For your penance, I want you to tell God who you are. Not because He needs to know—He already does—but you need to say it.”
My regular confessor is not of the “say three Hail Marys” variety.
“OK, Father—that may take a while.”
“Maybe. Depends on how open you are to letting grace in. Could be real short. Now say an act of contrition….”
It’s not like I haven’t thought about that concept—who am I?--rather a lot over the past months and years as I have drawn deeper into the Catholic faith. Regular examination of conscience will do that to a person. After all, looking at one’s faults in light of the sacrament has a way of bringing the whole person into some sort of focus one way or another. Something of a perpetual identity crisis, only deeper and more productive. The trick for someone of my personality is not to focus totally on the negatives.
In some ways, defining ourselves is almost as hard as defining God. Most of what I know about God can only be clearly articulated in what He is not. That which He is tends to be fuzzier, harder to grasp. God is not an angry judge with a long white beard playing a game of “gotcha!” with mankind. He is Love (as though I have a grasp on that concept…). He is not a being. He is The Very Act of Being, He Is Who Is. See my point? Easy to point out the nots, but I can get lost in those positive statements for a long, long time and never come to the end.
So it is, I think, with myself. It’s easy for me to see the things I am not: not kind enough, not patient enough, not charitable enough…but over the past few years, I have decided I am not just what I do, good or bad. I am not just a pathologist for example—that is what I do. But I am a physician who is called on to use her expertise in caring for sick people by helping make a diagnosis of illness in what even the law defines as a doctor-patient relationship. I am not just a person who commits this, that or the other sin—I am a sinner, broken and in need of grace but more than just the sins I commit, in relationship with God.
I am not just a mother—I am mother to two particular children with whom I share life. I am not just wife, I am my own husband’s bride with whom we have made a life far different than either of our lives apart would have been.
All of those self-definitions are loaded with indefinable. How to define the knot in the gut I got when they called from the ER my son’s freshman year in college, telling me he had a broken jaw and was missing two teeth? How to explain my fear in sending my daughter off to New York City on a one way ticket a month after graduating from college? How to explain that if you cut my husband, I bleed? How to explain that, even as I pour out my heart in confession, I know in the very deepest part of me that there is more than just those acts needing contrition? How to explain that who I am is in some way related to a mass of connections to those I love?
What makes me me is more than grey hair, a few excess pounds, various pecadillos, and six decades. It is more than college and professional school, more than a job, different, somehow in its essence from what I have achieved or acquired or failed to do. It seems that my life—the real life inside me, the one that plays itself out in endless ways, is a combination of what I am, what I do, what I am not and how I play off those around me. It is, in short, defined by relationship.
It makes sense. Part of development of the human person is establishing an identity separate from the world around us. Babies learn how to distinguish themselves from their mothers, an art teenagers hone to elegance as they prepare to go out and face life alone. Part of that comes from being loved and wanted and reassured. Babies learn something of who they are by the way their parents hold them, cuddle them feed them. They grow and flourish when they are connected to their parents, and if that—or some reasonable facsimile--is absent in the earliest years of life, children can emerge so crippled from that they never learn to relate to others at all. So, it seems, in the arms of others we learn who we are—and what we are not.
It has certainly been true in my life, I learned from my husband that I might not be the world’s biggest misanthrope. I learned from my children that all parents really get to do is supply what amounts to a nice finish coat to the personality of a child; I am definitely not in control of my child’s personality, gifts and destiny.
And I’ve begun to learn—really learn-- from my confessor that I really don’t have to be perfect for God to love me. A fairly significant discovery for a perfectionist who wants 105% on every test and who has made a comfortable career out of doing so. A very significant discovery in a word where human value too often equates with productivity, a world where others are all too eager to tell us that we are not good enough, wanted, cared for because there’s something we cannot—or will not—do. A world in which the externals matter far too much. A world in which human dignity gets caught up in the nots…
It’s begun to come home to me that this business of being Christian—inward and outward, outward and upward, is all about finding ourselves the only way we can. In the mirror of relationship. Every relationship shows a different facet of ourselves and a different aspect of God and the process of discovery never ends as long as we are willing to risk the connection and look in the mirror. As long as we are in relationship with God who is Relationhship Itself—a communion of persons. If we wish to enter the life of God, or to find our very selves, there’s no other path. Only relationship.
But I didn’t really think of any of this as I walked up the aisle of the church to kneel in front of the crucifix and do my penance and prepare for mass.
All I found myself saying in awe and wonder was this: I am Your daughter, God. And You love me.