Before a soldier goes into battle he must be aware of himself. He must know his own character, his limitations, his strengths and his own spiritual anatomy. This self awareness is the first step towards awareness of God.
Let’s clarify what we mean by getting to know yourself. I am not referring to one’s favorite color, favorite books, or certain foods one likes or dislikes. Nor am I referring to the ideas and information we believe to be true with respect to our worldview. This is not self knowledge, but rather personal preferences, opinions and desires. Self knowledge is awareness of one’s spiritual condition. It is the practice of observing with humility and clarity the various movements inside the soul—in the heart, mind and desires. It is the discovery of the true self with respect to one’s relationship to God. This goes way beyond ones dislike for lima beans and digs deep into the emotions behind why one gets upset or disappointed when one learns that lima beans will be served for dinner. The root causes behind the movements in the mind and heart are what I’m getting at for these are what disturb us and take away our peace.
Regarding self knowledge and knowing God, St. Gregory Palamas said in The Philokalia:
“To know God truly in so far as this is possible is incomparably superior to the philosophy of the Greeks, and similarly to know what place man has in relation to God surpasses all their wisdom.”
--St. Gregory Palamas
Saint Athanasius (†373) summed it up succinctly when he said, “No one can know God without knowing himself.” Here he identifies a direct correlation between self knowledge and knowledge of God. This capacity is built into our very being, and is that which makes humans starkly different from other creatures. As the 18th century German philosopher Leibniz intuited,
“it is the knowledge of necessary and eternal truths that distinguishes us from the mere animals and gives us Reason and the sciences, raising us to the knowledge of ourselves and of God. And it is this in us that is called the rational soul or mind.”
In speaking of this, St. Anthony the Great (†356), the Egyptian hermit who inspired Athanasius, expanded this to include knowledge of the created world and love for all things when he said:
“Whoever has a correct knowledge of himself, also has a correct knowledge of the creatures which God brought [into being] out of nothing; he likewise knows the dignity of the noetic and immortal human spirit…And whoever knows this, knows that one must love God; and whoever loves God, loves everyone.”
--St. Anthony the Great
Here St. Anthony harmonizes the human person with God’s creation, with God—all by way of self knowledge, which leads to love.
Although self knowledge seems like it should come very naturally to all sane people, it is extremely elusive. It may seem even illogical but there are many people who plow through their entire lives without ever getting to know themselves at all. However, those who dig deep into themselves and discover their inner movements have a huge advantage at finding peace and happiness.
The process of getting to know yourself can at times be enlightening and at other times it can be frightening. Prying open the soul and taking a hard look at oneself is not easy. Usually we don’t like what we see, at least in the beginning. It is especially difficult and horrifying for adults who are embarking on this later in life. It requires letting go of one’s self will, brutal honesty, humility, inner prayer and lots of unseen warfare. St Isaac of Syria stresses the connection to self knowledge and humility:
“When a man knows himself, the knowledge of all things is granted to him, for to know one's self is the fullness of the knowledge of all things. In the submission of your soul all things will be submissive unto you. At the time when humility reigns in your manner of life, your soul will submit herself to you, and along with her, all things will be submitted to you, because the peace of God is born in your heart. But so long as you are outside it, you will be unceasingly persecuted not only by the passions, but also by accidents. Truly, O Lord, if we do not humble ourselves, Thou dost not cease to humble us. Real humility is the fruit of knowledge; and true knowledge, the fruit of trials.”
--St. Isaac the Syrian
In this pursuit it’s helpful to learn about the anatomy of self—or rather what makes up a human. This is in fact, the battlefield where we wage this unseen war.