We learn some things sequentially, a step at a time: first the basics, then intermediate challenges and, only later, greater complexity. Like math, for instance: learn to count, to add, and to subtract; then, to multiply and divide. After this basic arithmetic, take on simple algebra and whatever mathematical marvels are beyond algebra. I have no idea what those marvels might be, by the way. I treated math the way some people treat the required swimming test in college physical education: I waded around in the shallow end of geometry and calculus, took just enough strokes to show I wouldn’t drown in equations and formulas, and promised never to go near the water of numbers again. For most of us, even people who like math, learning it is a series of more or less sequential steps.
A visual artist might start with a big crayon on butcher block paper, move to tempra paints on newsprint, to smaller crayons in a coloring book or on standard white paper, to pencil and ink in a sketchbook, and to water-colors and maybe oils on canvass. There will be lessons, apprenticeships, degree programs, discarded paintings, early shows that include pictures the artist later can’t believe she let see the light of day, as well as a few treasures which show future promise. For the most part, an artist builds skills on top of skills, and the early steps have to come before the later ones.
There are a lot of things we learn that way—sequentially: from basic to intermediate to advanced. But we don’t learn about ourselves, or about God, in that kind of predictable and orderly way. There isn’t a course, complete with software, videos, and online support, which can guide you, step-by-step. into self-awareness and self-knowledge. And there certainly isn’t a manual, like one you’d use to prepare for the SAT or the GRE or the Bar Exam, to prepare you to be certified in the knowledge of God. To know ourselves more truly and to know God more fully and deeply is a far more circular, labyrinthine, mysterious, meandering, and joyful adventure than any merely formulaic or step-by-step process could be.
It’s also true that knowing ourselves and knowing God depend on each other. God made us intricately, knows us intimately, loves us unconditionally, and delights in us eternally, which means, to say the very least, that God knows, values, and believes in us far more than we know, value, and believe in ourselves. We can only know our identity—who we really are--by learning it in conversation with Holy Love. That Love invites us to discover ourselves by discovering more of the vast, glad, and fathomless Mystery which is at the heart of all things.