Faith & Thought

Confronting Mystery Through Works of Art

I am wondering how many readers of this weekly column have a strong sense that they are writing the stories of their lives by the free choices they make. To be more accurate, I would say they are co-creating their stories with God by the free choices they make. 

In his book “What Is God? How to Think About the Divine” (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, $14.95), John Haught writes the following: 

“The identity of all of us is established by our interaction with the narrative context of our existence. Our sense of the meaning of our lives, if we are fortunate enough to be conscious of living meaningfully, is a gift of the narrative nest in which we dwell. 

“The meaning of our lives is determined by the way in which each of us participates in an ongoing story. And where people today speak of their experience of meaninglessness, isolation, alienation, rootlessness, etc., such experiences can almost invariably be traced to an inability to find some meaningful story in which to situate their lives” (p. 74). 

The stories that we read can have a powerful influence on our choices. I think immediately of the story of Jesus as it is told in the Gospels and in the letters of the New Testament. For Christian believers that is “the” story that should shape our view of ourselves, of other persons, and of God. 

That story should form our consciences and direct our choices. The story of Jesus is so deep and so beautiful that we can spend our entire lives allowing its mystery to enlighten every aspect of our stories. While many today have not been able to find a meaningful story to model their lives on, Christians find the story of Jesus filled with meaning. 

Writing this series of columns about the possible relationship between the experience of artistic masterpieces and religious faith has convinced me that experiencing great stories, whether through literature or theater or film, can help greatly in writing the stories of our own lives. 

Great stories deal with what I call the challenging infinitives: to be, to live, to love, to die, to rise. In his encyclical “Faith and Reason,” Pope St. John Paul stressed that ultimately everyone is called to ask ultimate questions about human existence. He wrote the following: 

“No one can avoid this questioning, neither the philosopher nor the ordinary person. The answer we give will determine whether or not we think it is possible to attain universal and absolute truth, and this is a decisive moment of the search. 

“Every truth — if it really is truth — presents itself as universal, even if it is not the whole truth. If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times. Beyond this universality, however, people seek an absolute which might give to all their searching meaning and an answer — something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. 

“In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value. … Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt” (“Faith and Reason,” Sept. 14, 1998, online edition, pp. 4-5). 

Today some people, perhaps a large number of people, avoid asking ultimate questions at least for a time. I think eventually those questions become unavoidable. Life experiences force us to deal with them. Some loved one dies or some longtime love relationship ends or you discover that you are seriously sick. 

If someone has any of those or similar awful experiences, it becomes very difficult to avoid the ultimate questions: What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of death? What is the meaning of God? 

Great novels, short stories, poems, films, and plays often raise the most important questions and offer powerful insights into the mystery of being human. Experiencing such works holds out great possibilities for the person who has religious faith. Such works can shed important light on our experience of being human. 

Writing this series of columns about the relationship between great works of art and religious faith has helped me to appreciate more deeply the importance of education. Perhaps especially important is the kind of education that we undertake ourselves, not only during the years when we are in school, but the kind of education that should continue throughout our lives. 

Experiencing great stories either through reading or through viewing great films and great plays can help us as we try to co-create with God the stories of our lives. Experiencing great stories can help us see more clearly that our lives are an ongoing love story, a marvelous adventure with God. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.