Know Thyself

ByLuke Burgis
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Among the 147 maxims found at the Ancient Greek Temple of Delphi, “Know Thyself” was so important that it was inscribed at the entrance to the Temple of Apollo. Many, including Socrates and Plato, employed the aphorism extensively. The advice is short, and yet a variety of meanings have been ascribed to it, from “know your place” and “be temperate” to “understand your nature.” Pope St. John Paul II wrote that to “know thyself” is in fact part of what makes us intrinsically human:

The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings”, that is as those who “know themselves”.[1]

Like the Ancient Greeks, we consider self-knowledge to be a threshold requirement.  It is, as Pope St. John Paul II described, a minimal norm, best considered at the outset.  “The purpose in a man’s mind is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”  (Proverbs 20:5)  To know oneself and draw out one’s purpose is no easy task, but worth the effort.  Simply stated, before you design, know your design.

You Have a Design

Every one of us is a unique person created by God.  We know this simply by looking at biology because every person has a unique DNA sequence, a unique thumbprint, a unique retina.  Even technology has started to rely upon that uniqueness.  But we also know it from Scripture.  Isaiah says that each of us is a unique creation of God, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)

While we’re unique, we’re not assembled randomly.  We have a logical design.  St. Paul tells us, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)  Moreover, this workmanship is unrepeatable.  “Each has received a gift,” St. Peter writes (1 Peter 4:10), and each of us is called to use it “as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”  God assures us that we have a purpose.  “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Discerning Your Design

It’s great to know that we have a unique design, but how do we identify it?  Ironically, this can be difficult, even in a self-obsessed world.  Fortunately, there are a variety of tools to help.  Surveys like a motivational assessment called the MCORE (Motivational Core) can give you a snapshot of how you are fundamentally motivated.  A second way might be to ask parents, mentors, or friends to help you identify your strengths.  Their loving perspective of you can be like God’s – not God’s, but similar to how much He loves you and wants the best for you.  Finally, you can reflect on your achievements.  Which have been the most successful and the most satisfying?  These achievements can be telling of what you are designed to do.  God is good, so it’s not just luck when you like what you are good at.

It can take time to discover your design.  History is replete with examples of people who changed the direction of their life once they realized their design.  Both St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola thought they were called to be soldiers, and both pursued military careers valiantly until they were injured.  While convalescing, both heard God’s call and went on to start the Franciscan Order and the Jesuits, respectively.  Samuel Morse was an accomplished painter; his work still hangs in the National Gallery of Art and other prestigious galleries today.  Disappointed though with the reception of his work at his time, he abandoned painting to invent the telegraph and develop Morse Code – both of which basically created instant communication.

Like all of these people, you have a created design.  That design motivates you, whether you realize it or not.  Understanding your created design can impact the action you take now and in the future.

Prayer and Meditation about God Leads to Self-Knowledge

As a Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila is an excellent guide when it comes to understanding one’s created design.  A writer, reformer, mystic, and contemplative, she lived a life so complex and yet so successful that she has much wisdom to share regarding self-knowledge.  In her book Interior Castle, she says that self-knowledge is intricately connected to the virtue of humility because when we are truly humble, we see ourselves as we truly are.  This helps us in our journey in this life and to get to Heaven because then we recognize how much we need God:

Self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility.[2]

With prayer and meditation about God (not ourselves), we actually get to know ourselves better:  “As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God:  let us think of His greatness,” she writes.[3]

It is always worthwhile to spend time in meditation, reflecting on God and His humility.  Then, as St. Teresa says, God will help us see ourselves.  “By meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble,”[4] she writes.  A particularly good time for this meditation would be after receiving Holy Communion, when Jesus, who humbled Himself upon the Cross, humbles Himself to enter us.  Ask Jesus to help you then.  Consider how Jesus knew the Apostles and their strengths.  Many were good fishermen, but they left that life.  Peter, the Rock, became the first Pope.  A tax collector, Matthew was a good writer and record-keeper, and so God asked him to write a version of the Gospel.  God equips people differently and calls each of us to different vocations.  After all, He knows everything and knows us better than we know ourselves.

St. Anthony the Great, the Father of Monasticism, also wrote about the importance of self-knowledge, particularly as a path to know God.  His Third Letter begins, “The rational man who has prepared himself to be set free through the advent of Jesus, knows himself in his intellectual substance….If a man knows his true name, he will see also the name of truth.”[5]  Interestingly, the verse in Jeremiah cited above also links self-knowledge to finding God:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord.

(Jeremiah 29:11-14)  Through a sincere prayer life, you will develop a greater sense of self-awareness, and you will find God.  Be confident then about designing a fulfilling life.  God has a unique plan for you.


Knowing who you are will help you to succeed in life and, as St. Teresa of Avila teaches, grow closer to God.  But it’s also great to know yourself because the person you spend the most time with in life is yourself.  It’s nice to meet you, and sooner rather than later.

[1] Pope St. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (Sept. 14, 1998).

[2] St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle (trans. and ed. By E. Allison Peers) at p. 23 (First Mansion, Ch. 2).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] St. Anthony the Great, The Seven Great Letters of Anthony the Great (Letter Three), ¶1, available at

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