Perhaps you have heard of the phrase, “Know thyself.” Often attributed to the Greek philosopher, Socrates, the Ancient Greek aphorism, “Know Thyself” was once inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
However, knowing yourself and being known are two entirely different things.
Consider the following:
David Schwimmer, the former star of the popular Friends sitcom, has said, “It’s really important to me not to be known as Ross when I’m 60.”
Judy Gold, the standup comedian, reportedly has said, “I didn’t want to be known as a gay comic, but as a comic who happens to be gay.”
Eva Mendes, the actress and businesswoman, has lamented, “I just want to be known for things other than my sexuality.”
Friends, are you known for something for which you’d rather not be known? Are you known in exactly the way that you wish to be known? And how does this differ from how you know yourself internally and spiritually? Do you ever experience the existential fear of never being known fully in this lifetime? Or conversely, do you ever fear being fully known because then it would mean, in your reasoning, that you could not then be fully loved?
The philosopher, William James, wrote, “to be conscious means not simply to be, but to be reported, known, to have awareness of one’s being added to that being.” What is your awareness of your own being? Is it generally positive or negative? And how did you and in what manner did you come to know yourself?
We are in Lent officially. And for this first Sunday of Lent, many churches will hear the passage about a famished Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. The lectionary includes this passage about Jesus so that we might understand that just as Jesus was tempted by the Adversary or Satan in the wilderness, we, too, will be tempted. Perhaps we are tempted to be known in a particular way, one that we believe we can control. Perhaps we wish to be remembered in a certain way, or we have anxiety that we won’t be remembered at all. Perhaps we don’t want to be known for our past, our present, or for some association that we perceive as “beneath us.”
We might wonder, “What were those ancient temptations that Jesus faced and what do they have to do with our knowing ourselves or being known by some entity larger than ourselves?”
In Matthew’s gospel, those ancient temptations are spelled out: We can be tempted to do good like Jesus by satisfying worthy and necessary goals such as meeting people’s hunger with creating bread from stones. Or– we can be tempted for ill just as Jesus was tempted by trying to make a spectacle of ourselves through our own ego-needs and sense of uniqueness. And third, we—like Jesus—are tempted by power to possess all the kingdoms and splendor of the world.
We might note that these temptations begin when Jesus is famished out there in the wilderness. He has been fasting. Perhaps he is hallucinating too, but the temptations are real enough: power, a sense of inflated specialness or ego, and the desire to meet everyone’s needs, meeting their physical hunger, if not his own. We can face other temptations too: a need to control the uncontrollable, a need to be needed, a desire to live as if our children’s choices were ours to make. Each of us could add other temptations that distract, divide, and drive us away from God and our own neighbor. The scripture speaks truth in that we are most often tempted when we are famished or lacking something of essence and do not quite acknowledge it.
In a land of spiritual barrenness, we often truly do not realize just how famished or how far gone we are. I don’t mean hungry, in the sense that we skipped breakfast, but in the sense that we somehow yearn for something that we have not yet found inside ourselves, or rather, in God, at this stage of our lives or another. Or we are famished because we have neglected ourselves with adequate rest, adequate quiet time to engage in self-observation, or adequate joy.
Our inability to fully know ourselves or even spend sufficient time living in something other than a spiritual wilderness can leave us wide-open to the kind of temptations that can harm us and others. And often we can’t recognize the danger because we try to go it alone in a life that as meant to be cooperative and relational. Our pride prevents us from seeking help or admitting weakness within the circumstances of our lives. Sometimes it is when we are trying to be good that we most succumb to temptation because we erroneously believe in our own immunity or that our goodness precedes us and somehow cancels out the possibility.
The writer, C.S. Lewis, once said, “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. That is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is…”
So what to do? How to confront and admit this human weakness? Part of knowing ourselves is to know that we are not only made in the image of God, but also deeply known by the One who knows all, who calls us beloved, no matter how broken or desolate we may feel in the moment, and no matter the brokenness that we have unknowingly or knowingly foisted on others. This is to help us acknowledge the ickier parts of our personality, the ways in which we are prone to shut down or shut off, or the ways in which we are still just as tempted as any kid in a candy store.
This can happen in prayer or in any form of meditation in which we get quiet enough to invite God to speak in the stillness. Richard Rohr writes, “What’s happening in prayer is that you’re presenting yourself for the ultimate gaze, the ultimate mirroring, the gaze of God. Little by little you become more naked before that perfectly accepting gaze. It’s like lovemaking. You slowly disrobe and become mirrored perfectly in the gaze of God. You gradually allow yourself to be seen, to be known in every nook and cranny; nothing hidden, nothing denied, nothing disguised. And the wonderful thing is, after a while you feel so safe and you know you don’t have to pretend anymore.”
Similarly, the psalmist reassures that God will be with us to the farthest limits of the sea, or the farthest limits of our pain or personal Sheol. Likewise, we are also reminded that God searches out and knows us, knowing when we sit down and rise up, discerning our thoughts and being acquainted with all our ways. (Psalm 139:2-3). It is the assurance of being known in all of our complexity and brokenness that will help counteract any perceived incompleteness by which we are known by others or our seeming inability to fully know ourselves, faults and all.
Yet how is this possible? Part of knowing oneself is to know that we carry something of the divine within us that is untouchable by those who would do us harm, or by those who would forever label us by our gender, our orientation, our parentage, our race, our age, our occupation, or whatever other label that proves unsatisfactory or partial. “ Know thyself,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in a poem by the same name: “Gnothi Seauton.” In so many words, he argued that to know thyself was to know that God existed within you and within each human being:
It is, I tell thee, God himself,
The selfsame One that rules the Whole,
Tho’ he speaks thro’ thee with a stifled voice,
And looks through thee, shorn of his beams.
Meaning, God is not somewhere out there, but resides within. Of course, this is the incarnation of Jesus in our Christmas liturgy, but here it is applied to every single one of us. It is our Divine nature that is most capable of simultaneously anchoring and humbling us in life. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
A story is told of a teacher who tears to shreds a map of the world and, thinking it an impossible task, gives it to a misbehaving student to put back together again. Within 10 minutes, the student returns, the task completed. Surprised, the teacher asks the child, “But how did you do it?” The young child replies, “When I turned the pieces over, I found a torn-up human being. I put him together, and when I looked at the other side, the world was whole again.”
Sisters and brothers, in this Lenten season, we are called to creatively hold in tension two images in our minds at the same time: the image of the world and people as God would see us, and the ways in which we have torn or shredded that image for others. We are to be aware not simply of the temptations that confront us, but to examine WHY they confront and continually confound us. What part of us seeks an easy filler, a quick band-aid, or a sense of fulfillment that comes from someone or something other than God? And then, knowing this, how might we address that lack? How might we turn the image ‘round and ‘round in order to see the complete in the incomplete, the treasure amidst the dross?
Wishing you a holy Lenten season.
 Richard Rohr, “Ultimate mirroring,” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for February 21, 2014. Retrieved May 30, 2019.
 Soozi Holbeche, quoted in The Way Ahead, edited by Eddie and Debbie Shapiro.