Some of the most powerful words I have ever heard come from the lips of Henri Nouwen, the Catholic spiritual writer of the twentieth century, in a recording of his lecture entitled “Who are We?: Exploring our Christian Identity.” This lecture is masterful in its simplicity.
Nouwen begins by asking “Who is this person that lives this little life?” A person is born, lives and dies. In the broad scope of time, each of our lives really are little things.
Within this little life, Nouwen identifies two of the most common responses to “who is this person…?”
“I am what I have.”
I am my education, stuff, relationships, social status, good looks, health, etc. If any of what I have is lost or cannot be achieved then who I am comes into question, my very sense of myself is threatened.
“I am what other people say about me.”
I am what other people say about me, think of me, respect in me, etc. If others say good things about me, I feel good. If others say bad things, then I enter a dark place and my very sense of self is threatened.
Both of these responses leave the answer to “who am I?” at the whim of others and constantly in flux. The focus of our life becomes responding to outside threats of who we are. Nouwen observes: “A lot of our life is surviving: to cope with life, to make it another day, another year, another month.” We become creatures of survival. Nouwen astutely notes that a life focused on surviving is bound to fail because we all die: “Its amazing that people can be so busy and so anxious and so nervous and then another day they are gone.” Our lives are so filled with striving until in our death our striving inevitably fails us.
To respond to “who am I” with “I am what I have” and/or “I am what other people say about me” are responses of vice. “I am what I have” is the vice of lust. It is the desire for more and more, greater and greater. “I am what other people say about me” is the vice of anger. It is living with a high sensitivity of how others regard you, which leads to great anger (inward and outward) when others disregard you. Nouwen highlights that anger and lust are the two vices that have been identified since the early church as those that serve as enemies to the spiritual life.
So, if the two above responses fail then who am I really? Here are Nouwen’s powerful words:
What I want you to hear is that what I just said to you about our identity is a lie. Jesus’ whole message is saying you are not what you have, nor what people say about you even when that’s important and even though it makes you suffer and even though it makes you happy, that is not who you are. I come, Jesus says, to reveal to you who you truly are. And who are you? You are a child of God. You are the one who I call my child. (Now, child doesn’t mean little child, child means son or daughter.) You are my son, you are my daughter.
The spiritual life is the life where one hears and receives more and more this voice of Jesus. It is a life where “you come gradually in touch with the mysterious truth that you were loved and cared for and looked at with immense affection long before you entered in this little world, this little clock time.”
The spiritual life is where you hear again and again: “I love you because I love you because I love you because I love you.”
The Christian identity is really that simple and that difficult.
You can find a shortened version of Nouwen’s homily here: http://youtu.be/v8U4V4aaNWk