Becoming Who We Are

by Rose Mary Dougherty (from the Shalem Archives, 1996)

Several months ago I had what I have come to call “my recurring dream.” I’ve had the same dream periodically over the past ten years. In the dream I am young and I am going to several personal wisdom figures, asking them if they think I should enter religious life (which I did some thirty years ago). In retrospect, the dream has always seemed the herald of some change in my life, some invitation to be issued, a decision to be made. The “entering religious life” always has to do with my going for God very intentionally.

The dream several months ago was a little different. I was still wondering if I should enter religious life. I was approaching the same people for answers, but as I came to each of them, I knew it wasn’t right to ask them. Then I saw a little boy, three or four years old, with large brown eyes. I asked him my question, “Do you think I should enter religious life?” He looked at me with piercing, puzzled eyes. Finally he said, “Do you wanna?”

I awoke from the dream smiling and at peace. It was all so simple. For years in my dream (and probably more often in real life than I care to admit) I had wanted someone else to tell me what to do, to give their answers to my questions. This little child was the only one who had asked in this dream, “Do you wanna?” In asking this, he had called me back to myself, had invited me to listen to my heart.

For some of us, listening to our hearts, to our “wanna’s,” can seem like a selfish thing. It implies ignoring the needs around us and just doing what we want. I have come to believe, however, that listening to our hearts, to our “wanna’s,” brings us to the core of our being, where we are most authentically ourselves. In that place, we can hear God’s prayer within us. We can sort through all the needs and expectations around us and choose, among all the things we might do, what fits with whom we are in God.

Some of us have been taught to make our life decisions by answering the question, “What would Jesus do if Jesus were here?” Jesus would do what Jesus would do. We must do what we must do. Jesus demonstrated this truth: When the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to ask him a favor, he asked: “What do you want?” When Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me,” Jesus didn’t presume to know what he wanted. Instead, he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” When a few disciples began to follow him, he looked them squarely in the eye and questioned: “What do you want?” When he was with them, he invited his followers to listen to their hearts. When he was about to leave them, he promised them the Spirit of Truth who would “guide them to all truth.” The same Spirit of truth and authenticity that animated Jesus animates us. We need only listen.

This listening is not easy. It requires a trust that there is within our hearts an inner wisdom that we only need to seek. The point of being in the company of a guru, a wisdom figure or even a spiritual director is not to be given that person’s truth but rather to be led inside to our own.

The danger of reading the lives of the saints or being excessively inspired by holy people is that we can tend to mistake their path for ours. We may try to emulate them without reference to our own inner calling. We may take on spiritual practices that have no bearing on our life in God. In effect, we may relinquish authenticity, our true greatness in God, for the sake of a false self, an image we have created of whom we should become. Perhaps that is something of what Thomas Merton meant when he said: “Many would-be saints never become saints for the same reason that many poets never become great poets. They are too busy trying to write the poetry of other poets.”

If Thomas Merton is right, and I think he is, what is it that would-be saints can learn from other saints? What can we learn from gurus and wisdom figures? Perhaps what we can learn is that they are single-minded. They have discovered and lived the truth of the gospel imperative, “Those who will save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives will find them.” They have been willing to relinquish everything, all images of themselves and expectations of others, even all dreams of ever becoming great, for the sake of finding themselves in God. They are great simply because they are ever becoming themselves.

Yet the greatness of the saints lies not in their doing; their greatness lies in their response to LOVE which ever beckons them and empowers them to love. In the end, their greatness lies in their willingness to relinquish all for the sake of LOVE, to be united with LOVE. In this oneness they come to an all pervasive love—for themselves, for the world, for all creation.

Perhaps the invitation of the saints to us is the invitation to LOVE. The “how-to’s” of our response must be ours, however. There are generic means available to us—tried and true practices that others have found valuable—but we must test these for ourselves. Nobody else can respond to the uniqueness of our invitation.

The “wanna’s” of our lives have much to tell us. They give us glimpses into who we are and what is really important to us. When we can listen deeply enough to these, beneath the enticements to success, or fame, or greatness, we will hear the voice of LOVE, Inner Wisdom, questioning us: “What do you want, what do you really want?” As we live our response to this question, we are empowered to become who we really are.

December 12, 1996 by Rose Mary Dougherty 1 Comment
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Karen Ingraham
Karen Ingraham
7 years ago

It feels as if this was sent straight from heaven. It is exactly what I need to hear, here, today. Thank you. I believe my nightly tossing and turning will now stop. The scripture references and the words of Jesus confirms it all.


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