Barron in his homily had a great point about how God doesn’t use one way to communicate, and unless you have dramatic experiences that you can’t deny it’s God’s speaking, it’s not as simple as “just pray”. 

Self-knowledge is understanding of oneself or one’s own motives or character. We often think that we know ourselves well when we may miss deeply rooted issues and baggages that make our motives or character as we conceive it come into question. For example, I have a really hard time with the idea of God as a Father who loves me unconditionally. No matter how deep I go into the spiritual life, this small issue (which has some undertones of trust) is always holding me back. I wouldn’t have known to pray for this particular healing without self-knowledge. 

I’ve never had any dramatic circumstances in which I heard God’s voice speak to me directly to tell me I was holding back this part of my heart. While I have some deep experiences with imaginative prayer on good days, more often than not how God speaks to me is through others, and through small things he puts on my path that all say the same thing. If I was convinced that the only way I can hear God is to hear a voice or hear a voice in my heart I would think He never spoke a word to me.

One objection to the idea of knowing oneself as important is that it can make us self-centred, and our society does encourage this kind of thing a bit too much, but if we are to serve the Lord at the best of our abilities it’s helpful to know what those abilities are. To further counter the risk of self-centredness, we can know ourselves through our relationships with others. It’s not just about picking up a journal, writing open letters to God, and answering coaching questions. It’s about taking an honest look at the whole of our selves without putting up appearances. 

Going back to the idea of praying for God to reveal knowledge of ourselves to us, Fr. Jacques Philippe in his book Thirsting for Prayer said that “Prayer introduces us little by little into a real knowledge of God.” From knowing the Father, we begin to see our true identity, which is the way He sees us as His beloved children. We face our shortcomings and we see that we are forgiven and loved as if nothing had ever happened to us. In the safety of this relationship, we can face those areas of our selves that we keep locked away from the eyes of others (and sometimes of ourselves). The artificial construct of our identity that masks our insecurities comes undone little by little. 

This is a key part of healing, and it’s a major reason why self-knowledge is important. Another reason is so that we can discover our particular calling for how our vocation to loving God will manifest in our lives (we know from the Bible that not everyone in the Church has the same gifts). Psychology and other human means can come in handy as ways in which God can speak to us, but it all starts with seeking Him. This is why things like tarots are not a good way to seek knowledge of oneself: they are a tool for divination, which is a way in which we try to take control and power over things that are beyond our control, like knowledge of the future. Catholics should go nowhere near that. 

The proponents of tarots for self-knowledge (like the one on Happiful that sparked this post) talk about how it’s all about self-reflection and how the symbols bring about our own stories of our selves, which makes the reading sound very subjective and, to me, it defeats the point of using an object even before you consider that the symbols have some specific meanings which would control the trajectory of your reflection. The only way for it not to be subjective would be to expect it to say something to us by its own nature as a symbol, which then brings us back to the reason why the Church condemns the use of tarots. 

The Catholic tradition is full of wisdom and different ways to help us discern the answer to our prayers with reference to the question of knowing ourselves and discerning our way forward in circumstances when the answer is not immediately clear-cut, and for the rest, we just have to surrender ourselves to Providence and trust that even if we don’t see the outcome ahead of its time all things work together for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28). 

My favourites 

The Grit and Virtue newsletter, which comes full with thought-provoking messages and articles as well as often with coaching questions that I take to Adoration.
The Program of Life. I don’t have a spiritual director at present and my last experience with one did not work for me, but the idea of treating the spiritual life like a fitness training of sorts really resonates with me. 
The Examen. Ok, I know, it came up almost every week…I guess it’s just so fundamental to me. This article links it specifically to the issue of self-awareness.
Spiritual Gifts Test and Myers-Briggs personality test. Some people are wary of taking tests because they see them as being crutches we hide behind, or something that limits us in what we do in life because it doesn’t fit in the box we’re given, but I think they are useful starting points to see your strengths and weaknesses and know where you need to work on yourself or pray for something and where instead you are good and you can focus your energies in serving in a way that clicks with who God made you to be. 

Rooted in the Word 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Romans 12:2-8 (NRSVACE)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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