Knowing God and Knowing Self

There’s a paradox in the life of faith, attested to across religious traditions, culture, time, place and religious orientations: The more we come to know God, the more we come to know ourselves; and at the same time, the more we know ourselves, the more we know God. This is to say that these two forms of spiritual knowledge seem to exist in a feedback loop of positive reinforcement. As we saw the other day, Julian of Norwich understood this to be the case because the soul is “always like God in nature” (Ch 43); no matter how far we may stray from God’s ways, in our deepest parts we are always tethered to God; the soul can be thought therefore as a kind of anchor. And so it stands to reason by this analogy, that if we want to have communion with God, we need to find our soul; and likewise, if we want to know our soul — our truest self, heart, and identity — we would do well to find God. Julian explores this idea in the fifty-sixth chapter of her Revelations of Divine Love, and I’d like to look at this more closely in today’s post.

She begins this reflection:

And so I saw most surely that it is quicker for us and easier to come to the knowledge of God than it is to know our own soul. For our soul is so deeply grounded in God and so endlessly treasured that we cannot come to knowledge of it until we first have knowledge of God, who is the Creator to whom it is united. (Ch 56)

This is a shocking assertion, that the infinite and incomprehensible God is somehow more accessible to us than our own very finite selves, and yet it also somehow feels accurate. We are so often mysteries to ourselves. We struggle to figure out who we really are beneath all the external stuff — the conditioning of social expectations, our neuroses, the impacts of traumas big and small, and the instincts and desires that seem to pull us in opposite directions at once. By comparison, even in God’s ‘wholly otherness,’ God has revealed Godself to us in myriad ways. It may be hard to climb a mountain and know it intimately, but at least you can see it from far away. To use a slightly different analogy, I’m reminded here of the story of Odysseus. His goal is to return home to his wife Penelope; but it won’t do him any good as he’s sailing across the Aegean Sea to look for her. In order to find Penelope, he needs to find Ithaca, his island home. So too, according to Julian, is it “quicker for us and easier” to find God — in whom our souls dwell — than it is to find our souls. First things first, as they say.

Since both quests, the searches for knowledge of the Self and of God, end up in the same place, both are good:

And so by the leading through grace of the Holy Spirit we shall know them both in one; whether we are moved to know God or our soul, either motion is good and true. God is closer to us than our own soul, for he is the foundation on which our soul stands, and he is the mean which keeps the substance [i.e., the soul’s nature] and the sensuality [i.e., the embodied life of the senses] together, so that they will never separate. For our soul sits in God in true rest, and our soul stands in God in sure strength, and our soul is naturally rooted in God in endless love. And therefore if we want to have knowledge of our soul, and communion and discourse with it, we must seek in our Lord God in whom it is enclosed. (Ch 56)

So far, Julian’s discussion seems one-directional: In order to find and understand who we really we, we need first to find and know God. But the opposite, she says, is also true:

And all this notwithstanding, we can never come to to the full knowledge of God until we first clearly know our own soul. For until the time that it is in its full powers, we cannot be all holy; and that is when our sensuality by the power of Christ’s Passion can be brought up into the substance, with all the profits of our tribulation which our Lord will make us obtain through mercy and grace. (Ch 56)

This is the other part of the feedback loop: The more we understand ourselves, the more see see who we really and truly are in God, the more clearly we will be able to see, know, and understand God.

Irrespective of which quest may ‘come first’ at any point in life, it remains that both are important and life-giving and undertaken with God’s full support. As Julian writes:

God wants us to understand, desiring with all our heart and all our strength to have knowledge of them, always more and more until the time that we are fulfilled; for to know them fully and to see them clearly is nothing else than endless joy and bliss, which we shall have in heaven, which God wants us to begin here in knowledge of his love. For we cannot profit by our reason alone, unless we have, coming from the same foundation, mercy and grace.

What a fascinating and powerful understanding this is: The more we understand God, the better we can understand ourselves; the more we know ourselves, the more we can know God.


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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