Today is my birthday.
My birthday almost always leaves me a bit reflective. So I wanted to do a more personal blog entry this time. In particular, what has been going through my mind is how long it has taken for me to find any kind of self-identity. I promise there is going to be a theological reflection at the end, but for starters let’s just do a brief bio in order to get to why I’m writing this. I want to apologize at the outset if anything in here is unclear, as this was written pretty hastily in a moment of self-reflection.
I have spent most of my life not having any clue who I am and, more practically, what I wanted to be. When I was still in high school, it was never really an issue. I was defined by my social groups and school activities. I never had to worry about who I was, because I was always going to be surrounded by and supported by these people I grew up with. I knew them, and they knew me, and that’s all that mattered.
But as graduation loomed and I came face to face with the reality that I would be leaving this social circle, I suddenly had to make a choice. Who was I going to be? I hadn’t the foggiest idea. So I began to think about it. “Who do people like? Well, people like soldiers! I want to be in the military!” and I enlisted in the Navy. I won’t bore you with all the details of what happened there, but suffice it to say that I never actually served even a single day. I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me.
So what then? If I’m not a soldier, what am I? I remembered how much I actually enjoyed high school. “I know! I want to be a teacher! That’s who I am, I’m a teacher! But what subject? Well, I remember kind of liking English class, I guess. English teacher!” I then started college as an English major.
About a year later, I was driving down the interstate when I saw a billboard for one of those for-profit colleges. “Bachelor of Science! Game Design!”
“I love video games! Other people love video games! That sounds awesome! That’s who I am! I’m a video game designer!” I dropped everything, transferred schools, and finally was exactly where I was supposed to be. Right?
Wrong. I hate game design. With every fiber of my being, I. Hate. Game design. Have you ever spent three hours taking random bits of code you pulled from Google search results, dumping them into your program, only to spend another hour trying to figure out why you can’t get the damn frog to just move across the street when I press the up arrow? I have. And I never want to do it again. I am not a game designer.
Then, by some sheer stroke of luck, a new option popped up out of nowhere. My sister called me and said that her company needed an IT guy, and since I was “good with computers”, I should apply. I did, and I was hired. And to be perfectly honest, I loved it. I still do, in fact. IT work is difficult, but it is also incredibly rewarding. You are there to use your skills to help people. And, more importantly, there’s a feeling of comradery that develops in IT teams that I have never experienced anywhere else. You’re all together in this segregated group that isn’t really “part of the company” so much as “supporting the company”, and so you all take tremendous pride in being these behind-the-scenes heroes that keep the company going. I knew that this was who I wanted to be. I was an IT guy.
By this point, I was 24 years old and had dropped out of college three times, all because I was desperate to find a way to define myself. But you probably see the problem here by now. Even though I loved my work, I was no closer to figuring out any kind of self-identity. I was my job; I wasn’t “me”. So what now? I had spent so much time trying to identify myself with what I did, that I never considered what would happen if I found something I loved to do and still didn’t know who I really was. But that moment came, and it hit me like a brick wall. I ended up very depressed, and I honestly didn’t know why. So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I went looking for another “thing to do”.
Let’s slow down the timeline for a bit.
I had quite a bit of downtime in my first IT job, and I spent that free time on Reddit. I should note that, at this point in my life, I was an atheist. I remember posting a question to the “Christianity” subreddit about free will, because I couldn’t see how it was compatible with the all-knowing God Christians claimed to believe in. The responses I received were unexpected. People were actually responding to my criticism and genuinely trying to help me work through understanding it. So I kept posting questions, and kept receiving helpful responses. Eventually, I started to comment on other people’s questions. And before I knew what happened, I was actually a member of this online community. I was spending many hours every day talking about theology with complete strangers, not only doing everything I could to understand but also trying to help other people understand what I had learned. Over time, I developed some real friendships with people in that community—people who consistently displayed genuine care for my own growth and development as a person. They helped me to discover a love for theological study, something I would have never considered just a few years earlier.
In December 2014, I decided I wanted to learn more about theology than what this online community could provide. They had sparked something in me, but I needed something deeper. I decided to go back to school (not an easy decision, mind you, and props need to go out to my dad for being incredibly supportive). This time I was going to study Theology. But I still was at least agnostic, if not an atheist. I wasn’t sure if I actually believed any of this stuff, but I loved studying it. The more I studied, the more I wanted to learn. But more importantly, the more I learned, the more it all began to come alive. Theology began as just another “thing to do”, but the more I “did it”, I started to realize that this was more than just another “job”. There was something deeply profound about it, even though I couldn’t understand exactly what that was.
In August 2015, I decided to start attending RCIA at a local Catholic parish. I didn’t actually know if I wanted to be Catholic. I just knew I loved theology, and so I was curious about whether or not I even could be Catholic. Right up until the Easter Vigil, when I was set to be baptized and confirmed, I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision. What if I don’t actually believe? At this point, I think I do, but what if I don’t? I was scared. Scared that I was just on another fruitless endeavor to “find myself”. Scared that if I did this and changed my mind later, I would fall right back into being as lost and depressed as I was a few years prior.
But in that moment, when I was baptized, confirmed, and received my first Eucharist, those fears were gone. I knew that this was exactly where I was supposed to be. I no longer had any doubts about who I was or where I was headed in my life.
I want to shift gears now and draw your attention to a theologian named Romano Guardini. Born in Italy, but spending most of his life in Germany, Guardini had a profound impact on 20th Century Catholic theology. He served as a mentor to Joseph Ratzinger (who you might better recognize as Pope Benedict XVI), was one of the subjects of Karol Wojtyla’s doctoral dissertation (Pope John Paul II), and has even been invoked several times in Pope Francis’ public addresses. If you’d like to read more about Guardini, I would suggest this article from Crisis Magazine.
In his work The Church and the Catholic, Guardini develops an idea of what it means not only to be a Christian, but to be a human person. He speaks of the relationship between the individual and the community—between the Christian and the Church.
“What is the Church? She is the Kingdom of God in mankind. The Kingdom of God—it is the epitome of Christianity. All that Christ was, all that He taught, did, created, and suffered, is contained in these words—He has established the Kingdom of God.”
He goes on to explain what he means by “Kingdom of God”. God draws the creature to Himself, and enables His creature to receive His fullness. Through His love for His creature, he gives it not only the longing for God, but also the power whereby His creature is capable of knowing Him. Guardini calls this the “boundless fecundity of divine Love” which brings His creature to a second birth—a new life in which the creature can truly be called His child. It is precisely this union of man with God which is God’s Kingdom. “In it man belongs to His Creator, and his Creator belongs to him.” But this is not to be understood as solely individual. God takes possession of all mankind, including the unity of men with each other. All of the cultural, social, geographical, and biological ties that unify us in “that mysterious unity which, though composed entirely of individuals, is more than their sum total” are uplifted by God. And this action of God, insofar as His uplifting power is directed toward the community, is what brings the Church into being.
“The Church is the Kingdom of God in its supra-personal aspect; the human community, reborn into God’s Kingdom.” The individual himself is the Church, insofar as his actions are directed toward the building up of the community, and the individual is a member of it. God is the God of mankind as a whole, of the community as such, but God is also the God of each individual. God knows the needs of every individual, and He responds to them in whatever way that individual requires. And in this way, God becomes in a unique sense for each person “his God”. In this sense, then, God has established a Kingdom within the soul of the individual. This is what Guardini calls “Christian personality.”
What we do not want to say, however, is that there are two “Kingdoms of God”—the kingdom of the community (the Church) and the kingdom of the individual (personality). Rather each of these is an essential aspect of the same thing. The Kingdom of God manifests itself in the two manners which are essential to human nature, that is, man as an individual and man as a member of the community. These two aspects are inseparable. Even though they can be considered on their own, they are fundamentally interdependent. For to remove the individual aspect is to destroy the members, and to remove the communal aspect is to destroy the Church.
This community cannot be understood as merely a sum total of individuals, for in that there is no unity at all. But more importantly, it cannot be merely understood as individuals who share a common goal—who have entered into a kind of contractual agreement to work toward the same thing. Rather Guardini asserts that this community is an objective reality. It is supra-individual, perhaps in a way we might consider social or cultural ties. It does not swallow the individual, as for example a totalitarian state might, but nor does the individual tear the community apart, as individualism does. The individual asserts himself at all times as a self-contained world, but he is also always conscious that he is a member of the community, “in this case, of the Church.”
Thus the Church requires the assertion of the individual personality, but the individual is simultaneously bound up in the community. Both aspects are essential to the Kingdom of God. “There would be no Church if its members were not at the same time mental microcosms, each self-subsistent and alone with God. There would be no Christian personality, if it did not at the same time form part of the community, as its living member.” Thus in order for the Kingdom of God to be fully realized, the Christian must not only recognize the manifestation of the Kingdom within his own soul, but also the manifestation of the Kingdom as the community—the Church.
At this point though we must ask “Why?” or perhaps rather "For what purpose?" Why are both aspects so essential to the Kingdom of God? What do they do? For the individual aspect, the answer seems quite clear. The individual is adopted as a child of God, and in so doing the individual is graced with the power to know God and to love God, and thus to become more like God and better serve both God and neighbor. This, of course, is what we call “sanctification”, or the process by which we are made holy. But what of the Church? What does it do?
Guardini paints an image of the present condition of man. “We live in a world of perpetual flux.” We see everything around us passing away. Everything we know seems to fall apart into a series of probabilities. Everything we do is seen in contrast to many alternative possibilities. A keen sense of the transitory and of our own limitation grips the very soul of man. And so:
“Man thus becomes uncertain and vacillating. He is no longer capable of action based on firm conviction and certain of its aim. He is at the mercy of the fashions prevalent in his surroundings, the fluctuations of public opinion, and his own moods. Such a man is no longer capable of conquest. He cannot overcome error by truth, evil and weakness by moral strength, the stupidity and inconstancy of the masses by great ideas and responsible leadership, or the flux of time by works born of the determination to embody the eternal values.”
Yet simultaneously, we are profoundly arrogant. We assert ourselves in greed and self-interest. We deify ourselves as the sole purveyor of truth or moral righteousness, despite being conscious of the contrary. We proclaim the supreme importance of our own accomplishments, despite fully knowing that they will too fall away. Guardini calls this a caricature of true humanity. So then what is true humanity? Guardini responds that it is to be fully conscious of our weakness, of our limitation, but to also be confident that it can be overcome. “It is to realize man’s transience, but aspire to the eternal. It is to be a prisoner of time, but a freeman of eternity. It is to be aware of one’s powers, of one’s limitations, but to be resolved to accomplish deeds of everlasting worth.”
This is the work of the Church. She continually confronts man with the Absolute, with the Unconditioned, with the Eternal. She presents him with the Eternal, and he realizes that though he is transitory, he is destined for life everlasting. She presents him with the Unconditioned, and he realizes his complete dependency, but longs for a life free of those things on earth on which he is dependent. The Church resolves in the man that tension which is at the very foundation of his nature through the mystery of God’s love, from which grace springs to raise the man beyond the limitations of his nature. “[God] has made the creature in His own image. He has redeemed man, and by grace has given him a new birth and made him god-like. But all this means that God has made man for His living kingdom.” It is the Church, the supra-individual reality, which brings the individual to the only thing which can satisfy that fundamental tension between "being” and “desiring to be”. And it is in this encounter between God and man that man truly realizes what he is, and who he is. It is only in God that we can fully realize our personality, and it is through the Church by which this is accomplished. And it is only in the Church that our purpose can be fulfilled, as its members. The Kingdom of God exists both within the soul of man and as the Church. These two cannot be separated.
When I was baptized, that lifetime struggle to uncover my own personality and my own purpose was over. I was joined into this communal reality that is the Church. I was grafted into the Body of Christ as one of its members. I am not merely that which I do for that Body, but neither am I completely distinct from that Body. In that moment, I knew what I was. I knew who I was. Who I am.
I am a Christian. I am a Catholic. I am His child, and He is my Father.
 For those of you who may not be familiar with Reddit, it is divided by topic into “subreddits”. Each subreddit is independently managed by community members. It’s really just one massive online forum comprised of hundreds (thousands, even) of distinct online communities.
 For those of you who don’t know, RCIA stands for “Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults”. It’s basically an adult education program, designed to help converts in their journey to becoming Catholic.
 Guardini, Romano. The Church and the Catholic and The Spirit of the Liturgy. Translated by Ada Lane. New York, NY: Sheed & Ward, 1953. 33.
 Ibid, 34
 Ibid, 35
 Ibid, 37
 Ibid, 39
 Ibid, 40
 Ibid, 41
 Ibid, 59
 Ibid, 60
 Ibid 62