“O Lord, who are You? O Lord, who am I?”
This simple, profound prayer seems tailor-made for young people at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We’re caught up like never before in a quest to define ourselves, to understand what makes us who we are, what’s going to make someone notice and care about us. The fact that this prayer was uttered at the beginning of the thirteenth century, by the young Saint Francis of Assisi, reminds us that this human longing is a universal experience. But it’s also a challenge: it asks the question in a way that is not often appreciated today.
“Who am I?” is an important question, but we often ask the wrong audience. The answer won’t be found on the Internet. It can’t be crowdsourced, or found in an online poll, or measured in likes or shares or retweets. But it seems like the more connected social media gets, the more disconnected real people are, and many young people find themselves shouting into the online void, and accepting whatever answer comes back the loudest. It’s easy to let ourselves be defined by others, without asking whether those others know us or care about us at all.
Teens and young adults, in particular, face many challenges that pierce the human heart—how to navigate changing roles in the family, for example; how to form new friendships, or settle into a new living situation; how to choose a vocation or a career. But few experiences are as profound—or as potentially confusing—as understanding your sexual identity, and making sense of new and powerful desires for intimacy, connection and love. Unfortunately, our secular culture does not offer much help: it tends to be subjective (“Truth is what I say it is.”), utilitarian (“The best thing is the thing that gets me what I want.”), and hedonistic (“The best thing is the thing that brings me the most pleasure.”). If you ask the world, “What should I do with how I feel?”, the answer comes back, “Do what you feel like, and what makes you feel good.” You’re no better off than before you asked the question!
And when what you’re feeling is confusing already, a confused answer from the world doesn’t help at all. Every young person feels sexual attractions—a desire to be intimate, physically and emotionally, with another person, to know and to belong to that person in a way that nobody else does. Sexual attraction is naturally oriented toward a person of the opposite sex, and plays a big part in making marriage and family possible and desirable. But some people, for various reasons, feel attractions for people of the same sex as themselves. This experience is difficult to understand, and can leave you wondering what it means for your identity and for your future. Where can you turn for answers when you’re confused about your sexuality? The world seems to say that having sex is the most important experience a person can have, that strong desires for connection are always sexual desires, that what you feel is always right, and that you have to always act on what you feel. Does an answer like this really help anybody?
As Saint Francis realized, the only real answer to the question “Who am I?” is to be found in the question “Who are You?” I can only understand myself, that is, by understanding my relationships, especially my first and most important relationship, with my Creator. When I acknowledge God as Lord of my life, then I can call out to him: “O Lord, who are You?”
His response is something I could never have expected: “I am your Father. I am your Savior. I am the source of your life. I am the destiny to which you are heading.” When I know God’s identity, I know my own more fully: “I am your beloved son, your beloved daughter. I belong to you. All that I have comes from you. All that I am is leading me to draw closer to you. I will listen to your Word and follow your plan for my life.”
Certain truths that everyone seemed to take for granted in the past seem downright revolutionary today, and we need to proclaim them more clearly than ever:
· Your existence is a gift. It is good that you exist!
· Your body and soul are important.
· There’s an objective truth behind everything, and you can understand it.
· Sex means something deeply important, and has a specific purpose.
· Strong feelings don’t always lead to good decisions.
· Friendship is real love, and not a consolation prize.
· You can disagree with someone without hating him or her.
· You are who you are because God loves you.
It’s a privilege for me to work with men and women of many ages and backgrounds who are striving to understand their experience of same sex attractions, and respond as God invites them to do. More than ever, young people are facing the same challenge and striving to make the same response. Coming to understand God and his plan more deeply, they’re able to understand themselves and their desires better as well, and live more fully as the people who God made them, in love, to be.
Father Philip Bochanski serves as Executive Director of Courage International. This piece was adapted from Father’s foreword to Made for Love, a new book by Father Mike Schmitz published by the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press.