By Kathleen Hope Brown, D. Min.
Who am I, at the core of my being? My work in this world – my job, my actions on behalf of others, my efforts to be a good citizen and steward of Creation, are part of who I am, but not all. My human relationships – family, friends, community – are part of who I am, but not all. Even as I seek, grow, evolve, and discover parts of myself I hadn’t been aware of before, there is a deep-down part of me that no one else sees, that even I can’t take in all at once.
How to I recognize, get in touch with, this deep-down part of me? It is a spiritual quest. Genesis 1:26 says that we are created in the image of God. Theologians and spiritual masters throughout history have shed many rays of light on the deep meaning of that ultimately mysterious reality – mysterious in that there is no end to our understanding of it. Only a spiritual journey can take me to the heart of this mystery.
This is a journey that can at times seem circular. We come to know who God is as we come to know who we are. Our quest for God happens in parallel with our journey inward. When we experience within ourselves the power of overflowing, generative, creative love, we know who God is. St. Francis de Sales, writing in the early 17th century, took very seriously that we are made in the image and likeness of God. He recognized the many things that go into making a human person who he or she is – body, mind, spirit, relationships. Importantly, he believed that the soul – the spark of the divine in us – resides in every part of us.
As a human person, I am an embodied spirit. When I think of myself in this way, there is no demeaning of my physical life, my work, my roles in life or my healthful human relationships. My soul resides in all of these, creating a unity in all the pieces. That means God is part of all of all the pieces of my life, too. Even when I feel broken into pieces or lost in the mess of parts that seem out of sync, God is with my soul, holding everything in unity and giving peace. There is a density to this way of thinking about who I am that can speak to contemporary life. It bridges realities. It can embrace the richness, complexity and variability of my life. It can heal the brokenness and make me whole even in my weakest hours.
Contemporary theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes of the image of God that we bear as creative, life-giving love:
Doesn’t bearing the image of God mean that who I am is about love, beauty and creativity?
How I think of who I am can be overshadowed by the experiences of my life. While Scripture might say that I am fundamentally good, the experiences of my life in which I’ve been told that I am bad, unworthy, or the cause of others’ unhappiness or evil actions, and I might have internalized those messages. Abuse, labels, diagnoses – the list could go on – are experiences that can leave me thinking that others – not God – define who I am. If I have been led by others to doubt my own goodness, I might have forgotten that I am fundamentally good, made in the image of God, God’s beloved.
Pamela Cooper-White who writes at the intersection of theology and psychology, insightfully refers to human beings as “braided selves.” The metaphor of a braid indicates that not only are there multiple “stands” to who we are as complex human creatures, but that the strands do not just run along in parallel. The overlap, intersect, and are woven together.
God is the master weaver of my life. My work, my relationships, my experiences – all parts of who I am – are woven into the braid. Even when strands of the braid seem frayed, weak, or broken, somehow the other strands hold it and, while perhaps a bit less smooth, the braid can ultimately become stronger. The more my spiritual life is woven into all of the rest of who I am, the more I understand myself as bearing the image of God, the stronger and more fully human I become.
Some questions for Reflection:
How do I look for the light of God within me?
When have I felt the most creative?
When have I felt the most loving?
When have I felt the most beautiful?
Kathleen Hope Brown, D. Min teaches spirituality and spiritual direction at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA. She is also a spiritual integrator at the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, MD.