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Knowing God: Wholeness & Self-Knowledge

In our contemporary world, we understand that psychological growth and spiritual growth are intricately linked. A mature relationship with the divine demands, and is supported by, a striving for psychological wholeness. This has also long been understood by the great spiritual guides of the past.

John Calvin in 1536 said: 'There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.' And his contemporary from a very different theological stable, Teresa of Avila, also emphasised in her letters of spiritual guidance: 'For never, however exalted the soul may be, is anything more fitting than self-knowledge... without it everything else goes wrong. Knowing ourselves is sometimes so important that I would not want any relaxation ever in this regard, however high you may have climbed into the heavens... let us strive to make progress in self-knowledge.' So our psychological wholeness and spiritual holiness are both part of our holistic journey to our True Self in God.

Our 'holiness' can be understood as our 'at-one-ness' with God - where we find our wholeness in body, soul and spirit. In 'holiness' we are made complete in God, and our longing for holiness is a call to absolute union with the Holy One. Madeline L'Engle once said, 'It is no coincidence that the root word of whole, health, heal, holy is hale. If we are healed, we become whole; we are hale and hearty; we are holy.' The aim of spiritual direction is to encourage and enhance that connection with, and awareness of, God in all things and in all places in our lives.

In the Gospels Jesus himself offers us a clear invitation to self-knowledge: 'Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye but do not notice the log in your own eye?... First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour's eye.' The call here is clearly to one of self-awareness. The writer of Psalm 51:6 also recognises God wants us to be honest with ourselves :'You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.'

One helpful way to understand the path to deeper self-knowledge and awareness is

Johari's Window

This looks at the relationship between what is known or not to us about ourselves, and what is known or not to others about us. The upper left quadrant is the open or public self. This is the part of me that I am open to showing the world, the part of me that is both known to me and known to others. The purpose of working with the Johari Window is to expand this open quadrant growing in self-awareness, while diminishing the other three.

The upper right quadrant is my blind side. These are things I am not aware of in my life. Others can see this side of me, but I am blind to it. I can expand my open self if I am willing to hear others when they share what can sometimes be painful feedback, if we are willing to grow through the pain.

The lower left quadrant is my hidden self. It is known to me, but unknown to others. This may include bad habits, sin in our lives, things we are not proud to admit and would like to keep from the light of day - much of our own inner brokenness. This quadrant shrinks in two ways, through self-disclosure or exposure.

The lower right quadrant is my unknown self. This quadrant reduces through other's observations, self-discovery, and shared discovery. This is in Jungian terms our Shadow, and I have written on how it contains both negative and positive things that need to be integrated into a more holistic sense of who we are. To embrace those things of ourselves we don't know, or keep hidden, requires both vulnerability and the willingness to face our own brokenness. Not facing our Shadow results in us 'splitting' from parts of ourselves that will often go on influencing us unhelpfully, in unseen ways, as we react to life trapped without self-awareness in unconscious patterns.

I also talk in my article 'Living with Paradox' about how the Old Testament Hebrew root of the word 'shalom' or 'peace' significantly has the same root as the Hebrew word for wholeness 'sheleimut;' Shalom encompasses a sense of wholeness and fullness. And when we lack that psychological wholeness our spiritual experiences, although perhaps momentarily satisfying, tend to remain unintegrated and disconnected parts of our experience. Wholeness is not about eliminating our imperfections but rather about embracing ourselves in both our vulnerability and brokenness. It is about holding together the truth of what may be the paradoxical nature of our being.

In ancient Judaism wholeness is seen as a dynamic play of opposites balancing one another. Indeed, the very letters in the common root of shalom and sheleimut, shin-lamed-mem, suggest the balancing of polar forces in our wholeness, for the first letter, shin, signifies fire, while the last letter, mem, signifies water. It is when water and fire, symbols of creation and destruction, coexisit in balance that we find wholeness and peace. In this sense peace and wholeness exist paradoxically when opposites are contained within a unifying vessel. So our journey to wholeness and holiness necessitates being able to know and hold within us the paradoxical tensions of our very nature.

So, we have to embrace our brokenness if we are to avoid being stuck in it. That embrace is not an embrace of resignation; it is an embrace of acceptance. Lack of awareness is the ground of our dis-ease. Choosing awareness and self-knowledge opens us up to finding God in the midst of our present realities. And it opens up the possibilities of us growing in and through these realities rather than simply reacting to them. Awareness is the key to so much, which is why writers such as Calvin and Teresa of Avila have seen it as the single most important spiritual practice.

This is also at the root of Henri Nouwen’s notion of the wounded healer: our capacity to help others is not despite our own brokenness but precisely because of it. Wholeness doesn’t come from eliminating brokenness but trusting to openness of life in the midst of it. Our wounds are a gift because they make us aware of our lack of wholeness and can be a threshold to healing and further wholeness - the Wisdom of Imperfection.

So, wholeness is embracing our brokenness as an integral part of life. And, ultimately, wholeness is to be found in belonging within the larger wholes within which we already exist. Wholeness does not come from fixing or growing our small ego-self, but from participation in the fullness of life that is our Christ-self. This is living the truth of our self-in-Christ.

Vulnerability is often understood as weakness, or being defenseless and susceptible to attack. But I understand vulnerability as uncovering ourselves, being tender, or as willingness and courage to be seen and known in our inner depths, to embrace our nakedness and all that we are rather than try and cover it over. Brené Brown, a well-known sociologist, has spent the last 10 years studying the power and importance of vulnerability in our life journey, and talks about it passionately in this wonderful TED talk which I highly commend and is one of the most popular of all time:

So, in order to get in touch with the fullness of our being in God we need self-knowledge to break out of our own unhelpful restrictive patterns and embrace our wholeness. We need to develop the ability to respond consciously to life, with awareness, rather than react to things based on our unconscious conditioning. True inner freedom demands that we overcome our childhood limitations; otherwise we remain slaves trapped in Egypt unable to take those steps of faith across the Red Sea toward the promised land of healing and redemption.

The Alchemy of Wholeness painting used under Creative Commons License.

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