Seeking Identity

Seeking Identity August 27, 2016

By Devilal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This post is part of the Patheos Catholic Channel series, “Catholicity:  Identity and its Discontents.”  Read more here.

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held….this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick….She burned for two hours…like a hollow saint….while I read by her light. — Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

Questions of personal identity always make me uncomfortable.  As these questions are currently understood, they require definitions and precision.  Yet, questions of personal identity are an inquiry into things that are unknown and must remain so.  To give an answer that does not acknowledge the unknown results in more than an untruth.  It results in a destruction.  Still, we often unintentionally sow and reap these seeds of destruction from the moment we awake at the start of our day until we close our eyes at the end.  Our culture asks us to play the game of naming the groups and ideas with which we identify.  Our hearts and minds are the playing field for this destructive game that wishes to give name to the nameless and we find ourselves enthusiastically playing this game.  How to take seriously the question of Catholic identity without the destruction?

A good place to start is to read all the posts in this series that I linked to above.  The writers of all of the posts either questioned what sort of identity they had or wanted, grounded their identity in relationships, questioned the politics of identity, and/or raised prayer, sacraments, and giving to others as essential.  The posts essentially offered all sorts of things I would offer and they did so in wonderful ways I could not imitate.  Plus, in approaching the theme of identity in the ways they did, they honored the unknown.  Their answers demonstrated a Catholic sense of approaching identity.  This does not satisfy the cultural push for a name though.  What can we call you?  How can we know you?  What does Catholic mean?  More needs to be said!

Sadly, it cannot be.  Why?

Because the center of Catholic identity lies within the realm of the unknowable and the unsayable.  How to know the unknowable or say more about the unsayable?  How to be truthful to the incomprehensible at the center of personal identity?  Is there a way of knowing the incomprehensible incomprehensibly in a blog post?

Of course not.  It is not the proper medium for that encounter.  But we can be reminded, and even invited, to continue onward in refining our understanding of our identity.  The flame beckons.

The problem is the naming.  It is not that naming is wrong or evil.  Words are not evil.  Precision in language and idea is not something we reject but encourage.  In fact, it is this precision that brings us up short.  It allows us to notice that space between words and to the things that the words refer.  Words and things.  And the space between them.

How should we understand and relate to that space?  It shines like the flame that it is.  We are called to that space and we are sure we are called by name.  In fact, that space IS our name.  We sense this.  We want this deeply.  A name.  We are seeking an identity, a name.  In seeking a name, we really are looking for the core of who we are.

The word Catholic frustrates us though.  It can never be a name.  How can universal be particular?

Yet the flame dances and hypnotizes.  Sending its warmth, its play of light and shadow. And being the artists we are, our minds and hearts seek to make that light ours. Seeking identity.  We yearn for it.  Our hearts and minds burning for our name.  Our mouths hungry to swallow the light whole and let it burn away all that it finds.

Christ is the name that is not a name.  Christ is the light that beckons.  Christ is the One seeking.

Christ is our name.  Christ is our identity.  When we stop seeking.

How can people think that artists seek a name?  A name, like a face, is something you have when you’re not alone.  There is no such thing as an artist:  there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.  When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick?  When the candle is out, who needs it?  But the world without light is a wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination….What can any artist set on fire but his world?  What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? — Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


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