Recently I co-facilitated a training workshop in appreciative coaching skills for rural deans, bishops and lay members of the Diocese of Chester. It was the first time I had worked with Anglican clergy and a more welcoming and stimulating audience you couldn’t wish for (I must admit that part of me thought “in your face, Richard Dawkins!”).

The day opened with a prayer and some readings from early Christian writers who were new to me, but whose thoughts deserve a wider audience beyond the church, as they have some wise things to say regarding what we call ’emotional intelligence’ today (thanks to the suffragan Bishop of Stockport, the Right Reverend Robert Atwell, for the references).

The first comes from Gregory of Nyssa, one of the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’ (c 335 – after 394), and should be heeded by anyone in a leadership, teaching or changework role.

Our greatest protection in this life is self-knowledge so that we do not become enslaved to delusion, and end up trying to defend a person who does not exist. This is what happens to those who do not scrutinise themselves. They look at themselves and what they see is strength, beauty, reputation, power, an abundance of material possessions, status, self-importance, bodily stature, a graceful appearance and so forth, and they think that this is the sum of whom they are. Such persons make very poor guardians of themselves because in their absorption with externals they overlook their inner life and leave it unguarded.

How can a person protect what he does not know? The most secure protection for our treasure is to know ourselves: each of us must know ourselves as we are, and learn to distinguish ourselves from what we are not. Otherwise we may end up unconsciously protecting somebody who we are not, and leave our true selves unguarded.



Gregory of Nyssa on self-awareness and self-deception

6 thoughts on “Gregory of Nyssa on self-awareness and self-deception

  • May I be so bold as to suggest the following:

    Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality by Kyriacos C. Markides

    The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Cistercian Studies) by Benedicta Ward

    Thomas Merton also has a couple of excellent books on the subject.


  • Looking again at Gregory’s quote, it occurs to me that people might equally often look at themselves and see weakness, ugliness, unimportance and so on, and think that that is all that they are. They could also end up unconsciously protecting a ‘false self’, or holding themselves back from connecting with others because of this false self’s imagined shortcomings.

  • Really enjoyed this article Andy. Makes sense of the old saying (can’t remember from whom) to ” know thyself”. Some work I’m currently undertaking encourages inner reflection, to fully know oneself, embrace the dark and light , and by owning it, enables you to also manage it. And by managing it, you are indeed protected. Spirituality in leadership is so overdue for me. But i can also see links to psychometrics such as being in the grip with mbti…..if you know your grip signature you reduce the risk of eruption…hence self long as you take the time out to fully understand thyself first, so , as you say…you protect what you know and not what you deny. Thanks for the article Andy.

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