LEARNING TO BE ALIVE
We beg you, make us truly alive.
--Serapion of Thmuis
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins
THE SORROWS OF LIFE are many. But sorrow is not the opposite of happiness. At least in sorrow we are aware of being alive. So often the problem is not really sorrow but the deadness that attends our daily existence. The pace and pressures of the world, the struggle to "make a living," the disquiet driven by constant advertising, the distracting drone of consumer culture--all these contribute to fatigue, numbness, an inability to feel anything at all. Our bodies may thrive--no generation has ever enjoyed such long life or good health--yet there is a sickness that eats away at our souls.
We can see it in the faces of commuters on a train or shoppers in the mall; too often it is in the face we encounter in the mirror. But we may also see it in the faces in church. Religion in itself offers no special immunity against deadness,especially when religious practice becomes simply another task to perform, a set of rules to obey. William Blake wrote scornfully of "priests in black gowns, walking their rounds, binding with briars my joys & desires."
Doubtless it often feels that way. But that is not the way it needs to be.
Of the flock in his care, Jesus said: "I came that they might have life and have it in abundance." Such life in abundance is one way of describing the meaning of happiness. It is an antidote to the kind of existence--dry and hollow--that dulls even the memory of our "joys & desires." Yet over the centuries too many Christians have transposed Christ's promise to the other side of death, thereby spurning the challenge to seek life and happiness in the present. Against this tendency St. Theophanis the Monk, one of the early desert fathers, warned, "Do not deceive yourself with idle hopes that in the world to come you will find life if you have not tried to find it in the present world."
St. Irenaeus, a second-century bishop and theologian, put it this way: "The glory of God is the human being fully alive." Irenaeus wrote these words to oppose a kind of spirituality that scorns material existence in the world. But his words pose a challenge for anyone who settles for a truncated life, whether reduced to work, entertainment, or an otherworldly spiritualism. To be fully alive--it was for this that we were created; it was toward this goal, as the saints remind us, that Christ pointed the way.
But we have lost our way.
ZEST FOR LIVING
What might it mean to be "fully alive"? Obviously it is not the same as simply eating and breathing. Nor is it expressed in a flurry of manic activity. To be fully alive is a matter of living out of the deepest part of oneself. Call it the heart or the soul; these are words that describe the central and intimate core of our being, the place where we are most truly ourselves. Given the noise and distractions that surround us, it is often hard to imagine that such places exist. We glide along the surface, taking our cues from the newspapers, or our neighbors, or the commercials on TV. They tell us what to desire, what to fear, and what will bring us joy. Yet the more we listen to such voices, the less we know ourselves. No wonder happiness is so elusive.
The men and women called saints have walked a different path, a path to God that was at the same time the path to their own true selves. There is much that they might teach us. Yet their authority as guides and teachers often fades in the shadow of an apparent "otherness" that renders them at once inaccessible and unappealing. To begin with, saints are supposed to be perfect people--"not like us." Traditional stories about their lives reinforce this impression, emphasizing miraculous and otherworldly traits while airbrushing anything recognizably human. On this basis we might share George Orwell's conclusion that the very aspiration to holiness is evidence of a warped personality. "Saints," he wrote, "should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."
Sentimental and saccharine hagiography is partly to blame. Dorothy Day wrote about coming across one book about saints that included this passage on their eating habits:"The saints went to their meals sighing. St. Alphonsus, when sitting down, would think only of the sufferings of the souls in purgatory, and with tears would beseech Our Lady to accept the mortifications he imposed upon himself during meals. Blessed de Montfort sometimes shed tears and sobbed bitterly when sitting at table to eat." To this, Day offered the brief comment: "No wonder no one wants to be a saint."
Yet Day herself conveyed something else. No one who ever observed how she savored a cup of instant coffee or the rare luxury of a fresh roll, how she enjoyed watching the shifting tides of Raritan Bay off Staten Island or listened raptly to the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts on the radio could fail to detect the quality that Teilhard de Chardin described as a "zest for living": "that spiritual disposition, at once intellectual and affective, in virtue of which life, the world, and action seem to us, on the whole, luminous--interesting--appetizing."
As the otherworldly heroes of pious legend, saints may seem close to God but not exactly human. In fact, as Thomas Merton observed, sanctity is really a matter of being more fully human: "This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation for the good and beautiful things of life." One observes those qualities in holy persons of recent times--Mother Teresa, or Pope John XXIII, or the Dalai Lama--a certain lightness of being, far from the torturous attitude of Blessed de Montfort toward his food. And it makes one wonder if a similar quality or aura did not surround the great saints of the past--whether St. Francis of Assisi, who built the first Christmas crèche, or St. Teresa of Avila, who prayed to God to "deliver us from sour-faced saints," or St. Francis de Sales, who said that a"sad saint is a sad sort of saint." They stood out not just for their faith or good works but for exhibiting a certain quality of being. In traditional Christian art this aura was represented by a halo. Real saints have no such distinguishing marks. But the aura is real. It is the presence of life, life in abundance.
Far from that goal, mired in deadness, where does our road to happiness begin? It might begin with a certain restless disquiet, a sense of subtle dissatisfaction, the suspicion that "there must be more to life." Of course to this our culture has a ready answer: Indeed there is more, infinitely more--more things, more pleasures, more fun.
The world offers innumerable pleasures and distractions. But they cannot satisfy our deepest hunger. When we realize this, and if our disquiet remains intact, then we may find ourselves entering what Walker Percy, in The Moviegoer, calls the search: "The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life ... . To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair."
The lineage of such searchers is long. It includes such a recent figure as Thomas Merton, self-described "complete twentieth-century man," who, at the dawn of World War II, abandoned the ambitions of his New York literary set to become a Trappist monk in rural Kentucky. Justifying this decision, he later wrote, "What I had abandoned when I 'left the world' and came to the monastery was the understanding of myself that I had developed in the context of civil society--myidentification with what appeared to me to be its aims ... the image of a society that is happy because it drinks Coca-Cola or Seagram's or both and is protected by the bomb."
The lineage reaches back to Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth-century sage of New England. In 1845 he withdrew to a hermitage on Walden Pond, near Concord, seeking to escape a world in which "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." He decried the condition of everyday life, which seemed to him no better than a kind of sleepwalking. "To be awake is to be alive," he wrote. "I have not yet met a man who was quite awake." And so he retreated for a while to the New England equivalent of the desert, hoping "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
It extends back considerably further ...
TO THE DESERT
In the fourth century, just as Christianity had achieved a certain level of acceptance, there emerged a new phenomenon, a source of wonder and fascination to Christians in late Roman society. Men and women--at first a few intrepid pioneers but gradually large numbers--began drifting into the desert, their ranks gradually populating the seemingly uninhabitable corners of Palestine, Arabia, Syria, and Egypt. Some gathered in small communities; others lived in remote and isolated caves or among abandoned ruins. In their solitude they occupied themselves with prayer and fasting, reflection on scripture, and simple labor.
What did they seek? The possible answers are many: to live more deliberately, to seek a narrower road to salvation, to overcome the deadness they perceived in the surrounding culture, to tap into the source of life. Yes, all this. And yet it is striking how often the stories of these desert pilgrims relate their quest to the pursuit of happiness. There is St. Simeon Stylites (d. 459), who, after hearing a reading of the Beatitudes, prayed that God would lead him on the path of happiness and was led, curiously enough, to construct a series of pillars (or stylites), progressively higher from the ground, upon which he spent the next thirty-seven years of his life. There is the story of St. Macarius of Egypt, whose very name comes from the Greek word for happiness. While crossing the Nile one day, he overheard a soldier remark on his cheerful demeanor and declared, "You have reason to call us happy, for this is our name. But if we are happy in despising the world, are not you miserable who live slaves to it?"
The most famous of these desert fathers was St. Antony, who died in 356 at the remarkable age of 105. Born into a prosperous Christian family in Upper Egypt, Antony found his life radically transformed one Sunday when he heard the gospel story of Jesus and the rich young man. He was particularly struck by Christ's injunction "Go sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." Others in church that day presumably heard the same text, but Antony took it to heart. In short order he proceeded to shed all his property and to make his way to the wilderness, eventually settling in an abandoned hilltop fort in the Arabian Desert. There he lived for the next twenty years, spending his time in prayer, contemplation, and the upkeep of his small garden. When a visiting philosopherasked him how he could be so happy without "the consolation of books," Antony replied, "My book is the nature of created things, and anytime I want to read the words of God, the book lies open before me."
His story is recounted in a book by St. Athanasius (d. 373), the bishop of Alexandria. The Life of Antony, written shortly after the saint's death, spares no detail of Antony's various austerities and ordeals: hunger, thirst, and lack of sleep, not to mention the dangers of lions, crocodiles, snakes, and scorpions. The most dramatic episodes, however, involve Antony's assault by a succession of demons, which appeared to him under various forms and guises--both hideous and alluring--to tempt him from his path. Yet after all these ordeals, when Antony finally reemerged after his many years of solitude, everyone marveled at his physical fitness, for he was "neither fat from lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons."
His inner equilibrium was equally impressive: "His soul being free of confusion, he held his outer senses also undisturbed, so that from the soul's joy his face was cheerful as well, and from the movements of the body it was possible to sense and perceive the stable condition of the soul." Eventually he consented to serve as the abbot of a community of monks. According to Athanasius, who knew him, "He was never troubled, his soul being calm, and he never looked gloomy, his mind being joyous."
The desert monastics had a name for this kind of equilibrium. They called it apatheia--quite a different thing from the indifference or listlessness associated with "apathy." For the desert monastics true life began when one was no longer a prisoner of such feelings as anger, fear, lust, and pride. When all these passions were pruned away, the result wasnot an absence of feeling, but apatheia--a balance and wholeness expressed in kindness, gentleness, and compassion : the "soul's joy" so evident in the face of Antony or the "happiness" observable in St. Macarius.
The Life of Antony was a popular success. It spawned a whole literature of similar vitae, thus feeding an appetite in late antiquity for stories of spiritual heroism. Among those infected by the power of this story was St. Augustine, later the bishop of Hippo and one of the towering figures in Christian history. In his Confessions he recounted how, on the eve of his conversion, he received a visitor named Ponticianus, a Christian "who held a high position in the Emperor's household." From this gentleman he first heard the story of St. Antony and found himself "astonished to hear of the wonders [God] had worked so recently, almost in our own times." (Augustine was born in 354, two years before Antony's death.)
Augustine's astonishment, however, was joined by a certain anguish. Though for some time he had intellectually embraced the logic of Christianity, he had found it impossible to reconcile his life with his newfound convictions. Like the rich young man of the gospels, "I still postponed my renunciation of this world's joys, which would have left me free to look for that other happiness, the very search for which, let alone its discovery, I ought to have prized above the discovery of all human treasures and kingdoms ... . All the time that Ponticianus was speaking my conscience gnawed away at me like this."
To Augustine, Antony's story described the search for happiness. Antony had found it; Augustine wanted it too.
From a distance of sixteen hundred years, it is hard to appreciate the appeal of such a story. Our society tends to idealizeself-fulfillment, not self-denial. And so, in contrast with the happiness afforded by life among the scorpions, the miseries of our present "slavery" may seem fond and familiar.
Thomas Merton reflected this attitude when, on the eve of his own conversion, he came across a text by Aldous Huxley extolling the practice of asceticism: "Asceticism! The very thought of such a thing was a complete revolution in my mind. The word had so far stood for a kind of weird and ugly perversion of nature, the masochism of men who had gone crazy in a warped and unjust society. What an idea! To deny the desires of one's flesh, and even to practice certain disciplines that punished and mortified those desires: until this day, these things had never succeeded in giving me anything but gooseflesh."
Yet despite its negative associations, there was more to asceticism than mere self-punishment. The word comes from "ascesis," or training, such as that which an athlete might undertake. Anyone who has trained for a marathon knows what it means to endure physical deprivation for the sake of a goal. In similar fashion, the austerities and sacrifices of the desert monks were aimed at a discipline of the will, an intensity of focus and concentration on their spiritual goal. What was that goal? For the desert monks the flight from "the world" was really a rejection of "worldliness," a social agenda organized around the quest for power, property, pleasure, and status. If that sounds quaint, we might substitute for "the world" the values of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Wall Street, or the Fox Network, the arbiters of a culture that favors image over reality, having over being.
The early monks sought a path from deadness to life. They fled "the world" not simply to spurn material pleasures, much less to punish themselves, but to "awaken" to aquality of existence deeper than custom, routine, and the bondage of social expectation. As Merton himself later came to appreciate, "What the [desert] Fathers sought most of all was their own true self in Christ. And in order to do that they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in 'the world.' They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand. They sought a God whom they alone could find, not one who was 'given' in a set stereotyped form by somebody else."
They were learning to be alive.
Thomas Merton's eventual affinity for these spiritual explorers emerged from his own experience. In The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography he wrote early in his career as a Trappist monk, Merton described the journey that had led him from a life of aimless "captivity" in the world to the "freedom" of his enclosure within the four walls of a monastic cell. Even by monastic standards, the Trappists (the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance) enjoyed a reputation for extreme austerity, preserving, in dress, customs, and the spirit of silence, the character of their medieval roots. Merton, in contrast, appeared to be a complete product of the modern world. He had enjoyed a life of license, excitement, and the pursuit of pleasure only, in the end, to reject it all as an illusion. As he wrote, "If what most people take for granted were really true--if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything andinvestigate every experience and then talk about it, I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now." He should have been a very happy person. But he was not.
The Seven Storey Mountain tells the tate--by turns funny and sad--of Merton's search for his true identity and home, beginning with his orphaned childhood and his education in France; in Cambridge, England (he was banished from the university on account of his scandalous behavior); and eventually at Columbia University in New York. There he perfected a pose of cool sophistication, smoking, drinking all night in jazz clubs, and writing novels in the style of James Joyce. He regarded himself as a true man of his age, free of any moral laws beyond his own making, ready to "ransack and rob" the world of all its pleasures and satisfactions. But increasingly his life struck him more as a story of pride and selfishness that brought nothing but unhappiness to himself and others. "What a strange thing!" he wrote. "In filling myself, I had emptied myself. In grasping things, I had lost everything. In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear."
Out of his own anguish and confusion Merton found himself drawn by the sense that there must be a deeper end and purpose to existence. All around him the world was tumbling toward war, the ultimate achievement of "Contemporary Civilization." Meanwhile he was reading William Blake, St. Augustine, and medieval philosophy and beginning to suspect that "the only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and reality of God."
It was a short leap from this insight to his reception into the Catholic church and ultimately to the Abbey of Gethsemani.The Trappists had captured his heart from the first time he read about them in The Catholic Encyclopedia: "What wonderful happiness there was, then, in the world! There were still men on this miserably noisy, cruel earth, who tasted the marvelous joy of silence and solitude, who dwelt in forgotten mountain cells, in secluded monasteries, where the news and desires and appetites and conflicts of the world no longer reached them." When he later made a retreat at Gethsemani and there for the first time viewed the silent monks, dressed in their white habits and kneeling in prayer in the chapel, he felt that he had found his true home at last. "This is the center of America," he exclaimed.
In his own lifetime Thomas Merton became a hugely popular spiritual writer. In the decades since his death in 1968 that popularity has remained steady. Relatively few among his readers may have followed his route to the monastery. Yet countless others have identified with his experience. They have felt the insufficiency of "what most people take for granted" in the pursuit of happiness. They have heard the call to fullness of life, a call beyond the agenda of a world out of kilter. And they have reacted as St. Augustine did to the story of St. Antony: with astonishment "to hear of the wonders God had worked so recently, almost in our own times."
One of these readers was James Martin, a young American Jesuit priest, whose memoir, In Good Company, describes his own "fast track" from the corporate world to a life rooted in traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Although he was raised as a nominal Catholic, Martin's youthful ambitions were unaffected by any religious concerns. His studies fueled by dreams of "high-powered jobs" and "mountains of money," he enrolledin the prestigious Wharton School of Business. By the time he was in his mid-twenties he was well on his way--a junior executive at General Electric, rapidly climbing the corporate ladder. Yet before long he found himself at a point of complete confusion and unhappiness. "Simply put, I couldn't figure out the point of what I was doing with my life. Something basic was missing ... . Is this life?"
Martin's disquiet was enhanced by the cold and impersonal atmosphere of the corporate workplace, the callous "downsizing," the constant pressure to make the quarterly "numbers." Increasingly he was struck by the feeling that his life had "no real order, no real purpose, and no real meaning." At mass one Sunday he heard the same gospel story that had once struck St. Antony: Jesus' invitation to the rich young man to sell all that he had and "come, follow me." Inevitably Martin identified with the young man in the story. "That was me," he reflected, "a rich, young (and depressed) man."
A turning point came one day when he happened to see a documentary on public television about the life of Thomas Merton. He had never heard of Merton. Yet something in this story, some sense of a greater reality, a more abundant life, captured his imagination. The next day he went out and picked up a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain. What he read corresponded powerfully with his own experience. "Thomas Merton seemed to have struggled with the same problems I did: vanity, false ambition, careerism. The more he confessed his shortcomings, the more I felt the urge to listen to what he had to say, and the more resonance I felt within me."
A strange impulse, at first mysterious, but increasingly irresistible, began sounding within him: the thought that hewould like to become a priest. He tried pushing this thought away. But underneath there was a growing certainty: "I wanted to live the kind of life that Thomas Merton lived--even though I didn't much understand it. I wanted to feel the calm that he felt when he entered the monastery."
In the end he found that calm, not by living the life that Merton lived, or St. Augustine, or St. Antony, but in his own way, as a Jesuit, living in a world that was "charged with the presence and reality of God."
The happiness of the saints does not consist of adding up mortifications and self-conscious exercises. It does not require that we ascend a pillar or stand in freezing water with arms outstretched, as the ancient Celtic monks liked to do. What surprises and attracts us in the best of the saints is not the heaviness of their burdens but the "soul's joy" that shines through their actions and attitudes. It is not their ponderousness that appeals to us but their levity.
Among the sayings of the desert fathers there is this exchange between a younger monk and one of his elders: "Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: 'Father: according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able to strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?' The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: 'Why not be totally changed into fire?'"
The austerity of a desert hermit or the discipline of aTrappist monk is not for everyone. But if these paths are not for us, there still remains the challenge to resist the downward drift of the world, to take possession of our own souls, to incline our hearts to the source of life, and to know, before we die, that we have truly lived. If we succeed, we may become, like the saints, a source of life and light to others. As St. Antony liked to say, "The Fathers of old went forth into the desert, and when themselves were made whole, they became physicians, and returning again they made others whole."
Thoreau too, after venturing forth into the relative wilderness of Walden Pond, eventually returned to Concord. Apparently, the experience of two years of solitude had better equipped him to continue his explorations in the midst of society. "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there," he explained. "Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."
Thoreau was keenly sensitive to the seductive encroachments of routine and convention and their capacity to make sleepwalkers of us all: "It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves ... . The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!"
But deadness does not have the last word in his story. Thoreau's reflections in Walden conclude with a remarkableimage, that of a "strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years," a bug hatched from an egg deposited many years earlier in the living tree from which the table was fashioned. "Who," he asked, "does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb ... may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!"
That "beautiful bug" is a fitting symbol for the spirit of life submerged beneath the encrustations of our everyday existence, that capacity that lies within us, even when all seems cold and numb, like a tulip bulb in winter--not dead, after all, but merely sleeping.
Thoreau's words resonate with the ancient challenge to wake up, to shake off the coils of slumber, to learn how to be more fully alive. "Only that day dawns to which we are awake," he wrote. "There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."