To yourself you seem of little worth, but in reality you are precious. Insofar as you forsook him whose image you are, you have taken on the colors of strange images. But when you begin to breathe in the atmosphere wherein you were created, if perchance you embrace discipline, you will quickly shake off and renounce this false make-up which is only superficial and not even skin-deep. Be wholly present to yourself, therefore, and employ yourself wholly in knowing yourself and knowing whose image you are, and likewise in discerning and understanding what you are what you can do in him whose image you are.
— William of St. Thierry, quoted in Passing from Self to God:
A Cistercian Retreat by Robert Thomas, OCSO
One of the twelfth century Cistercian fathers, William of St. Thierry is probably best known now as one of the opponents of the teaching of Peter Abelard. But within Cistercian circles he is generally regarded, along with Aelred of Rievaulx and Bernard of Clairvaux, as one of the three great mystics in the first century of Cistercian monasticism. William was a prolific writer; the above quote comes originally from his Exposition on the Song of Songs, although I stumbled across it while reading Robert Thomas’s Passing from Self to God. I think it’s an important passage because of the modern tendency to dismiss medieval thinking as primitive and unhealthy. But here is a staunch monastic theologian rhapsodizing on, of all things, self-worth!
Of course, he anchors self-worth in God, in knowing and understanding “whose image you are.” But that remains sound psychology, at least from a Christian perspective, even today: our fundamental worth is not about what we do or achieve, it’s about who we simply are.
Perhaps William is really on to something: perhaps the heart of metanoia is simply remembering who we really are. It’s not about contrition, although taking responsibility for the mistakes we’ve made is a sign of maturity. Simply cleaning off the thin layer of “make-up” — the glamour of alienation from Divine Love — allows us to relax into the glory of who we really are, not by our own doing, but by the One in whose image we are created, sustained, and loved. Holiness: it’s not something we achieve, it’s something we relax into, by the grace of God.