Arts and Culture

Finding Meaning in a Broken World

by Father Robert Lauder

Of the many things that I like about the personalist-existentialist philosophy of Gabriel Marcel — and there are many — is his insight that some actions can move us into the mystery of being.

Marcel stresses that acts of faith, hope and love can move us beyond the ordinary workaday world into the dimension of value and significance and mystery, which I think is what he means by the mystery of being. Becoming aware of the mystery of being is to become aware of what really matters, of what is most important in life, of the dimension of reality which reveals that we are not alone, that we are surrounded by a love that conquers even death.

Recently, I think I observed evidence of several people entering into the dimension of mystery, though perhaps none of them would interpret their experience the way that I interpret it. If they were moved into that deeper dimension of living, it may have been due to acts of hope and love. The event that called forth those acts was the birth of a baby.

When the new baby girl was only a day old, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins gathered around her. Everyone wanted to hold her, everyone noticed and “ooed” and “aahed” over the slightest change in the baby’s facial expression. The hospital room was filled with love and hope. A new person had been brought into the world and the love and hope that she caused in the lives of several people, I think, was a sign of the mystery of being.

There is a dramatic scene in one of Gabriel Marcel’s plays, The Broken World. In it, a woman lives a meaningless, superficial existence in what she perceives to be an empty world. She tries desperately to establish meaningful and solid relations. She remains attentive for some sign that in spite of evidence to the contrary, there is significant meaning: There is a dimension of human living that is accessible and that she is missing.

Once in a philosophy class at St. John’s University, I had the students do a dramatic reading of a portion of the play. It was so effective that I think I will try that again the next time I teach the course on the philosophy of personalism. The following statement is made by the woman who experiences the world as broken:

“Don’t you sometimes have the impression that we are living … if it can be called living … in a broken world. Yes, broken as a broken watch. The spring does not work any more. In appearance nothing has changed. Everything is in its proper place. But if one puts the watch to one’s ear … one no longer hears anything. You understand, the world, what we call the world, the world of men … formerly it must have had a heart. But it’s as if the heart has ceased to beat.”

Commenting on this passage in his excellent book, Gabriel Marcel (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway, $3.95, 1963, pp.128), Seymour Cain writes the following:

“The ‘broken world’ is a world without unity or community: Everyone goes on about his own affairs, without real communication, without real meeting. There are merely chance collisions. ‘There is no longer a centre, no longer a life, anywhere,’ says the despairing lady. But she keeps listening, listening ‘into the void.’ The possibility of salvation, of attaining the fullness of reality, comes to her through a message of communion and sustaining presence from a beloved friend who has died, from one beyond life, and as the play ends she seeks to bring the light of this encounter into the common, daily life of herself and her husband.” (p. 61)

Today, almost everyone I know is under pressure and lives at a terribly frantic pace. I include myself in this group. I always seem to be racing somewhere or trying to make some deadline, usually a deadline that I have somewhat arbitrarily made up, putting myself under unnecessary pressure. I notice that at almost any moment of the day, I can announce what time it is without even looking at my watch.

“To stop and smell the roses” as the saying goes, is not easy to do. We really have to work at giving ourselves a break, at making time for what is most important, for what is most in tune with what human living ultimately means.

Reflecting on the presence of God in our lives has convinced me that all is gift. We don’t create ourselves. We don’t save ourselves. We don’t redeem ourselves. Our lives are surrounded by the giftedness of God. If those truths don’t help us to be less anxious and more hopeful and hope-filled, then I don’t know what will.

Next week, Father Lauder discusses the experience of love and being loved.[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.