I was regretting the past
and fearing the future.
Suddenly God was speaking.
"My name is 'I am.'" I waited.
God continued, "When you live in the past,
with its mistakes and regrets,
it is hard. I am not there.
My name is not 'I was."
When you live in the future,
with its problems and fears, it is hard.
I am not there.
My name is not 'I will be."
When you live in this moment,
it is not hard. I am here.
My name is "I am."
(From Helen Mellicost, on the kitchen wall of the Ranch Guesthouse, St. Benedicts Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado)
printed in One Hundred Graces (selected by Marcia and Jack Kelly)
This is a lovely book available inexpensively on Amazon.com.
Last Sunday I interpreted Jesus' famous words from John 14: "In my Father's house are many dwelling places," as words of comfort for the living: know that in the heart of the God there is enough room for you. The key to being at peace and helping others to be at peace is the knowledge that we are welcome in this world. This poem by Mary Oliver speaks to me in the same inviting voice as it approaches its closing line "over and over announcing your place in the family of things."
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things."
as printed in Kevin Young, ed., The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing (New York: Bloomsbery, 2010), 251.
"Who am I?" was written in prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shortly before his execution by the Nazi's. It speaks to the basic question of self that haunts our human condition: is our identity, our value, dependent on what others think of us, or are we what we think of ourselves? In this poem, Bonhoeffer, one of the theological giants and martyrs of the 20th century, gives us a precious glimpse into his own struggle with questions that haunt us all: am I the hero they tell me I am (or should be) or I am the terrified frailty that I know myself to be?
In each of our lives, at one point or another, we struggle with these questions. What is my value to the world? Who am I? This struggle is the dark night of the soul. In his triumphant and utterly vulnerable final line, Bonhoeffer surrender's himself to the Higher Power and discloses to us the only answer that brings new life in our human wilderness. In the end our infinite value and the infinite value of every human being, lies in the knowledge that we are all, each and every one of us, children of God. "Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine."
"Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell's confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as through it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
My throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely question of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine."
The poem is as quoted in Douglas John Hall, Waiting for the Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant "Establishment" (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012), 94; translated by J.B. Leishman, and reproduced in G. Leibholz's 'Memoir' of Bonhoeffer, in Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 15.