Knowing Ourselves

The ancient Greeks held the Pythia, priestess of the temple of Apollo and commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi, in the highest regard. She occupied perhaps the most important religious position in the Greek world, said to be in direct communion with Apollo himself, delivering the god’s responses to supplicants’ questions in dactylic hexameters. Nevertheless, her answers were famously vague and enigmatic: kingdoms are said to have fallen because they misinterpreted her omens. So inscribed onto the temple (perhaps over the door, we imagine, that all who sought wisdom might pass under it) was the oft-quoted maxim: “Know thyself.”

In November I read for the first time C.S. Lewis’ hauntingly beautiful novel Till We Have Faces. Without getting into details of the plot, or too many spoilers, it is about a woman living in that ancient time who comes to have a burning anger against the gods, whom she believes have brought her untold misery, suffering, and injustice. But eventually she does get her day in court. She gets to make her complaint to the gods:

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek [my tutor] would say, ‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, or let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

At the time, I felt rather lost, having graduated from a Master’s program without a viable plan for the future beyond writing some stories. My attempts to find a regular paying job had come to nothing thus far—and really even the attempts themselves were half-hearted because I didn’t even know what kind of job I wanted or would be able to do well. I had abundant imagination for fictional characters, but seemingly none at all for my own life. When I read that passage in Lewis’ book I suddenly found…not clarity, by any means, but something of a mark to aim for. I had to find my face. I had to know myself.

A flurry of things happened: I had a conversation with a friend, I read another book, and I changed churches. To tell the full story of these happenings here would be self-indulgent (and this piece is already a bit too self-indulgent for my liking). Suffice it to say that the friend was the person who first got me to imagine myself studying theology, the book was Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor, and the church I joined is Anglican. And all this is what I took with me into some personal and vocational discernment sessions with a life coach.

I began finding my face, or at least its contours, in those sessions. We went through a series of exercises that built on one another, all along finding words to articulate who I am and what I’m like. And there came a point where I found a way to describe what I think I’m called to do:

I exist to invite people into a story of belonging.

When we think of God calling us into a vocation, it’s easy to think of that call as external; God speaks to us from outside ourselves. Perhaps there’s something to the idea that our calling lies within us. Not that we generate it, but that the gifts and passions and longings deep within us are part of how we’re asked to be in the world and what we’re asked to do. “It is He that has made us and not we ourselves,” says the liturgy for Morning Prayer (borrowing from Psalm 100).

I like to think I’m gifted with words and literature. I care deeply about people and about my faith. All of that begins to show itself when I gaze into the mirror at my face; it emerges in the hope I have for my writing; it plays into the sentence about myself that I discovered. And it means that it’s finally time to agree with and acknowledge what I have for so long resisted: one of the places I belong is in Christian ministry.

There’s a history of people telling me this, and my denying it. I would be lying if I said I can now see what they have seen in me, but it is true that my imagination has widened a little. It coincides with entering Anglicanism—a tradition, of course, in which words are at the centre of the liturgy—which means that entering ministry means seeking ordination. That will not happen easily or quickly, but I’m more than willing to take the slow, reflective path, one that actually prepares me for the work ahead; in this case it includes going back to school for yet another Master’s, this time in Divinity, to meet the denomination’s requirements. So there will be two degrees: one for the creative writer and one for the priest. It’s not a question of having two faces; it’s that most people’s faces are more nuanced than even they themselves realize.

We demand to hear from God; we demand clarity and insight and guidance for our lives. But if it’s true that who we are is an inherent part of our calling, then we must be able to say who we are before we dare approach and ask what we’re meant for. Unless we know ourselves, how can we expect to know what He asks of these selves? How can we meet Him face to face till we have faces?

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