God's bosom, our self–understanding

Ron Rolheiser OMI
April 29, 2001

“The bosom of God is not a ghetto.” Nikos Kazantsakis wrote those words and went on to suggest that, too often, our own hearts do not mirror that inclusiveness. God's loyalties are wide while ours are narrow. Why? Because we tend to define ourselves in ways that don't sufficiently stretch the heart. How, ideally, should we picture ourselves?

Socrates used to say that he was a citizen of the world first and only afterwards a citizen of Athens. Teilhard de Chardin went one better. He defined himself, first of all, as part of mother–nature itself and only then as a human being. For him, we are cosmic before being human. That's our widest identity. We are that place within nature where the earth has become conscious of itself.

Such views, I believe, respect the proper order of things in terms of what and who we are. Long before we are a particular individual, with a personal story of achievement and disappointment, we are part of something that is much larger and more important, the earth itself and the family of humanity. But our natural inclination, it would seem, is to define ourselves in the opposite way, to make our idiosyncrasy the core of our identity.

So how might I ideally define myself? This way:

I am, before anything else, a child of God, a creature who depends upon God and others for coming into existence and remaining there. I am, as the philosophers used to put it, “contingent being”, not IPSUM ESSE SUBSISTENS (God). And, even as a created being, I am not the centre of the universe, but, simply, though wonderfully, one part of nature itself, cosmic before being human. Next, I am human, part of the family of humanity. After that, I am a believer, one of billions of men and women who worship God; then a Christian, baptized into the body of Christ, a Roman Catholic member of that body and, inside of that family, a member of a particular religious community, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. I am also a Canadian, proud of that heritage, deeply grateful for its ethos and privileges. Beyond that, I'm an English–speaker (still working on my French!), proud of my German–Russian heritage. Not to be forgotten too is the fact that I come from and belong to a particular family, which gave me birth, a name, and significantly shaped me in body and soul. I am a male member of that family, one of the two genders we have, an individual, a me, who has a unique, private history of achievements and wounds. Thus I am defined.

This kind of definition puts things in the right order. If I reverse the order, I reduce significantly what and who I am and I also risk losing the right perspective. In the reverse order, this would be the scenario:

Before everything else, I am my private story. I am my wounds and my achievements (the adult child of whatever family, the survivor of whatever, the boy who was bullied, the girl who was ostracized by her friends, the player who scored the winning goal, the girl who was homecoming Queen). This, my history, is my true reality. My wounds and achievements define me. Beyond that, I am my ego, me, with my private needs, dreams, and energies, although my friends and family also tell you who I am. To my own, I am fiercely loyalty. Beyond my own history, ego, friends, and family, I take identity too (fanatical, cynical, or casual) from my country, my language, my gender, my ethnicity, my religion, my values. I dimly sense that I am too a citizen of the world, but I'm more interested in local news (not to mention local gossip) than in world–events. I follow international stories with real interest only when my own interests are somehow involved. I am a person who respects nature. I value mother–earth because without her we have no future.

To define myself in this way is to risk turning my heart into a ghetto. Why? Because I am forming my core identity from what is idiosyncratic, from what is more peculiar to me. I am reversing Socrates and Teilhard, valuing the particular over the universal, the private over the communitarian, the ghetto over the more inclusive, and the human over the cosmic. To define myself in this way is to make myself a person of narrow loyalties, overly–protective of boundaries, vulnerable to racism, sexism, ethnic and religious intolerance, and someone whose identity and everyday meaning is too tied to a solitary, suffocating, privatized history of small achievements and huge disappointments — yes, my private ego, proud, bruised, scheming, pouting.

The bosom of God is not a ghetto. Well put. Our hearts and loyalties need to mirror that. But they wouldn't unless, like Socrates and Teilhard, we understand ourselves first of all as cosmic, human, and communitarian and only after that define ourselves by our private stories.