by Father Robert Lauder
AS I BEGIN to write this column, I am recalling a retreat experience from when I was in the major seminary.
In those days, seminary retreats were silent. And around the time of the retreat, I was reading a book by the great French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. It may have been A Preface to Metaphysics. In the book, Maritain was suggesting ways that a person might become aware of the mystery of being, the mystery of existence. I was interested in philosophy as an undergraduate student, so I read Maritain with enthusiasm.
One of Maritain’s suggestions was that a person should take a blade of grass into his or her hand and zero in on the existence, or being, of the blade. The point of the exercise, I imagine, was to help a person get a sense of what it means to be. It was to be an attempt at grasping, to some extent, the marvel of existing. I can recall sitting on a bench in this huge field with a blade of grass in my palm trying to come to understand the mystery of being. I must have been quite a sight!
The Catholic personalist existentialist Gabriel Marcel wrote a two-volume work titled The Mystery of Being. My understanding of Marcel’s philosophical vision is that being is the realm of value, the realm of the transcendent, the dimension of reality that is most important. Marcel suggested that there are some significant acts that can lead us into the mystery of being, that can put us in touch with what really matters. For Marcel, faith, fidelity, hope and love were such acts. These significant human acts can lead us into the mystery of being, into what is most important in life.
Marcel contrasts “having” with “being.” Having suggests possession and control, perhaps even manipulation. Being invites surrender. Marcel makes much of what he calls in French “disponibilite.” I think the best translation for that term is available. The person who is available is ready to give himself away. He or she is ready to serve, to put love into action.
What does all this have to do with Maritain’s blade of grass? I think what links Maritain’s suggestion to Marcel’s insights into the mystery of being is the total gratuity of creation. God did not have to create. Every being, and I mean every being, is a free gift from God. Marcel believed that the free love that God bestows in creating can be experienced by us through acts of faith, fidelity, hope and love. When we make ourselves available to serve and to help others, we are imitating the graciousness and love that God gives freely.
During that retreat, what I was trying to do, at the suggestion of Maritain, was experience the gift of existence bestowed by God on that blade of grass. A question that many philosophers pose to their students is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I suppose students might give all sorts of responses, ranging from “How should I know” to “Because of the Big Bang and evolution,” but the answer that we can offer from our faith is because of love. When some of the greatest minds in the history of thought have asked why God created, the best answer they could muster was that this is what love does, love gives, love desires to share.
The mystery of being points us beyond life on earth. Seymour Cain in his book, Gabriel Marcel (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway, Inc., 1963, pp.128), comments on Marcel’s view of immortality. Cain writes the following:
“Death for other men and for their good, for instance, is always death before the transcendent Other — even when it is an ‘atheist humanist’ who sacrifices his life. Absolute fidelity to a being transcends and conquers death. ‘To love a being is to say thou wilt never die,’… Anything else is betrayal — it is to give up one’s beloved to death and take silence and invisibility for annihilation. For absolute fidelity, rooted in transcendence, the beloved dead is not an image or a memory or a shadow, but the ‘still existing’ for me of what ‘no longer exists,’ a permanent, unfailing presence, with which I am in real relation.” (p. 86)
I agree with Marcel’s view of fidelity, faith, hope and love as ways of entering into the mystery of being.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.