"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.
"Let the Scriptures, then, first of all be themselves. Let us admit that here are words from another era that are now alien to us. Once we have done so, we will be able to see that, in their own terms and their own context, the biblical authors were dealing with the same issues that confront us -- issues of faith and understanding that do not fade in a thousand years or in ten thousand. Who is God? What kind of world has God made? Who are we, human spirits and souls and bodies, who find ourselves in this world? What are the limits of our existence and our power, and what lies beyond them? Why is suffering a part of our lives? Why does this world not measure up to the best that we might hope of it? And why does it give us so much more than we could have asked? The mysteries of our existence remain with us; to grow in comprehension of Scripture will mean that we grow in the mysteries, too." - William Countryman
L. William Countryman, Biblical Authority or Tyranny?: Scripture and the Christian Pilgrimage, rev. ed. (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), 103. Italics mine.
"May all your expectations be frustrated, May all of your plans be thwarted, May all of your desires be withered into nothingness, That you may experience the powerless and poverty of a child and can sing and dance in the Love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." -- Larry Hine (as quoted in The Christian Century, April 16, 2014, p. 9).
In preparation for Holy Thursday this year, I find myself reflecting on Jesus’ final words to his disciples in the gospel of John. “I give you a new commandment, to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” At the core of my own faith is a simple conviction: that to love is to know God and this is how we are called to make God known to the world.
Arthur Peacocke, the distinguished British scientist and theologian died from cancer at the age of 81 in 2001. Shortly before his death he penned these words. I have found them helpful: “Over the years I have given much thought and spilt much ink on the nature of God and God’s interaction with people. Not surprisingly the subtler nuances of my deliberations have fallen away before the absolute conviction that God is love and eternally so. This remains the foundation of my prayers and thoughts for ‘underneath are the everlasting arms.’ This is not always easily experienced and it needs concentrated meditation – the ‘black dog’ of depression is sometimes difficult to dispel.” Quoting the Venerable Bede (ca. 720), Peacock goes on to write, our human life is “as if when on a winter’s night you sit feasting with your elderman and thanes, a single sparrow should fly swiftly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly flying out through another. In that time in which it is indoors, it is indeed not touched by the fury of the winter, but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to your eyes. Somewhat like this appears the life of man [sic.]; but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant. … Thanks to the revelation of God through Jesus the Christ, we do not share this ignorance. I know that God is waiting for me to be enfolded in love.” As quoted in Context, Martin E. Marty on Religion and Culture, April 2007.