The Christian understanding of self-knowledge is substantially different from that of the world.
The Christian call is not one of egocentric self-fulfillment or self-gratification. The danger of a quest to “know thyself” outside the bounds of revealed truth manifested in Christ Jesus is that, to some degree or another, it has elements of philautia (self-love).
The search for self is toxic if its goal is only to please the self and confirm its wandering desires and inclinations, thereby discovering more pleasure with which to indulge. This is why “spirituality” devoid of the Spirit and Truth is so fashionable in our times. The peril is to become like Narcissus of mythology, forever seeking an elusive reflection in the waters of psychological self-infatuation. Staring alone into the pool of self, one becomes entranced by the aura of one’s own self-reflection (many time mistaking it for spirit), which is deceptively sweet at first but leads to death in the long run. All self-centered searching will end in a loss of true existence and life, like Narcissus who perished in his attempt to embrace his own reflection. “He who loves his life shall lose it” (John 12:25), the God-Man Christ clearly proclaims.
Christ tells us in the Gospels, “he who desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it ” (Mat 16: 25). The Christian search for self-knowledge is not predicated on the narrowness of modern individualistic “self-expression.” The standard for knowing one’s self is the boundless God-Man – Jesus Christ. In the beginning, mankind was created in the image and likeness of God. The reference point of true self-knowledge is placed concretely and objectively outside of mankind; this preserves a person from self- delusion. Thus only in God is the true image of mankind found; mankind must orient himself according to a higher image: to be Godlike. Without God, mankind embraces a phantom and drowns in the depths of self-deception.
Mankind is not able to search his interior depths without the illuminating light of Christ the Creator. After the fall repentance was set as the standard for restoration of true human self-knowledge. “When we are immersed in sins, and our mind is occupied solely with worldly cares, we do not notice the state of our soul. We are indifferent to who we are inwardly, and we persist along a false path without being aware of it. But then a ray of God’s Light penetrates our soul. And what filth we see in ourselves! How many untruths, how much falsehood! How hideous many of our actions prove to be, which we fancied to be so wonderful. And it becomes clear to us which is the true path” (St. John Maximovich).
Man is intended to grow in the image of Christ, for Christ is the Image of God (2 Cor. 4:4). In becoming conformed to the image of Christ, we become conformed to that image for which mankind was intended, in doing this we find our true “self.” By rejecting and dying to the image of the sinful world we become alive to the Image of God, and by returning to It, we begin our return to our true and primal state. “A righteous man whose heart is filled with consolations of the Holy Spirit, wherever he may be, everywhere will be Paradise because the Kingdom of Heaven is within us (Lk. 17:21)” (St. Innocent of Alaskan, Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven).
To come to Christ means that the image of the fallen old man is being crucified, it must die. One does not gaze into the Christian Faith like Narcissus gazed into the waters of the pool, nor is it a journey of “self-discovery” in which pleasure is sought in one’s own beauty or vain self-affirmation. A Christian seeks to heal his soul and to confront the wellsprings of darkness which are so many times easily excused in his life. This is done only by conforming to the great Physician and His revelation of true spiritual health. If we soberly and vigilantly weigh all things: our thoughts, our deeds, the inner movement of our hearts, and walk in the light of Christ’s grace, then as St Theophan the Recluse says, “you will carry a Teacher within you, wiser far than any earthly teacher.” For it is “through Him (Christ) we fix our gaze on the heights of heaven. In Him, we see the mirror of God’s pure and transcendent face. Through Him, the eyes of our hearts are opened. Through Him our foolish and darkened comprehension wells up to the light” (St. Clement of Rome).
As persons, we are called to approach our Orthodox Faith in simplicity of heart and the firmness of conviction that Christ Jesus has given us His very Self, in the revelation of the hypostatic union, as the Archetype of knowledge of true humanity. Yet, If we gaze at our own “beauty” and seek to measure faith according to it, we become idolaters and worship and praise our own image (although some may frequently give it the name “Jesus”).
In pure vision, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, we come to the mirror of the revealed Faith, not to be infatuated by our own “self” nor to justify and praise it but rather to seek the image of Christ, the only True Man. This encounter necessitates kenosis – self-emptying. Whenever our own self-obsession occupies the high place of our being, taking the place of Christ, it keeps us in self-delusion.
Through the Cross, we are given true vision, and with spiritual eyes being enlightened and washed by the flesh and blood of Christ we then, with great eagerness, lose our fallen self-life for the sake of Christ and thereby find true Life in Him (cf. Mat. 16:25).
In seeking to learn and evaluate our self in the revelation of Christ, shining in the Church, there are none of the Narcissistic drivings of the worldly pursuit for self-fulfillment and “knowledge.” Let us turn from the Narcissistic pools of modern self-infatuation and indulgence, most of all concerning faith, and set our gaze upon the Living waters, seeking to wash in the pool of Siloam, according to Christ’s words: “Go, wash and see” (cf. Jn. 9: 6-7). We must know our self and the authentic nature of our humanity in the light of Christ the True revelation of Man. As St. Cyprian of Carthage says, “How can you expect to be heard by God, when you do not hear yourself? How do you expect God to remember you when you pray, if you do not remember yourself?” Pure remembrance comes when we turn from the delusional reflection of self-love. “The one who hates his life in this world shall keep it to eternal life” (John 12:25).