“Who am I?” That was a question our contemplative class was exploring last night. In reading Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness, we were covering a chapter in which we were invited to question the usual story we tell ourselves about who we are. We were being challenged to embrace “not-knowing” as a way to become free of how old stories can limit us. The premise was that only free people can practice lovingkindness.
I asked us to remember times when we had experienced a new truth about ourselves, when we had shed old beliefs about who we were. That happened to me when I was thirty years old and serving as a hospital chaplain in Amarillo, Texas. I was comfortable believing the story hospital patients told me in those days, which went something like this: “You are such a caring person. Your prayer meant so much when I was facing surgery.” I liked that story: William is a good person who cares about people and helps them. Then I went to Calcutta, India, to meet Mother Teresa. That old story had to change.
Seeing and smelling the one million impoverished people living in the streets of Calcutta was completely overwhelming. In the cab from the airport to the missionary guest house, I knew I only wanted to go inside and hide. Mr. “caring” William had met his match.
I had already been in Bangladesh with my missionary cousins for ten days, and that had been hard enough. From the moment I got off the plane there, people with leprosy and missing limbs were holding out the remaining hand for donations. The ultra poor were everywhere. The extent of human need was extreme. And I felt like a fraud in the face of them all–no longer capable of seeing myself as the “nice, caring guy who helps people so much.”
The transformation of my identity took an unexpected turn when I encountered a dying young man in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta. Once I did make it out of hiding in the guest house, explored the city streets, and found the mother house for the Missionaries of Charity, they offered a ride with them to serve “the poorest of the poor.” I was told to serve the noon meal to the young man, who appeared to be just hours from death. That’s when the great reversal happened.
As I tried to help him drink a glass of water, I spilled the water down his chin. I apologized in English. From a place of utter weakness and incredible inner strength, he looked up at me and smiled. It was his way of blessing me. His smile simply said, “It’s okay.” The one giving the care became the one receiving great love. That moment shot through me like lightening. God soon used that moment to enlighten me in a way that has never disappeared. The “caring person” William became the one who receives love.
On the plane-ride home several days later, I was sick as a dog and fearing I wouldn’t make it back to my wife and son. By then I had lost ten pounds in three days, my stomach sent me to the bathroom every few minutes on the plane, and I was leaning against the plane window and crying.
Then the image of that young man smiling up at me returned. God used that picture of his face to say this inside my mind and heart: “It is enough. You have loved and been loved. That is enough.” That message set me free. Somehow I knew that even if I didn’t make it back to my family, love was enough. I had loved them and they had loved me. That was all that mattered.
The goal of human life became crystal clear in that moment: discovering that we are the beloved children of God. No longer was my identity tied up in trying to be a caring person. That trip proved that my persona could not hold up to the reality of desperate need. There I learned that I was the one in desperate need of being loved just as I am, not because of what I do or don’t do. And that discovery of being beloved was my salvation.
Two of our contemplative group members responded last night to the question: “Who am I?” Liz and Cida both affirmed their truth: “I am a beloved child of God.” They said that truth was their deep identity, beneath and beyond any roles that they played. And they both affirmed they had realized their deep identity through contemplative prayer: practicing the presence of God.
So I offer the same question to you. Ask yourself “Who am I?” Or better yet, ask God, “Who am I?” Then wait. Don’t try to answer for yourself. And don’t believe your roles are who you are. Join us in seeking to know our deep identity: “I am a beloved child of God.”