[Who am I?]

Dear Donagh,
Who am I?
Maisie

Dear Maisie,

That’s the shortest question I've ever received on this site!  But short questions, like short words, pack the most punch.        

If we had no poetry in us at all we would never ask or answer such a question; or we would be satisfied just to answer: “Maisie!”  That would be a clear answer, but it would be like sticking a label on a product, it would be paper thin.  You are more than your name.  When you were born you were not Maisie, you had no name….  Who are you? 

“Who am I?” you ask.   It depends on who you ask.  If you ask a genealogist they will tell you the names of some of your ancestors.  That is not exactly telling you who you are, it’s telling you about everyone except you.  I once met a genealogist, who was at pains straight away to impress on me the importance of his subject and the satisfaction it had brought him personally.  “I know who I am,” he assured me.  I felt he was saying too much.  Still, it is not a trivial matter; it is interesting.  When I saw the names of my great-grandparents in a baptismal registry, I realised that they had lived and tried to raise a family during the Famine of the 1840s.  I saw that they had six children, only two of whom survived.  One of those two was my grandfather.  If his parents had given up in despair, the family line would have ended there, and I would not exist.  Since then, I pray for them every day.  Genealogy is not a trivial pursuit.  Still, it can never go very far.  If genealogists could go to the very end of their subject, they would have to tell you the names of every human being who ever lived – even further back than Mitochondrial Eve, who must have had parents, like everybody else.  That is your complete genealogy, that's the whole family.  It is interesting to know that I cannot say who I am without mentioning the rest of the human race.    

If you ask a politician who you are, they will say you are a voter; if you ask a shop-owner they will say you are a customer, if you ask a doctor they will say you are a patient (that is, if they don’t say you are the gall-bladder or the broken leg). 

If you ask St Augustine he will say, “You are Christ.”  That is what he told a congregation at Mass one day in the 5th century.  What he meant was: All of you are Christ.  He was echoing St Paul’s moment of intense insight: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)  St Paul didn't say, I feel strongly about Christ and I think about him a lot; he said, “I have been crucified with Christ.”  He had identified himself totally with Christ: Christ had become his identity.  He saw this to be true of every disciple of Christ, not only himself.  To the Colossians he wrote, “You were buried with Christ in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God.” (2:12) 

What would Jesus have said to a genealogist?  A group of people were talking about him one day: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (Jn 6:42).  But he gave a different account of himself: “I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.” (Jn 8:14)  “He cried out as he was teaching in the temple, ‘You know me, and you know where I am from.  I have not come on my own.  But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him.” (Jn 7:28)  His identity, he told them, is that he was the one sent by the Father.  That was his real identity.  Then if we are identified with him, our real identity too is that we are sent by the Father, we are from God.  Julian of Norwich (14th century): “Our soul is so deeply grounded in God and so endlessly treasured that we cannot come to knowledge of it until we first have knowledge of God, who is the Creator to whom it is united.” 

A Christian’s identity is not a label, like a name.  It is a realisation that my deepest identity is not my ego but what we might call our ‘Christ-nature’ – our identity with Christ, as Paul spoke of it.  This is the teaching that was almost fully eclipsed for centuries by a culture of individualism.  But that is a long story, the most dramatic chapter of which is the 16th century.  We are still, to a great extent, under the pall of an individualistic self-awareness and outlook on life, even in our religious practice. 

So, to finish, Maisie: in moments of prayer – or at odd unexpected moments – you may become aware of your deepest identity: you are one with Christ, and therefore one with all who are one with Christ.  And in Christ you are united with God.  The genealogist was right, but just at the level of name-tags.  ‘I know who I am,’ he said, but he just knew the names of a few of his ancestors.  To that, St Paul adds the dimension of depth.  And St John adds something mysteriously more: “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” (1 John 3:2)  All the saints assure us that our life is not a trivial two-dimensional thing but an endless mystery. 

Donagh


 


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