How Little We Know Ourselves

The Lenten and Easter seasons call each of us to renewed reflection on our journey through life. Prayerful reading of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection is a sure way to strive for something Father George Rutler expressed so well—we are to let Jesus “make of our graves what he made of his own borrowed tomb: a gateway to heaven.” Matthew, Mark, and John all describe a woman pouring ointment of pure nard over Jesus’ feet at Bethany: “she did it to prepare me for my burial,” Jesus told his disciples. Although Luke’s description of the Last Supper omits this detail, he described in an earlier passage a woman who wept as she wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. Peter wept when he heard the cock crow. The daughters of Jerusalem wept for Jesus as he staggered toward Golgotha. Mary of Magdala wept at the tomb early on the first Easter morning. And Jesus, too, wept—for all of us when he wept over Jerusalem, and for each of us when he wept at Lazarus’ tomb. A valley of tears, indeed, is our world.

At the Last Supper Jesus said, “One of you will betray me” (Mt 26:21). Now, isn’t the response of the disciples worded in an interesting way? They didn’t counter by saying—by affirming—“Oh, no, it’s not me!” Rather, they responded by asking, “Surely it is not I, Lord?” And this anonymous question, repeated by the disciples “one after another,” was then echoed individually, personally, by Judas himself. Well, we might say (with hindsight, of course) that Judas was just being disingenuous—after all, he had already made his dark deal with the chief priests before he gathered that night with Christ and the others for the Last Supper. And so responding as he did simply might have been an all-too-predictable attempt to conceal his true intentions with a ploy of innocence. But it is also possible—and, with some charity, it may also be true—that even though Judas had taken silver from the chief priests, even though he was now looking for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them, his heinous crime was still potential rather than actual. After all, he hadn’t yet betrayed Jesus with a kiss—and so perhaps his “Surely not I” was actually a desperate last-minute hope, even a plea … were his eyes raised to Jesus’ face? Or was he looking down? I wonder.

Each of us, in our moments of honest reflection, in our occasions of fullest confession, knows that sometimes our intentions of misdoing, with God’s grace, are not fulfilled—that we are spared from actual sin, which we otherwise might have committed. I’m certain that neither John Bradford nor St. Philip Neri was the first to have said, “There but for the grace of God go I”; and regardless of who gets credit for this often-quoted insight, it is something that I’ve muttered to myself many more times than I care to admit. I am reminded of the first prayer I learned as a child: “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s grace, commits me here. Ever this day, be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule and guide.” We will never know, this side of Heaven, all that our Guardian Angels have done for us as we have stumbled through our earthly lives.

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Yes, only God knows whether Judas’ “Surely it is not I, Lord” was genuine. But we, readers of this account 2,000 years later, wonder at the other disciples’ response: why didn’t they proclaim, and loudly, “No, not me!” A few verses later, we hear just this sort of assurance from Peter when he vowed: “Though all else should lose courage over Thee, I will never lose mine.” Finally, we say, here’s the confidence that we somehow expect from these men who had spent three years of their lives with Christ and who, through his teachings, through his miracles, knew better than anyone else who he was. I like to think that Peter’s voice raised a little, even quivered, when he proclaimed “I will never lose mine.”

We know the rest of the story: none of the eleven disciples would betray him—although all but the one he loved abandoned him at the cross; and Peter wept bitterly when he realized that his “never!” didn’t last through the night.

Two things come to mind. First, for all of my self-proclaimed honesty, for all of my prayerful introspection, I don’t really know myself. Otherwise, why am I so discouraged, even (I must confess) surprised, when I fall into habitual sin? I think I know myself … yet I am my own greatest mystery. Goethe told Eckermann, “Altogether, man is a darkened being; he knows not whence he comes, nor whither he goes; he knows little of the world, and least of himself. I know not myself, and God forbid that I should!” Macbeth famously said, “To know my deed, ‘twere best not to know myself,” as if (evidently) our deeds can be separated from ourselves. But Jesus himself reminded us that by our fruits we are known, a lesson that St. Paul learned on the road to Damascus and passed on to us in Romans 7:15. I have to consult two Bible translations to realize that my lack of self-knowledge applies not only to my actions—Ronald Knox focused on what we do in his translation of this verse: “My own actions bewilder me”—but also to myself: the New Living Translation gets close to the bone with its rendering of the same verse: “I don’t really understand myself.”

The second thought follows hard upon the first: for all of my own self-ignorance, there is someone who knows me, and what I think, and what I say, and what I do, far better than myself. Isaiah, being a prophet, taught us about God’s all-knowingness in a pericope notable for its economy of words: “For I know their works and their thoughts” (Is 66:19). David, being a poet, sang the same truth in a panegyric that soars from the heavens down to us in Knox’s translation of Psalm 139:

Lord, I lie open to Thy scrutiny; Thou knowest me,
knowest when I sit down and when I rise up again,
canst read my thoughts from far away.
Walk I or sleep I, Thou canst tell;
no movement of mine but Thou art watching it.
Before ever the words are framed on my lips,
all my thought is known to Thee;
rearguard and vanguard, Thou dost compass me about,
Thy hand still laid upon me.

 We are left, then, with a puzzle: we do not know ourselves and our actions leave us bewildered, yet God sees our every movement, anticipates our every thought, knows everything there is to know about us—past, present, and future. And even though Paul reminds us (Rom 7:15) that “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” we are nevertheless called by Jesus himself “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

Our one recourse is our only recourse, no better expressed than by the old priest, Father Gunnulf, in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter:

“Help me, Gunnulf,” begged Kristin. She was white to the very edge of her lips. “I don’t know my own will.” “Then say: ‘Thy will be done,’ ” replied the priest softly.”

Editor’s note: Above is a detail of a stained glass window depicting Judas Iscariot turning away from the Last Supper, located in Moulins Cathedral, France.


  • David B. Wester

    David B. Wester is Professor and Research Scientist, Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and The Department of Animal, Rangeland and Wildlife Sciences, Texas A&M University at Kingsville, Kingsville, Texas.

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