Saint John of the Cross (born Juan de Yepes) was a sixteenth-century contemplative who resided in Spain during the height of the Reformation. In a little book entitled Daily Readings with Saint John of the Cross (Templegate: Springfield, IL, 1985) he writes the following:
“God enlightens the soul, making it see not only its misery and meanness, but also his grandeur and majesty. Thus out of this night springs first the knowledge of oneself, and on that, as a foundation, is built up the knowledge of God” (26).
While it is true that the knowledge of God cannot be apprehended apart from a great humility of soul, and while it is true that great humility of soul cannot be had apart from a comprehension of its “misery and meanness,” it is not true that knowledge of self is a foundation for knowledge of God. The case is quite the opposite.
Consider, for example, the experience of Isaiah as told in Isaiah 6:1-8. He first saw an incomprehensible vision of the glory of God, and in that instant he knew his own true nature: “Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” His vision of the King, the Lord of hosts, was the foundation of his self-assessment, not the other way around.
God is always our foundation; we are never his. The knowledge of God is always the foundation of knowledge of the self; never vice versa. If we are to grow in the knowledge of God, we must indeed possess a deep and abiding humility, but that humility is only possible as God reveals himself to us, reveals the true nature of our souls to us, and then by grace gives us the humility to acknowledge our “misery and meanness” and throw ourselves on the mercy of Christ.