Remember who you are. Was it only my parents, or did everybody’s mother or father call out those deflating words when, as teenagers, we tried to slip unnoticed out the back door for the evening?
Remember who I was? I was a zit-faced, fat preacher’s kid, investing a lot of energy in trying to be somebody other than me. Hand on the doorknob — off-gassing Brut aftershave, decked out in glasses and platform shoes that I hoped made me look more like Elton John than Danny Partridge, and packing a mickey or a bit of weed and my Led Zeppelin eight-track cassette. Remember who you are? Seriously?
I think my parents meant: You are a good person. You are a trustworthy person. You are a responsible person. You are claimed by Christ. And, please don’t do something stupid, illegal or dangerous.
Some quotes stick because they succinctly make sense of life. They make us stop and say “Yes!” They answer questions. Other quotes stay with us because of the question they pose. “Remember who you are” asks “Who am I?”
I turn 55 this month, and the answer to that question remains only a partially unwrapped gift.
Who are we? The Bible offers several answers. Jews and Christians alike remember that we are ex-slaves liberated from the oppression of empire. When Jesus was baptized, a voice declared, “You are my beloved.” We too are beloved. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust. Our bodies, says the Apostle Paul, are temples wherein the Divine makes a home. These declarations of identity are true, but they are only partial responses to the mystery of our unique identities. In other words, I know we are, but who am I?
When Moses stood before the burning-not-burning bush, his first question was, “Who am I?” His second question was, “Who are you?” Moses did not receive a satisfactory response to either question. Nor have I. And I am grateful for that inner “cloud of unknowing,” to quote an anonymous 14th-century Christian mystic.
Of course, we know ourselves and one another. To a point. At the post office or the grocery store, we may be greeted by name. Friends and family, with whom we have shared countless cups of joy and loaves of heartache, know us. In some ways, they know us better than we know ourselves. But we also have an inner life that even our most intimate friends and lovers cannot know because we do not fully know it ourselves.
Remember who I am? I can’t. Parts of me are unknowable because they are cobbled together by Mystery; by God. I cannot remember who I am — not completely — because I do not know myself. This elusive self is revealed to us like dreams that evaporate as we awaken in the morning. We catch glimpses of it in the periphery of our vision, like a small bird or a firefly that is there and gone. The dream or the bird or the flick of fire entices us to know and remember who we are. Our truest identity is a bottomless well of mystery.
It is in these places of not knowing — of not remembering — that I come close to that Presence or Love or Mystery that I settle for calling “God.” In what I cannot remember about who I am, I glimpse the One whose name I cannot know. Within and beyond each of us, there is this divine unknowing. It is as personal as our individual DNA and as infinite and unsolvable as the universe itself. These days, I try to live as if I remember that is who I am. Who we all are.
Very Rev. David Giuliano is a former United Church moderator and a minister with St. John’s United in Marathon, Ont.
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