Over fifty years ago, observers like T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis marked signs of a change in western culture. Eliot described his contemporaries, as hollow inside, lacking in passion and heart, a sense of purpose. At the same time C. S. Lewis was talking about what he called people without chests, brilliant technocrats without heart. Ever since sociologists and commentators have continued the theme, to wit: the secular society seems to be producing a people increasingly and narcissistically focused upon themselves and their own needs and so devoid of a certain vitality and transcendent purpose.
I suspect that this broadside does not fit our kind on most days, but it does single out a certain danger, a certain challenge we all face in the contemporary world of accumulation and consumption. The all- occupying drive to get and enjoy can lead to lives increasingly empty and restless unless we are careful, unless we struggle against the stream. It is all too easy to become one dimensional, devoid of inner spirit and life.
And, unfortunately there is no evidence that the problem can be solved by the alternative means of stimulation that a secular and commercial society offers: various pop therapies, bombarding music, trips to exotic locales, extreme sports. One wonders about the increasingly dominant role that professional spectator sports play in relieving the boredom and blues. I think we make headway against the flatness, the hollowness of mood and mentality only by a change in attitude toward life itself.
The ancient faith we revere but often fail to internalize in ways that are powerful and transforming, begins with the affirmation, the conviction that real life comes of faith in life as gift. The Psalmist sings, “You give them to drink from the stream of your delights for with you is the source of life.” The most immediate experience we have of our God is sensitivity to the presence in us and those around us of life.
Now the deep and abiding sense that life is a gift, that it comes always and every day from God, runs counter to the surrounding view of things in a society like ours. Clearly the reigning assumption with many is that life is a possession of the individual to do with as he sees it. This may mean some over against the intrusion of government or other external authority. It is patently a false reading of life over against God and his creation.
We neither manage nor possess our own life. It is a mystery that comes to us with birth and returns to Him in death.
So the recovery of God in our lives means the recovery of the experience of depth, richness, that comes in the awareness of life as a precious gift to be approached in awe and reverence. But look at the landscape. How do we see life treated? Is it not more often as just another commodity to do with as individuals will? Children abused, casual abortions, wives beaten, prisoners tortured, college girls violated, civilians gassed, bodies subjected to mind blasting substances. Is not the morning paper a scene of irreverence toward life? Seven children tortured and beaten, near starved to death in an ordinary neighborhood in Florida. There is little sense that life is something mysterious, precious, gift of another dimension, that we lay profane hands on to our ultimate sorrow and destruction.
What is that sensitivity? Is it not the awareness deep within of the life we share with all God’s creatures as his incredible creation? We do encounter that reverence, that sensitivity, strangely enough in circumstances of incredible cruelty and suffering. Recently we have encountered again the memory of Auschwitz in the 60th anniversary of its liberation. Interesting the reaction of one G.I. to the half-dead in one of these camps back then: “Those corpses with a pulse were as close to nobodies as you can get: mere skeletons wrapped in papery skin. But somehow I would have done anything to keep those poor, ragged souls alive. Our medics stayed up all night to save them; some in our company lost their lives to liberate them. I learned that day what ’the image of God’ in a human being is all about.” A reminder that at our best some depth of life still calls to depth within each one of us from time to time.
I suspect we may perhaps meet this primal experience in the maternity ward more than anywhere else. How hard it is to stay secular, matter of fact, clinical, before the miracle of another human life beginning. Before the nursery window even the most hardened pragmatist turns into worshipper.
When feminist author, Naomi Wolf had her first baby, she discovered that her newfound interest in “whole life” was not always welcome. She writes: “Some of the hostility to religion from feminists I was around at the time, derived from their perception that ‘God-language’ had been so co-opted from the religious right that to use it was to allow oneself to be co-opted…So it felt embarrassing, a social liability, to admit an interest in God. It mattered to me that it would feel pathetic and nervy to tell someone I was interested in spiritual issues in the progressive circles in which I spent my time; to confess that would be more uncool than to confess to various forms of vice or addiction. But then I gave birth two and a half years ago. That was such a miracle that it’s hard not to try figure out how to address it. The miraculousness of having your child wake up in the morning and look at you! It’s hard not to speculate about ‘where did you come from?’”
That’s an awareness, a sensitivity to life that ought to keep it full of wonder and excitement. If you think life isn’t special, surprising, unpredictable and precious, I invite you to come over here almost any day and visit the 160 children in our day school. One thing is certain; they are alive. Hard to stay empty, bored, half-hearted, dispirited, in the face of their energy and enthusiasm, their hope and vitality.
None of this is far from the old story in which the desert God takes of the dust of the earth, which we are, and breathes into that dust, that adamah, his own breath – his own life. Here is the sense that the real mystery, the real miracle of all is life itself, this strange vital force which animates you and me, which is the very breath of God.
Faith is awareness of my life as not my own, but a gift of God. And as an historical faith rooted in specific place and people, this faith means the embrace of my own particular life, the place and people with whom I am, as also gift of God. In this older culture comes again and again the call to choose our own special place and company. Part of the flatness of much human experience today may derive from the fact that a secular world encourages us to take life for granted. It is just there, a phenomenon, an accident. It comes from nowhere and it is going nowhere. And so we cease to know it as a choice, something we must embrace.
So faith is a sensitivity to the privilege of sharing this mystery with one another throughout our years. To keep from growing hollow and half-hearted about life we come to God to renew not only an awareness, an embrace of life, but an acceptance, a willingness to embrace our own particular life, committed to living it where we are and with whom we are as God gives us grace and strength. So often life loses its intensity and vitality because we are not there. We are absent, wishing we were somewhere else, living some other life, with some other folk.
Life returns as we stay focused on this day and the fact that, whatever an unknown future may bring, we are here. But the secular consumerist society is almost inevitably a society that breeds envy, which is by definition restlessness and discontentment with who we are and what we possess, which in this culture is the same thing. It rarely occurs to many who clog the mall parking lots night and day, that happiness may consist more in what we do without, the willingness to be content with less than having what everybody else seems to think important. If we are truly to live, happy and fulfilled, rather than ever empty and hungry, it will be as we learn to treasure the life given to us now, this day, rather than continually longing to be someone else, or to live some other story, walk some other way. “Whatever my circumstance, I have learned to be at peace,” writes the Apostle Paul.
This is what Alexander Solzhenitsyn spotted in us when he came to this country. He says, “Don’t be afraid of misfortune and do not yearn after happiness. It is, after all, all the same. The bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if hunger and thirst don’t claw at your sides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if your arms work, if your eyes can see, and if your ears can hear, then whom should you envy? Our envy of others devours us most of all.”
A young friend once wrote me beautiful words very much to the point. “The past six months have been an exciting time of growth for me. I have come to see life and the world in a new and beautiful way. The time I used to spend futilely trying to control anything and everything else, I now spend enjoying where I am. I have seen how when I let go, problems seem to work themselves out. I can accept both the good and the bad as learning experiences. I have found strength in surrender to have the courage to change the one thing that I can, namely me. It has been a beautiful year.”
Even when the rough times come. A man writes of friends who were given the heartbreaking news that their son had what appeared to be an incurable disease. Everyone was torn with pity for them, but they remained remarkably calm and uncomplaining. One night as this man left his friends’ house, he tried to express his admiration for their fortitude. The boy’s father looked up at the stars and said, “Well, it seems to me that we have three choices. We can curse life and what it does to us at times and look for some way to express our rage. We can grit our teeth and endure. Or we can accept the life given to us with Charlie each day as a gift. The first alternative is useless, the second is exhausting. The third enables us to go on really living.”
Then in this older way of looking at things, the embrace of life, and the acceptance of our own particular life, involves also the acceptance of those with whom we share life’s way. The secular scene is often one of a deadly individualism in which the connections between people are frayed and failing, where there is no deep commitment to life together, sense of obligation and community over time. Faith in life means embrace of one another in the kind of life together to which Jesus calls us. In his perspective there is no such thing as a healthy life apart from community where bound together by his love and call.
So the Apostle Paul can write of that call, “Put on garments that suit God’s chosen and beloved people: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgiving. Bind it all together with love. Let Christ’s peace, the peace to which you are called as members of a single body, shape your decisions and days.”
And, then he adds, always be thankful. Awareness of the miracle of the gift of life, acceptance of our own particular life with and for one another leads to the liveliest of lives, the capacity to appreciate and be grateful for whatever comes. Gratitude comes not with satisfaction of our desires and easy days, but with the learned whole- hearted acceptance of all that comes to us of life, in life. There is nothing more vitalizing, more stimulating, more truly joyful than the grateful heart that has learned to find in the miracle of life itself, the life that came with this morning’s sunrise, with all its variety and beauty, struggle and challenge, a precious gift.
Susan DeVore Williams writes, “Our friend’s wife had just succumbed to cancer after a long struggle, and when his letter arrived, I opened it with a certain amount of dread. It was hard to be reminded that this dear man was now so alone, without the comfort of children or other family. Thanksgiving was just around the corner, and it broke my heart to imagine how empty his tiny apartment would seem at this time of year. I was sure his letter would be a sad one.
But my friend surprised me. “I thought I might go out to the cemetery today,” he wrote, “but instead I’m sitting here thinking about gratitude. I’m reminded of the little boy who was asked by his teacher to describe salt. He answered, ‘Salt is what spoils the potatoes, when you leave it out.’ Thankfulness is like that, I’ve decided. It’s what spoils everything when you leave it out. God would probably forgive me for being unthankful right now, and He’d understand if I decided to ignore Thanksgiving this year. But I’ve made up my mind: I am not going to leave out the thankfulness, no matter how I may be tempted. Having decided that, it’s surprising how much better, how much stronger I feel, how much more alive I am, and how much I’m finding to be thankful for.”
One man, along in years, put it beautifully. “As I sit on a cool winter afternoon looking out the window on the snowy scene, I look back with many thanks. It has been a great run. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Much could have been better, and I have, by no means, done what I should have done with all that I have been given. There were dreams that did not come true, and losses not a few. But overall it has been a school of lessons, not easily learned but of infinite worth, an instruction of a gentle and patient kind. So the over-all experience of being alive has been and remains a thrilling experience. And I firmly believe that death will be a doorway to more of it: clearer, cleaner, better, with more of the secret of it all opened. But again I say, it’s been a great run. I’m thankful for it and next to my gratitude to my God, for all the friends who helped to make it so, especially those closest and dearest to me. “
Choose life, then, all if it, as the very gift of God to you that you and your children and your grandchildren may truly live.