The Gift of Identity – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Br. Nicholas BartoliI know this comes three days late, but welcome to Epiphanytide, the season during which we recognize the revelation of God to us through Jesus Christ. As part of our celebration we’re offering this sermon series on following God’s call. It’s called Gifts for the Journey, and over the following weeks, we’ll explore five ways God reveals Godself to us, five gifts we might expect along our spiritual journey in Christ, which as they’re revealed to us in the fullness time help us discern God’s call. Tonight, we’ll be looking at the gift of identity, asking the question “Who am I, really?”

First, we’ll begin with a story. It’s a very ancient story, and I first encountered it as told by Anthony de Mello in his book The Song of the Bird. Once upon a time there lived a doll made from salt. This salt doll, infused with a curious restlessness, searched far and wide for something it couldn’t quite name. It wandered all across the land, for so long it very often forgot it was searching for anything at all. But still, the salt doll went on, travelling far and wide, fueled by this hidden desire.

Then one day, it happened upon a golden shore, a beautiful beach sparkling under a shining sun. Except, it had never seen an ocean before, so it didn’t know quite what to make of the gently rolling surface, and the white foam breaking against the sand. Cautiously approaching the ocean, the salt doll said “Excuse me, I’ve never seen anything like you before. Could you tell me what you are?”

The ocean just laughed and replied “Well, that’s a bit hard to say, you’ll just have to come in and see for yourself.” The salt doll wasn’t sure it trusted this ocean, and felt a bit afraid. It was tempted to turn around and head back the way it had come, but something gave it pause. Perhaps it was that restlessness it felt and an unacknowledged commitment to follow wherever it led, or perhaps it was just curiosity. But whatever the reason, the salt doll began walking into the sea.

As it walked, more and more of the salt doll dissolved into the ocean until there was only a small bit poking up above the water. And just as the last of the salt doll disappeared below the waves it exclaimed in wonder and surprise, “Oh, now I know who I am!”

The salt doll had found an end to the restlessness, and an answer to a question it didn’t realize it had been wondering: Who am I? It’s one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, and the answer to that question happens to be tied to another interesting question: Who is God? We were made, after all, in the image and likeness of our creator, so who are we, really?

These questions of identity are as old as the spiritual journey itself. For example, when Moses experiences his own epiphany, witnessing God manifest as a burning bush giving Moses his calling, the first question Moses asks is “Who am I… that I should…” do these things? The second question Moses asks is about God’s identity to which God simply replies “I AM WHO I AM.”

Now, on the surface, that doesn’t seem like much of an answer so I can imagine how Moses might have felt, perhaps nervously wondering what the reaction of an unsettled crowd would be when he returned to his people. “But though “I am” might not seem like much of answer to either question, it is pointing to a truth that lives within all of us. The Mystery we call God and the Mystery of our identity are bound together in a way that transcends any kind of rational knowing, so perhaps the best we can do is just point to it, and pray that we become aware of this truth within the core of our very being, simply resting in the being-ness or I-am-ness we share with the Holy One.

One approach we might take toward resting in this I-am-ness is to start with considering what we’re not, sort of a knowing by unknowing. Henri Nouwen, in his book on spiritual direction liked this kind of approach, reminding us what we are not, to help us settle on who we are. Another person who would have liked this approach is Meister Eckhart, a 13th century theologian and mystic who once wrote “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.”

So, who aren’t we? Well, we’re not the things own. We’re not how much money we have. We’re not what people say or think about us. We’re not what we do in the world, even if what we do feels very fulfilling and meaningful. We’re not the roles we play, even important ones like parent or child. We’re not our bodies, either, since we’re aware of having bodies. And this one might be a bit subtler, but for the same reason, we’re not our thoughts, emotions, or beliefs. After all, once we become aware of a thought or emotion or belief we can just ask, “Who just became aware of that?” So, like our bodies, even thoughts, emotions, and beliefs are things we have, and not who we are.

At this point you may have noticed that this list of what we aren’t doesn’t seem to leave much left, and in fact if we were to continue in this way we’d eventually be left with nothing at all. Much like the salt doll in our story it’s only when we realize our own nothingness that we begin to taste who we really are and who God is.

Our humility before God doesn’t reach its ultimate fruition until we come to know that on the level of God’s truth we are nothing we take ourselves to be, and, paradoxically, out of that nothingness is born something truly wonderful, awesome, and beautiful.

Saint Anthony once wrote “The prayer of the monk is not perfect until he no longer recognizes himself or the fact that he is praying.” It’s as if as we pray we learn to surrender more and more of who we think we are until our very lives and identity become the prayer. Of all the ways that Jesus Christ reveals himself in the world, the revelation of who we truly are in relation to ourselves, to God, and to all creation, is perhaps the most profoundly transforming. As when Jesus was baptized, we come to know ourselves as God’s beloved, born anew into a realization of who we are in Christ. This is an ongoing revelation, less like learning something new, and more like remembering something we’ve forgotten.

When we began this life, and perhaps somehow even before, we lived in union with God, dissolved in the ocean of God’s love. Eddies and currents started to coalesce into shimmering pools of radiance, until we found ourselves as particular salt dolls walking along a newfound shore, forgetting our true nature, and venturing out into the world. We’re helped in our forgetfulness by the many forces in our world convincing us that we are anything except beautiful and unique manifestations of Christ’s light. Every once in a while, perhaps seeing Christ’s light in the love of those around us, we’re reminded of the sea we left behind, and reminded that in a strange sort of way that ocean still surrounds us and is even within us. One day, we’ll make our way back to that ocean for good, but until that time we get to express Christ’s light and love throughout this amazing world we find ourselves in.

And it starts by making a choice. We choose to let God help us remember our true identity, or as St. Paul would say, we let ourselves be no longer an “I,” but an “I in Christ.” And as we learn to let go our attachment to all the things we might think we are, and rest in our real identity, the question of what we’re supposed to do in the world becomes a little easier to navigate. It starts feeling like God is the one making the choices through us, as our false selves fade into the background. Now, that doesn’t mean that along our journey we might not have to face detours and disillusionment, or need to rely on helpful guides or a supportive community. But, each step of the way becomes easier if our first step is resting in who we truly are, and letting our beloved Holy One’s will be done instead of ours.

Accepting who we really are is tougher then we might think. It seems so much easier to be distracted by the lies telling us: we are who the world says we are. Sometimes we might not even realize we’re living these lies. But we can help by making it part of our mission to remind ourselves and one another of this essential truth, to give the gift of this ongoing revelation in support of our shared journey in following God’s call.

I’ll end by sharing a poem written by one particular salt doll from the point of view of one particular “I in Christ,” expressing itself in the world. It’s called “My Habit.”

I have a habit,
and Nicholas
is his name.
He’s so adorable
that with all quirks
I love him just the same.

And a reflection
he will offer
at his best.
Light that speaks
of who I am
when he lets himself rest.

So with each morning
I celebrate
with the Sun.
Then, wearing my dear habit
I go play
until done.

So, go out into the world, resting in your very truest selves shining with the light of Christ. Go out into the world remembering the I-am-ness of who you really are. Go out in the world and let your “I in Christ” be at a play, sharing that light to all you meet. After all, you are God’s Beloved, you are infinitely beautiful and precious, so however your particular salt doll may manifest in the world, please, let your light shine.

This sermon is part of the “Gifts for the Journey” series. We hope you’ll check out the other sermons in the series

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  1. John, and maybe Scott on January 26, 2021 at 07:18

    Thank you. As an adopted person facing news that may identify my birth mother, or at least another family than the one I grew up with, this sinks deep.

  2. David Watkins on January 25, 2021 at 12:41

    Thank you for this beautiful message!

  3. Byan Thompson on January 25, 2021 at 11:21

    What a unique blessing this was to me today! I love the simple delivery with the rich layers reminding me, too, that I am intended to be here! Thank you for this today! Bryan Thompson, Charleston SC

  4. Nancy Kennedy on January 25, 2021 at 10:42

    Lord, Make me a Channel of Thy Peace.

  5. John on January 25, 2021 at 07:48

    Thank you. Timely for me. A blessing.

  6. Reed Saunders on January 25, 2021 at 05:20

    I am a child of a loving God and that is enough

  7. Sylvia Tospann on January 25, 2021 at 03:29

    Very profound… must admit it was worth reprinting these thoughts. Thank you. It is also very similar of what Richard Rohr had to write in his today’s meditation newsletter. Again, thought provoking, also love Anthony De Mello’s salt story.

  8. Elizabeth D. Vickers on January 22, 2020 at 08:40

    Yesterday,our small churchwomen’s group discussed “how does each of us experience the presence of God in our lives?” Your very insightful sermon, for me, relates to that discussion. Thank you!

    • Jeff McGuire on January 23, 2020 at 12:17

      Thank you, Brother Bartoli. I hope to meet you someday in Cambridge MA.

      Jeff McGuire
      San Francisco CA

  9. Ruth West on January 15, 2019 at 23:25

    Thank you for this sermon, Br. I have experienced a time of recognizing my true identity lately.
    Had a bad fall on Dec. 27th and have been confined to a trauma center, a skilled nursing center and just came back to my own home. I had an injured body and an affected mind until a few days ago. It was not a happy time. But I know more now who I am and who God is in my life than ever before. I have never been so thankful for my loving family and friends. Please pray for me for a complete recovery.

    • SusanMarie on January 16, 2019 at 07:05

      Dear Ruth, I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through lately. You are in my prayers for healing and for Peace. I’m glad you are able to be in your home. Blessings, SusanMarie ~

  10. Phyllis McCormick on January 15, 2019 at 11:51

    Thank you. You blew me out of the water with this sermon. As an 80 year old I am spending a great deal of time with the questions of my life and how I live it and who I am. What will I be when this body and mind are gone.

    Thank you again for answering so many questions.

  11. Edward Franks on January 15, 2019 at 11:21

    Would you say more specifically what God’s Will is for us? examples?

  12. CHRISTINA MCKERROW on January 15, 2019 at 09:41

    Like SusanMarie, I echo her sentiments: thank you for this beautiful sermon. I have read it twice and listened to it as well. It raises so many questions for me to ponder. It reminds me too about something I read in a Richard Rohr book: A little girl, an only child, talked to her new born brother, when he was brought home from the hospital. She asked him to tell her about God. She said, ‘I am beginning to forget.’// And I ponder whether we are all born with that knowledge of our creator, and little-by-little that knowing gets swept away with our life on earth. If we are blessed, we have to learn our belonging to God all over again. Blessings. Christina

    • SusanMarie on January 15, 2019 at 10:22

      Christina, I read that story from one of Rohr’s books as well and it’s never left my thoughts. Your comment on it is beautiful and definitely worth both pondering and remembering. Blessings to you!

  13. Jeanne DeFazio on January 15, 2019 at 09:21

    Thanks for sharing so beautifully. These devotions and responses are a perfect beginning of 2019

  14. Elizabeth Hardy on January 15, 2019 at 09:19

    I feel like I can breathe for the first time in months. Thank you for this. If I can’t look at myself because of all the negative messages I have believed, how can I begin to refine myself to the person God created. loves and indwells. Elizabeth+

  15. Connie on January 15, 2019 at 09:11

    This beautiful message was so so applicable for me today. I am preparing to give a eulogy at my ex-husband’s funeral in a few days. He was not a perfect man and left behind many shadows that were not really “him”. I have been grieving over what was and what was not in this world pertaining to him …. and myself. The image of him walking into the SEA OF GOD’s LOVE as a “salt doll” is perfect. I believe our Good and Loving Father deconstructs all of those shadows of ours into the purity he accepts when we return to HIM. Thank you so very much for this image. Bless you.

  16. SusanMarie on January 15, 2019 at 06:39

    Wow! This is such a beautiful sermon/message! I felt myself becoming more and more alive as I read it. It felt like I was coming home and being wrapped gently and lovingly in a soft, warm blanket…because I KNOW this self. I don’t live there all the time because as you said, it’s not easy. But once we have the smallest experience of our True Self — which is the person God created and nothing more, nothing less — we are able to recognize God within us and we want to find that True Self again and stay there. The false self needs to go. It’s hard work at first, but once we get a “taste” of the True Self, we can become more aware of what needs to be stripped away and it becomes easier. It’s the work of a lifetime and worth every effort (and backward slide). The story of the salt doll is perfectly wonderful for this message. Well done and thank you!

  17. Jim on January 16, 2018 at 20:16

    Thank you. Thank you. Inspirational.

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