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Know Thyself: St. Teresa of Avila on Humility

August 30, AD2014

How do we gain true humility? How well do we really know ourselves?

Recently, for spiritual reading I’ve been reading St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. It’s a book I tried to read before, but it was a bit forced, and never had much impact.

This time, I feel like she wrote that book just for me. Right to my soul. God’s timing, huh?

The idea that has recently captured me, and changed my life recently, is her talk of self knowledge. An idea early on in the book, one that I had brushed over before, but for some reason not taken too seriously (I’d been stuck in an outer mansion).

Self Knowledge and Humility

Teresa’s talk of self knowledge relates to humility. Humility on its own, as a virtue, can be rather forced. It isn’t true humility if you are solely endeavoring to be humble. However, with self knowledge, you are first made truly humble.

Humility is secret. You are aware of your actions, thoughts and their effects, and where you need God’s grace in your life. Rather than outwardly seeking to appear humble, we truly gain the virtue. We endeavour to grow and change for the better.

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. (St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle)

Self knowledge can be a tough thing to face. Like seeing in the mirror all your flaws. And we become aware of our need for God. We realise our failings. The areas we need to grow in. And that we can’t do it on our own. We need divine help. And for the knowledge of ourselves in the first place, we need God. It is cyclical.

We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of his greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at his purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon his humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble. (St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle)

 Lord, I need You, oh, I need You /Every hour I need You /My one defense, my righteousness /Oh God, how I need You (Matt Maher, “Lord I Need You)

Prayer and Self Knowledge

The secret is prayer and meditation. Knowledge of God brings self knowledge.

If we turn from self towards God, our understanding and our will become nobler and readier to embrace all that is good: if we never rise above the slough of our own miseries we do ourselves a great disservice. (St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle)

St. Teresa speaks of how we get stuck in thinking solely of ourselves, ironically suffering from a lack of self knowledge. We have a fixed idea of ourselves, thinking that we are humble, yet being self obsessed. This is a trick of the devil to prevent us really knowing ourselves and the way of God. We seek satisfaction in things that aren’t actually fulfilling, that we think we need but we won’t find true happiness in.

But with prayer and self knowledge, we gain perspective. We are able to really “walk” with God, to open our eyes to His graces in our lives and how we respond to them. To better make decisions. To be joyful and to greater give ourselves as gifts for others. To live our lives as a prayer.

How can we grow in self knowledge?

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Chelsea Houghton is editor of Restless Press, as well as a columnist for Catholic Stand, Ignitum Today and NZ Catholic.
a 27 year old mother who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand with her husband and four children under the age of five. She has a Media and Communications degree from the University of Canterbury and in the past has worked for the Journey of the Cross and Icon for World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, for the Christchurch Catholic Youth Team and running the Theology of the Body for Teens programme and training to various groups.

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  • Julie Onderko

    Chelsea,
    Thank you for the well-written article. It was very helpful to me.
    Have a blessed week,
    Julie Onderko

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  • Marilyn Rodrigues

    St Teresa is a doctor of the Church and we need her teachings more than ever today. She’s amazing and I’ll never tire of reading her Interior Castle. It’s funny how I keep finding myself in an outer mansion, being disappointed, and then realising just by being disappointed that I’m proving my lack of humility!
    Great article Chelsea, I’m glad you alerted me to it.

  • james

    What an absolutely beautiful understanding. Never heard it said better. Thank you.