OUR society seems to be going through an identity crisis.
When it comes to the questions that shape our lives – “Who am I?”, “What am I doing here?” – many people have come to the conclusion that the answer is either too difficult to discover or too hard to accept.
And so, instead, we have started making it up.
Children at school, students at university, adults – almost everybody, it seems – is being strongly encouraged to “be yourself”.
However that may manifest itself.
The only difficulty is most of us have almost no idea who we are – however reluctant we may be to admit the fact.
Yet it is perfectly true; Thomas Aquinas acknowledges as much.
According to the Angelic Doctor, we can never know, directly, the essence of our own soul.
The final ‘whatness’ – quiddity – of our own identity escapes us, as he wrote in the Summa Theologiae.
We can never know whether we are ‘being ourselves’ or not with any absolute certainty.
This might sound rather depressing, but it is simply a truth we have long been discouraged from acknowledging.
The most interesting thing about this idea, however, is how it intersects with a further thought of St Thomas.
For he also says that it is an intrinsic expression of our Christian lives to be able to do the will of God with ease and joy and spontaneity.
Now, if who we are is known and determined by God from all eternity – ‘from the womb before the dawn I begot you’ (Psalm 110:3) – then we would think that living the corresponding reality would flow quite naturally.
We tend to think that being spontaneously ourselves is a simple matter, whereas it is quite remarkably difficult.
It would be simple if what we are – the answer to the question of who we are – were simply given to us.
But it is not.
The question of who we are is a project – but not a project of invention, as some seem to think.
It is a project, a journey, of discovery.
When it comes to the question of our identity and why we are here on this earth, we do not so much invent the answer as discover it, slowly over time, in light of the concrete situations in which God places us.
You only have to think of the language we use in terms of vocation within the Church.
We always say you ‘discern’ your vocation – we don’t say you make it up.
To ‘discern’ implies a careful examination of something that already exists.
And for us, as Christians, these questions are always examined in the light of Christ – with God as the ultimate reference point.
There is a moment in the Soliloquies when St Augustine discusses this very topic with God.
In modern paraphrase, the conversation goes something like this:
God: Gus, you’re a curious fellow, you’re a philosopher, you want to know a lot of things. How many questions do you want answered?
Augustine: Just two.
God: Just two?
Augustine: Just two. If you can give me complete answers to these two questions then I’ll be satisfied.
God: Well, what are they?
Augustine: Who are you and who am I?
Now that’s clever.
Because they are the only two persons that you can never avoid, for a single second, in time, space or eternity.
And Jesus Christ is the answer to both of those questions.
Fully human and fully divine.
The same question – and the same answer – is found in scripture.
When Moses sees the burning bush, he is addressed by God: “I’m sending you to Pharaoh to liberate my people.” (Exodus 3:10)
And what does Moses say?
“Who am I … that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
And God, in reply, doesn’t say, ‘Well, you’re Moses, son of Amram, married to that woman over there with the bangles.’
God says, ‘I will be with you.’ (3:12)
I can almost see Moses rolling his eyes – it’s certainly not the answer he was expecting.
And yet it is profoundly true.
When it comes to the question of human identity, the ultimate reference point is not some temporal external, but our relationship with God.
The question of who we are ought always to be read in light of who He is.
Our identity is inherently connected with the identity of God.
The truth of who we are as human beings is connected with the truth of who God is – and that truth is fully revealed in Jesus Christ, who is fully human and fully divine.
Now, many people these days employ a psychological framework with which to analyse questions of identity and self, purpose and meaning.
And that is fine, to an extent.
Because psychology is essentially based on the notion that the human person, as we are, is normal, and that saints – by contrast – are an aberration.
Saints are odd as far as most psychologists are concerned.
Yet the truth is exactly the opposite.
As followers of Christ we can see that the human being, as we are, is in a fallen state. Our original nature as created has been distorted – not destroyed, but distorted.
And to work only within the parameters of that distortion means you will never have anything else.
But from a Catholic perspective, a saint is the fullness of what it means to be alive. Fully and properly alive, shining forth the light of Christ that they are in lives of heroic virtue.
The meaning of life is to be a saint, because a saint is someone who lives with God – a person who recognises that their life, who they are, is dependent on the God who is always present with them.
St Ignatius of Antioch was emphatic in imploring his fellow Christians in the early years of the second century not to rescue him from his incarceration and fate of being fed to the lions in Rome.
‘Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God,’ he wrote.
‘I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.’
Now that is a man who undoubtedly understood himself; a man who saw his identity through the eyes of Christ.
He certainly knew himself to be continually in the presence of the God, whose love he preached so fervently to others.
The eighteenth century English cleric William Law once wrote, ‘If you will consult your own heart in utter honesty and ask yourself the question, “Why am I not as holy as the primitive Christians?” you must come up with the honest answer: because you do not wholly want to be.’
For a Christian, sanctity and identity are not confected; they are discovered and lived in relationship with Our Heavenly Father who is always present to us and with us.
The question of identity – ‘Who am I?’ – is not answered by inventing a synthetic solution, but by referring the question back to the only one who knows the answer.
Like Moses, we can all ask Our Lord, ‘Who am I?’
And I suspect the answer we receive will always be the same: ‘I am with you.’