Seventh in a series
IN ONE WAY or another people try to put unity and order into their lives. Peter Berger, in his excellent book, “A Rumor of Angels,” argues that human beings’ propensity for order is a “hint” that we are imitating a Creator Who has brought into existence an ordered universe. Life without order and purpose would be chaotic.
At least since college I have tried very hard in various ways to put order into what I refer to as my intellectual life. In my first year of college I became friendly with a Catholic layman who made a deep impression on me. He seemed to see everything from the point of view of his Catholic faith. His faith influenced how he thought about everything: theatre, films, books, magazines, politics and current events. I wanted to imitate him. My interest in philosophy when I was in college was due in part to my belief that somehow philosophy would help me see all of reality in a unified way.
When I was a young priest I would have discussions with classmates about how a priest’s life has a unity that lay people may have difficulty achieving in their lives. What I meant was that everything a priest does is somehow related to God. That can give all that a priest does a unifying center. I thought that made it a little easier for a priest to live a “unified” life, whereas a lay person’s life and work might not have a central unifying reality. For example, a lay person’s job might not be obviously related to his or her faith, whereas a priest’s “job” is centered on God.
The search for unity has long preoccupied me. I don’t know how successful I have been, but I intend to keep trying. Seymour Cain’s book, “Gabriel Marcel” (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway, Inc.) has helped broaden my view of what can unify a person’s life. I now believe that what can unify a person’s life more than anything else is the person’s life commitment. In a life commitment we perform the most important human act. We take a risk facing the future. We lay our lives down. By our action we say that this is what matters most to us. The most obvious examples are marriage vows and vows made directly to God, such as vows of obedience, chastity and poverty.
One time in class at St. John’s University I mentioned how awesome I find marriage vows. I think it is amazing that one person can love another person so deeply that he or she makes promises for life. After I said this, a young man said, “No one means those vows. They are just a custom.” Of course, I hope he was wrong, but I wonder if perhaps he had an insight into how great an act of love is required to say those vows and mean them.
In trying to explain Marcel’s view of action and commitment, Cain writes the following: “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 person to act, confront, envisage, assume responsibility, decide, commit himself. ’My act engages me.’ There is integral togetherness of me and my act, which is ‘incorporated in the totality of what I am.’ My whole life as integrated and consecrated, may be seen as a single act – as a sacrament.” (p. 78)
Every act I perform is a revelation of myself. There is a sense in which I cannot hide. My act puts me in front of people. If I am posing, people may not get to know the “real me,” but they may know that I am not what I am trying to appear to be.
Some acts are more important than others. They have more depth and are directed more strongly toward personal fulfillment. They are more creative of the self than other acts. I think that loving is one of those acts. So did Marcel. In loving I move toward fulfilling my most basic vocation. Everyone is called to be a lover. This is the essence of a human person. If a person lives a life of loving and caring, that person’s life is a success. If a person does not, that person’s life is a failure.
The most powerful act is sincere prayer. Nothing unifies our life like prayer. It not only gives unity to our vision of life, but also to our entire existence.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and the author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).