St. Augustine, in his Confessions, offered this simple statement: “Noverim me, noverim te.”
“If I knew myself, I should have known Thee.”1
There is probably no writing in the life of the early Church as “self-reflective” as Augustine’s. His Confessions have sometimes been called the first “modern” writing. They are certainly the first writing that can properly be described as “autobiographical.” He gives us the first truly “interior” view of an ancient subject. And, though he was writing 1500 years ago, his work feels contemporary. I can say that his Confessions are the first ancient work I ever read in which it was possible to forget their antiquity.
There is a genius in his writings, not only of style, but of insight. A case in point is the statement: “Noverim me, noverim te.” It has the economy and beauty of the very best Latin style. It also happens to be true – both then, and now. If ours is a psychological age – then Augustine is our first example. We still think in a manner that rhymes with him.2
Christ famously taught, “And this is eternal life: that they might know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (Jn. 17:3). Salvation is described in terms of knowing God. But, Augustine is also correct. We do not yet know ourselves. How is it possible for us to know God?
The answer, I think, is a “package deal.” In that we are created in the image and likeness of God, we cannot know Him and not know ourselves, nor can we know ourselves unless we know Him. However, saying this begs ever so many questions. What does it mean to know yourself? It is a question that can be as slippery as the problem of consciousness. Science and philosophy both draw blanks when it comes to explaining, or even giving a definition of consciousness. And yet, we all have it and we all “know” it.
My own experience and reflection on the question of self-knowledge is that the “self” (I would gladly use some other term if I could find a better one) is hidden. St. Paul says as much in Colossians 3:
“Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” (vs. 2-4)
He not only says that our “life” (the self in its true form) is “hidden,” but that it is something that will be fully revealed when Christ is fully revealed. It’s the package deal.
But if the true self is hidden, what are we experiencing as the self in this present moment?
Stuff. Lots of it.
Our inner lives are often quite noisy. Highly selective memories ladened with emotions and colored with varieties of shame combined with a cultural bombardment of noise, engineered to excite the passions, serve as a layered cocoon beneath which is the self, often unattended and little recognized. Instead, we “identify” with the stuff. We work with the noise in an effort to make it more bearable, both for ourselves and for those around us.
Our moral efforts strive to make the noise behave, often achieving little more than making our noise conform to the noise we see around us. The whole effort, including our reflections and reading, often do little more than push our inner fog into various shapes. Nothing becomes clear.
The gospels give a glimpse of something different. There we see Christ encounter individuals whose identities would seem at odds with what He is asking them to do. Matthew, a tax-collector, is called to be an Apostle. Fishermen are called to become theologians. As often as not, people are given new names. The Hidden God is calling the hidden man, like calls to like. Slowly, they begin to see who (and what) He is, only to discover that they are other than they had imagined.
They do not “know” Jesus, at first, nor do they “know” themselves. Both things unfold over time, in union with each other. God’s knowledge of us is striking:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jer. 1:5)
The self whom we do not yet know is known to God, and it is God alone who reveals us to ourselves. This is without the distortions of the noise and passions that darken our understanding and rob us of our sight.
It is this reality that drives the constant refrain in the Church’s Tradition regarding noetic understanding. The nous is the eye of the soul, the faculty by which we know God, and thus the faculty by which we know ourselves.
I have been told any number of times by readers and others that they have no idea what is meant by the nous. It is not surprising. Our culture lives by passion-driven consumerism, while “relationships” are often false constructs of shame and protection (self-created “identities”). Repeatedly, the Fathers of the Church urge us to embrace hesychia (stillness). The point of that stillness is, over time, the gradual increase in noetic awareness – growth in the knowledge of Christ rather than the mere religious training of our noise.
Most importantly (n.b.), the path in the knowledge of the self comes as we pursue the knowledge of Christ. It is not our invention. It is His revelation to us. It is knowledge of the self that God knows “before He formed you in the womb.”
The Greek philosopher, Socrates, famously said, “Know thyself.” Apart from Christ, such an effort would likely yield something less than the true self (though it certainly might raise many good questions). Christ does not say, “Know thyself.” Instead, He teaches us to know God (as He has revealed Himself in Christ). The reality of self-knowledge comes over time, I believe, with prayer, with worship, with a faithful abiding in the commandments of Christ, and through the practice of thanksgiving.
In that straightforward pursuit of God, we slowly set aside our pretensions, our fears, our delusions – all that distracts us from knowing Christ. Over time, we allow Him to tell us the story of ourselves. It is a love story that began before we were formed in the womb and will continue without end.
Fearfully and wonderfully made, the truth will unfold in us in fear and wonder.