How Our Weaknesses Shape Our Discernment: the Importance of Knowing One’s Self

“The Mirror” by William Merritt Chase, c. 1900

What makes a novel or movie fascinating for me is when the protagonist is flawed and must overcome inner obstacles to achieve his goal, or to choose (and find) her happiness. If all the characters—especially the main ones—are practically perfect, then we have trouble being interested in the story or the characters, because they’re not real. (Even the practically perfect Mary Poppins has a fault—or at least a weakness—in how she deals with her affection for the children and for Bert.) Perfect characters don’t just make the story less interesting. We are unable to relate to these flat characters, or to their lives, because they aren’t struggling with anything. They’re not like us.

We all struggle with ourselves—our faults, a flaw, or even a simple tendency that, in our situation, causes pain or distress. If we truly come to know ourselves, we acknowledge that we struggle with much more than the occasional fault. We all have a tendency to sin, and the more honest we are with ourselves, the better we know our sinfulness and flaws. (One of the benefits of spiritual direction is gradually coming to a clearer self-knowledge.) St. Augustine encourages us to pray for self-knowledge, and it’s something we can do daily before we make our examen.

People have different levels of awareness of their faults and sinfulness, but almost all of us have “blind spots” when it comes to how we see ourselves. A strength or talent we take pride in may actually be an irritant or flaw to others. For some of us, pride blinds us to our flaws and we have trouble acknowledging our sinfulness, except in things that we don’t consider that important. For others among us, all we can see is our faults and sinfulness. And many of us swing back and forth between the two perspectives—we have days we feel we can conquer the world, and other days where to love that irritating person for the love of Christ feels way more heroic than we can manage.

Neither perspective is really helpful. If you are someone who, like me, shifts back and forth, then you have one advantage: you know that you have still not come to the truth of who you are. For me, the key word in my understanding of who I am is one word: and.

Who are we? We are flawed and saved. We are called to eternal glory through the gift of our Baptism, and we are limited and sinful human beings. We are sinners and redeemed. We are cherished and we are called to conversion.

When we are discerning an important decision, it is crucial that we remember who we really are: precious and weak, sinful and called to holiness. At some point, God will probably call us to go beyond ourselves, beyond our own strength, sustaining us with the gift of his grace. But God also perfects our human nature, the gifts of our specific personality inherent in us. Our weaknesses shape our call just as much as our gifts, so it’s important in our discernments that we know who we are, in all the greatness of our call and all the weakness that we suffer.

For some helpful real-life examples, we can read more about the saints. In comparing two saints, we will often discover that the questions that they wrestled with were very different. A sensitive monk who grapples with scrupulosity and becomes a great confessor (like the great saint, Padre Pio) will have very different discernments during his life than a practical peasant woman who grows up on a farm and founds a religious congregation dedicated to bringing the love of God to others through the corporal works of mercy (like the great St. Frances Xavier Cabrini). Both are great saints known for their love for God and selfless service of others, but their love was expressed in completely different ways.


To Journal About

  • How do I see myself? Do I use “and” or “but” when I describe myself?
  • At this point in my life, what is my greatest fault?
  • At this point in my life, what is my greatest gift?

You may wish to conclude your journaling time with a prayer to the Holy Spirit for the grace to see yourself through God’s eyes.