While reflecting on God’s wonderful gift of freedom to us in my last series of columns, I was reading with the students in my class on personalism at St. John’s University the book by Seymour Cain, “Gabriel Marcel” (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery Press, 1963, pp. 128). Except for Thomas Aquinas, my favorite philosopher is Marcel. His work is not easy to read but his insights are marvelous.
When as a young priest I first came upon Marcel’s philosophy, I was stunned by its depth and beauty. My awe and wonder at Marcel’s insights have never disappeared but rather have grown through the years. Reading Marcel’s philosophy never ceases to both interest and inspire me. I hope that by discussing Marcel’s reflections with my students, it will lead them to experience awe at both the mystery of the human person and the mystery of God.
The following commentary by Cain expresses some key insights of Marcel:
“I attain personal existence through action – not passively or automatically. The act and the person involve one another. Only the person can act. Action cannot be performed by the general ‘one’ or ‘they’ or by its functional particle, the individual isolated ego. It is of the essence of the per- son to act, to confront, to envisage, assume responsibility, decide, commit himself. ‘My act engages me.’ There is an integral togetherness of me and my act, ‘which is incorporated in the totality of what I am.’ My whole life integrated and consecrated, may be seen as a single act – a sacrament. The saint, the hero and the artist demonstrate this through their lives and works.” (p. 78)
The idea that a person’s life in its unity and totality may be looked on as a sacrament both fascinates me and inspires me. I think that Marcel is looking at what happens to a person when that person per- forms a number of good moral acts. Those acts draw a person closer to God and enable that person to reach a new level of freedom. By those free moral actions, the person is co-creating himself or herself with God. Animated by the Holy Spirit, such a person is like a sacrament, a sign of God’s love and a channel of God’s grace.
Starting when I was in college right, and through my student years in the seminary and in graduate school, I made special efforts to see how all my studies were related to one another. I was trying to see a unity and I still make efforts to do that as a priest. For example, I am teaching philosophy courses at St. John’s University. The topics that I deal with in those classes often find their way into my weekly columns. I am also involved with several discussion groups. When I choose the topics to be dis- cussed, I frequently pick topics that I am writing about in columns or teaching in courses at St. John’s. The same is true of the fall and spring film festivals I conduct at the Immaculate Conception Center. The themes often relate to what is I am dis- cussing in classes or writing about in columns or even speaking about in homilies. What I might refer to as my “intellectual life” has an obvious unity to it.
What Marcel stresses in his philosophy is that our moral life should have a unity to it. By repeatedly performing free moral acts, a person is cooperating with God’s grace. Only God creates from nothing, but we have a hand in fashioning our- selves, in directing ourselves and our lives. By cooperating with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we choose, by our free actions, the type of person we will be. Though many factors influence us, I believe that freedom means that we are who we have chosen to be. Our freedom places an enormous responsibility on us. We hold our lives in our hands. I suppose this is most obvious when we make a life commitment by making a vow. Making a vow for life, for example in marriage or holy orders, gives a clear direction to a per- son’s life. I believe a level of maturity is necessary in order to make a vow that involves a life commitment. An individual has to be sufficiently free to offer himself or herself to another or to others. That kind of commitment and self-gift is unique and so important that it is no wonder some people become nervous and anxious before making a lifelong vow. However, such a vow holds out the possibility of great happiness and fulfillment.