Arts and Culture

Living As a Gift in Imitation of God

Fourth in a series

AT THE TIME that I am writing this series of columns about the mysteries that philosophy can help us to understand more deeply, I am lecturing about a book at St. John’s University that I teach every spring semester. No matter how many times I talk about this book to students, I still become excited. The author’s insights are just marvelous. The book is Father W. Norris Clarke’s “Person and Being” (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1993).

Father Clarke was a Jesuit priest who tried to wed the philosophical insights of St. Thomas Aquinas to insights from existentialism, phenomenology and personalism. I think he succeeded beautifully. There are many sections of the book that I think are both profoundly true and very exciting.

In one section of his book, Father Clarke is pointing out that to be a human person is a calling to be a lover, to live a life of inter-personal giving and receiving. In order to emphasize what he is claiming, he quotes a few lines from the great Scholastic philosopher, Jacques Maritain. The following is what Maritain wrote:

“Thus it is that when a man has been really awakened to the sense of being or existence, and grasps intuitively the obscure, living depth of the Self and subjectivity, he discovers by the same token the basic generosity of existence and realizes, by virtue of the inner dynamism of his intuition, that love is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of his being alive.

“Then subjectivity reveals itself as ‘self-mastery for self-giving … by spiritual existing in the manner of a gift.” (“Person and Being,” p. 77)

I feel I could meditate on Maritain’s words for hours and never exhaust their meaning. What does he mean by “the basic generosity of existence”? Put simply, if Maritain’s insight can be put simply, he means that all creation is a gift from God. All of creation is like a set of words or messages from God. Maritain suggests that when we come to appreciate the gift dimension of creation, this appreciation can lead to a profound awareness of the meaning of love and of the human person. It is a mistake to think of love as merely a passing passion or emotion. Rather, love reveals that the vocation of every person is to live “in the manner of a gift.”

God is pure Self-Gift. When we love, we imitate God. The more we live in the manner of a gift, the more we become like God. The vocation of every person is to become more like God. The communities we belong to can help or hinder our vocation to live “in the manner of a gift.” On every single dimension of being human, we coexist with other humans. We coexist on the level of knowledge and emotion.

Think of how we rely on the media for information and think of the great teachers we have had in the schools we attended. Perhaps some of them influenced us so deeply that they changed our lives for the better. Concerning emotion, if we spend most of our time with sad people, it will be very difficult for us to be happy; if we spend most of our time with happy people, it will be very difficult for us to be sad. The joy that others are experiencing will seduce us.

I think we also coexist spiritually and this is especially mysterious. In God’s plan for us, other persons can play a crucially important role. Only Jesus saves and redeems, but others can be channels of grace and love to us. Think of our parents and siblings, close friends. Someone wrote that person is essentially a “we term” to express how much we depend on one another. We are tied together. I cannot be the best Robert Lauder without others.

Writing this column has convinced me that what we do sacramentally, ritually and liturgically in a Eucharistic celebration sums up a great deal of what I have been trying to communicate in this series.

At a Eucharist we focus our attention on God, and offer ourselves to the Father in union with the Risen Christ. The offering of Christ is perfect. Depending on how sincere we are and how much our offering is made with love, we can be transformed by the eucharistic celebration. Our offering takes place in a community of faith and love. The celebration should unite us more deeply, not only with our heavenly Father, but also with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his 24-part lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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