Identity Crisis

Be what you is, ’cause if you be what you ain’t, you ain’t what you is.” This downhome saying has been widely repeated and variously attributed. It is often cited, I think, because it is so very wise. It also turns out to refer to the road less traveled. One of the ways consumer culture works is by telling us that happiness comes in being, looking or having something different. Without Product X, we are told, you will not have adequate value, respect or lovability (and forget about sexual prowess). But with Product X you can “be what you ain’t.”

A good Ignatian practice, when one’s soul is aligned with God, is to look deeply at one’s most profound desires, for they are expressions of one’s deepest truth. God’s will is that we live our core truth. Ignatius encouraged us to trust that truth, but he also expected us to follow through on it. Living our truth is our own personal contribution to the kingdom as well as a daunting responsibility. It is a question of being “who you is.” To fail to live one’s truth is to be something of an impostor, living a life of chronic dissatisfaction in which “you ain’t what you is.”


These considerations are right in line with Paul’s way of thinking. His exhortations to holiness are often premised on the fact that we already are holy. We must live lives worthy of the kingdom that is already ours (1 Thes 2:12). And it is because we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” that we are to embrace the virtues corresponding to that truth (Col 3:12ff). The ought is grounded in the is. “Be who you is.”

In today’s second reading, Paul applies this principle to the church at large: “I...urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received.” Paul then implores the Christian community to humility, gentleness, loving forbearance and, above all, unity. This represents the ought, the challenge to strive for something. Then Paul reminds us that we are “one body and one Spirit...called to the one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Over the course of Ephesians, Paul reiterates on five separate occasions, to drive home the point, that we are one body of Christ

For the church, embracing the imperative to unity is a key aspect to realizing our own truth. Unity becomes both a gift and a task. And what a task it is! The church has never been without conflicts and threats to unity. And it has failed often, sometimes in small ways and other times more tragically. We should not be surprised, since disharmony reflects the messiness of the human condition.

Here are three strategies for realizing Paul’s hope. The first is to regard the church as a family. We may not like everyone in our family, but they are family. Typically, we never stop loving even those who make us pull our hair out. Second, let’s try to stay in the game. Checking out, emotionally or otherwise, is a self-defeating step. I personally pray daily for my parish priest and local bishop. I have also sometimes voiced public criticism toward our leadership. Both for me are acts of fidelity.

Third, we must rely on God’s grace. While we bring our will and energy to all endeavors, the transformation is really God’s, “who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us” (Eph 3:20). The Gospel reading recounts the multiplication of the loaves and the fish, a great image of what we bring to the kingdom, which is far too little. And it is a great image of what God’s grace does with these offerings, which is to feed a multitude.

The church is divided, and it is suffering. We simply must strive for deeper unity, for this is at the core of who we are. And if “you be what you ain’t, you ain’t what you is.”

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