Who Am I by Henri Nouwen with Michael J Christensen and Rebecca J Laird?
All the passages below are taken from the book “Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith” by Henri Nouwen with Michael J Christensen and Rebecca J Laird. It was published in 2006.
THE BASIC question “Who am I?” resurfaces throughout life. An old Talmudic tale sheds light on the true identity and value of each and every human being at the deepest level:
—The Fugitive and the Rabbi
One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every person in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the Rabbi and asked him what to do. Torn between handing over the boy to the enemy and having his people killed, the Rabbi withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. In the early morning, his eyes fell on these words: “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.”
Then the Rabbi closed the Bible, called the soldiers, and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the Rabbi had saved the lives of the people. But the Rabbi did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him and asked, “What have you done?” He said: “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said: “But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the Rabbi replied anxiously. Then the angel said: “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.”1
Are we not challenged in daily life to look deeper into the eyes of the people we encounter—even those who are running away from something—and to see in them the face of God? Perhaps just knowing that they too are beloved children of God will be enough to prevent us from handing them over to the enemy. Are we not also challenged and encouraged to look more deeply at the way God sees us—beloved, accepted, affirmed, and worthy of salvation? Are we, like the fugitive, reflections of the Messiah?
You ARE THE BELOVED OF GOD!
When John was baptizing people in the Jordan River, Jesus came to be baptized too. “And as he was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. And a voice came from heaven: `You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased”‘ (Luke 3:21-22).
As a Christian, I am firmly convinced that the decisive moment of Jesus’ public life was his baptism, when he heard the divine affirmation, “You are my Beloved on whom my favor rests.” In this core experience, Jesus is reminded in a deep, deep way of who he really is.
There is in each of us an inner voice of Love that says: “You are the Beloved of God!” I want you to claim your Belovedness. You don’t have to get caught in searches that lead nowhere. Neither do you have to become the victim of a manipulative world or get trapped in any kind of addiction. You can choose to reach out now for true inner freedom and find it ever more fully.
THE ULTIMATE AFFIRMATION
For many years I had read, reflected on, and taught the gospel words in Luke 3 in the story of Jesus’ baptism, but only in my later years have they taken on a meaning far beyond the boundaries of my own religious tradition. God’s words “You are my Beloved” reveal the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not. The ultimate spiritual temptation is to doubt this fundamental truth about ourselves and trust in alternative identities.
Sometimes we answer the question “Who am I?” with the response, “I am what I do.” When I do good things and have a little success in life, I feel good about myself. But when I fail, I start getting depressed. And as I get older and can’t do much, all I can say is, “Look what I did in my life … look, look, look, I did something good.”
Or we might say, “I am what other people say about me.” What people say about you has great power. When people speak well of you, you can walk around quite freely. But when somebody starts saying negative things about you, you might start feeling sad. When someone talks against you, it can cut deep into your heart. Why let what others say about you—good or ill—determine who you are?
You might also say, “I am what I have.” For example, I am a Dutch person, with kind parents, a fine education, and good health. But as soon as I lose any of it, if a family member dies, if my health goes, or if I lose my property, then I can slip into inner darkness.
How much of our energy goes into defining ourselves by deciding “I am what I do,” “I am what others say about me,” or “I am what I have”? When that’s the case, life often follows a repetitive up-and-down motion. When people speak well about me, and when I do good things, and when I have a lot, I am quite up and excited. But when I start losing, when I suddenly find out that I can’t do some task anymore, when I learn that people talk against me, when I lose my friends, then I slip into the pit.
What I want to say to you is that this whole zigzag approach is wrong. I am not what I do, and you are not what you do, or what others say about you, or what you possess. “You are God’s Beloved!” I hope that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being—“You are the Beloved!”
The voice that speaks from above and from within whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved son or daughter, on you my favor rests.” It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good; you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable; you are nobody unless you can demonstrate the opposite.”
These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That’s the trap of self-rejection. It is the trap of being a fugitive hiding from your truest identity.
THE TEMPTATION TO DOUBT WHO YOU TRULY ARE
Jesus’ temptations in the desert, described in the Gospel of Luke, are temptations to move him away from that core identity. He was tempted to believe he was someone else: You are the one who can turn stone into bread. You are the one who can jump from the temple. You are the one who can make others bow to your power. Jesus said, “No, no, no. I am the Beloved of God.” I think his whole life is a continual claiming of that identity in the midst of everything. There are times in which he is praised, times when he is despised or rejected, but he keeps saying, “Others will leave me alone, but my Father will not leave me alone. I am the beloved son of God. I am the hope found in that identity.”
The greatest trap in life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection, doubting who we truly are. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions.
How quickly we give in to this temptation of self-rejection. For example, I remember speaking to thousands of people, and many would say, “That was wonderful, what you said.” But if one person stood up to say, “Hey, I thought it was a lot of nonsense,” that was the only person I would remember. Whenever I feel criticized, rejected, or left alone, I find myself thinking: “Well, that proves once again that I’m a nobody.” Instead of taking a critical look at the circumstances or trying to understand my own and others’ limitations, I tend to blame myself—not just for what I did, but for who I am. My self-rejection says: “I am no good; I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.”
Can you somehow identify in yourself the temptation to self-rejection, whether it manifests itself in arrogance or in low self-esteem? Self-rejection can show itself in a lack of confidence or a surplus of pride. Neither is a true reflection of the core of who we are. Often, self-rejection is simply seen as the neurotic expression of an insecure person. But neurosis is often the psychic manifestation of a much deeper human darkness: the darkness of not feeling truly welcome in human existence. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that declares we are loved. Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence. We are loved as creatures with both limitations and glory.
I am putting this so directly and so simply because, though the experience of being the Beloved has never been completely absent from my life, I was slow in claiming it as my core truth. I kept running around it while looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. It was as if I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being and says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.”
That soft, gentle voice that calls me the Beloved has come to me in countless ways. My parents, friends, teachers, students, and the many strangers who crossed my path have all sounded that voice in different tones. I have been cared for by many people with much tenderness and gentleness. I have been taught and instructed with much patience and perseverance. I have been encouraged to keep going when I was ready to give up, and was convinced to try again when I failed.
THE TEMPTATION OF COMPULSIVENESS
Coupled with the temptation of doubting who you truly are, is the temptation of compulsiveness. Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: “May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.” But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment, you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burnout. This is the way to spiritual death.
Well, you and I don’t have to dissipate and divide ourselves. We are the Beloved. We were intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.”
Listening to that voice with great inner attentiveness, I hear at my center words that say: “I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse. Yes, even your child. Wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”
THE INVITATION TO RETURN
Dear friend, being the Beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the Spirit. I say this because, as soon as we catch a glimpse of this truth, we are put on a journey in search of the fullness of that truth and we will not rest until we can rest in that truth. From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make. Augustine’s words, “My soul is restless until it rests in you, 0 God,” capture well this journey. That I am always searching for God, always struggling to discover the fullness of Love, and always yearning for the complete truth, tells me that I have already been given a taste of God, of Love, and of Truth. I can only look for something that I have, to some degree, already found.
All of us have deep inner memories of the paradise that we have lost. Maybe the word innocence is better than the word paradise. We were innocent before we started feeling guilty; we were in the light before we entered into the darkness; we were at home before we started to search for a home. Deep in the recesses of our minds and hearts lies the hidden treasure that we once had and now seek. We know its preciousness, and we know that it holds the gift we most desire: a spiritual life stronger than physical death.
If it is true that we not only are the Beloved but also must become the Beloved, how then can we get a grip on this process of becoming? Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do. It entails a long and painful process of appropriation or, better, incarnation. And this process requires the regular practice of prayer.
THE DISCIPLINE OF PRAYER
Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched fertile ground, you want to dig deeper. This digging and searching for an underground stream is the discipline of prayer.
I have come to define prayer as listening to that voice—to the one who calls you the Beloved. The discipline of prayer is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are and claim it for ourselves. My life is rooted in my spiritual identity. We must go back to our first love, back regularly to that place of core identity.
I’ve said it often that prayer is listening with obedience—listening with careful attention. Jesus listens with obedience to the Father; he keeps listening to the Father’s affirmation. Prayer doesn’t mean that you have loving, tender feelings as you listen to God’s voice. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. Prayer is a discipline. Discipline means to create boundaries around our meeting with God. Our times and places can’t be so filled up that there is no way of meeting. So you have to work very hard to say, this is the time in which I am with God, whether I like it or not, whether I feel like it, whether it satisfies me. You go back to the place of solitude with God and claim who you are.
If I am the Beloved of God, how do I claim my Belovedness? I begin by daily repeating the very words Jesus heard at his baptism, for they are also meant for me and for you: “You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Spend a few minutes every day in prayer, meditating on God’s great love. [26-35]
EXERCISES FOR SPIRITUAL DIRECTION
Receive the ultimate affirmation by praying The Beloved Prayer—a three-part guided meditation composed by Arthur LeClair for use in solitude, with a spiritual director, or in small prayer groups.2
Sit relaxed and at ease. Have confidence that God’s love will show itself in some way. For the first ten minutes, without fuss, say the following words slowly and fervently:
Jesus, You are the Beloved.
Repeat the words as necessary. Let your heart fill with nonverbal praise and thanksgiving. Let distractions float by, even when they press upon you. After a while the distractions will seem less and less urgent as you let them go. Simply be with Jesus in this precious moment.
Then, gently and without fanfare, move on to the next ten minutes. Paul reminds us in Romans 9:25 that we too are destined to become the Beloved. Another color is added to the beauty of this scene:
Jesus, I am the Beloved.
Let your core-being soak up God’s favor. At first, this shift might seem jarring. But rest in the depth of prayer and let this truth settle in.
Then go on to the next ten minutes. I used to imagine that this part would be a distraction, but I have found it to be a rich and holy connection with others.
Jesus, we (all) are the Beloved.
Let people come into your heart: a neighbor, a friend, a relative, someone you read about in the morning paper. The important thing is not to exclude anyone. Your heart will bring to the surface the ones you need to give attention to.
At the end, simply conclude with a word of thanksgiving, or the Lord’s Prayer.
This form of prayer can be done individually or in a group. It can be done on the way to work, in the quiet of early morning, or in the evening before retiring. When you do this as a group, you will find that the members of the group come out of the depths slowly and need a space of silence before speaking again.
Those who have used this prayer speak about a deep healing that takes place within them. If you stay with this form of prayer on a regular basis over a period of time, you will live with a clearer understanding of your place in the universe.
REFLECT AND JOURNAL:
Write a two-sentence answer to the question: Who am I? What does your answer reveal about what you value?
In what areas of your life are you most prone to self-rejection? [36-37]
- Cited by Nouwen first in “Generation Without Fathers,” Commonweal 92 (June 1970): 287-94, and then in The Wounded Healer (1972), pp. 25-26.
- Arthur LeClair, “The Beloved Prayer,” Sacred Journey (December 1996): 21-23