January 15, 2021

Wisdom Week: “Who am I?”


Kathleen Norris is one of our wisest contemporary authors. It has been over twenty years since I first read her “spiritual geography,” Dakota, the remarkable contemplative memoir about the power of place and paying attention. It retains its power today.

In a chapter about her spiritual journey and the faith of her ancestors, she recalls a day when she was a young adult working in New York City. Out of nowhere, a question crept into her consciousness: “What is sin?” Despite her religious heritage and background, she couldn’t imagine an understandable answer. It was only many years later, when she became involved in a Benedictine community, that she gained some clarity on the subject.

Comprehensible, sensible sin is one of the unexpected gifts I’ve found in the monastic tradition. The fourth-century monks began to answer a question for me that the human potential movement of the late twentieth century never seemed to address: if I’m O.K. and you’re O.K., and our friends (nice people and, like us, markedly middle class, if a bit bohemian) are O.K., why is the world definitely not O.K.? Blaming others would do. Only when I began to see the world’s ills mirrored in myself did I begin to find an answer; only as I began to address that uncomfortable word, sin, did I see that I was not being handed a load of needless guilt so much as a useful tool for confronting the negative side of human behavior.

The desert monks were not moralists concerned that others behave in a proper way so much as people acutely aware of their own weaknesses who tried to see their situation clearly without the distortions of pride, ambition, or anger. They saw sin (what they called bad thoughts) as any impulse that leads us away from paying full attention to who and what we are and what we’re doing; any thought or act that interferes with our ability to love God and neighbor. Many desert stories speak of judgment as the worst obstacle for a monk. “Abba Joseph said to Abba Pastor: ‘Tell me how I can become a monk.’ The elder replied: ‘If you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say, “Who am I?” and judge no one.'”


  1. The question which we usually avoid and, if confronted with a mirror, the one we escape by comparing ourselves with another more imperfect. Transference of guilt and avoidance of blame may give us the illusion of adequacy, but God knows better, and deep down so do we. Who am I?

    • Christiane says

      OSCAR, I can appreciate your point of view, here.

      People got upset with Pope Francis when he refused to point the finger at another and instead said, ‘Who am I to judge?’ They assumed he was supporting the person’s behavior by not condemning the person. But instead, I believe he was embracing his own position as ‘a sinner saved by Christ’.

      If we could remember ‘who we are’, then maybe we wouldn’t be so anxious to distance ourselves from a fallen brother or cast him off entirely.

  2. The elder replied: ‘If you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say, “Who am I?” and judge no one.’”

    If I read the quote correctly it is not about evangelicals, it is about me… and Damaris…and Christiane…and you… and ALL of us.

  3. Clay Crouch says

    No, Oscar, it’s about me. Not you, not Christiane, not Damaris, not my evangelical, next door neighbor, only me.

  4. Only when I began to see the world’s ills mirrored in myself did I begin to find an answer

    Amen. The older I get the more I view the world’s woes as the darkness of my own heart, writ large. This doesn’t mean that we must perfect ourselves before confronting evil or seeking to do good, only that we do so with humility and grace.

    • “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
      ? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

    • The story goes that a man wrote to G.K. Chesterton asking the question, “What is wrong with the world today?” Chesterton wrote back:

      “Dear Sir,

      I am.

      G.K. Chesterton”

  5. More and more I am convinced that the question “Who am I?” can only be answered meaningfully with the concept variously stated as self/Self or ego/Higher Self or some such. I don’t find Paul’s language of much help today, but he did know the concept as old man/new man (sorry ladies) or flesh/spirit or old mind/mind of Christ.

    While the concept has been around for all this time, I believe it is only now finally starting to be recognized for what it is, and I believe non-religious language is helping. It does not help me to be told I am a sinner. My hackles come up and I seem to be joined by most of the younger generation. However if it is explained to me that in the same way that I am not my body, I am not my ego, this obstinate and contrary and self-absorbed person who has dominated my life all these years, then my ears are perked up.

    Most people assume that they are their ego, their mind, their thoughts, their emotions, their desires, their proclivities, their bad habits. Most therapy and most religious discipleship is geared toward taming this beast so it can lead a productive and decent life, or at least not do great harm. The wisdom tradition would say instead that our goal is to dissolve this ego, or to dethrone it from its position of ultimate self-interest and control. And not to get sidetracked and trapped into a shift to a religious ego.

    If we are not our ego, all this that we identify as “me”, if all that would be dissolved, what would be left of us? The sages, the mystics, the keepers of wisdom have been saying all along that what is left is God’s Spirit within, or even less dualistically stated, God. Who am I? I now tend to answer that as I am a child of God. This is not necessarily a sudden shift of consciousness, tho it can be. It is more usually a process of learning and practice and discipline and growth. At some point I think the question becomes “Who AM I?” and the answer would be “I AM”. That would be the mind of Christ, who demonstrated the ultimate transformation possible and calls us to follow him as best we can.

  6. I am the walrus.

    goo goo g’ joob

  7. Beautiful.
    (Kathleen Norris is one of my favorite Christian authors, btw)

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