My recent experience of re-reading Jesuit Father John Kavanaugh’s “Following Christ in a Consumer Society” (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, revised edition, 1991, pp. 194) has been enlightening for several reasons.
One is that I am reminded of how much I admired Father Kavanaugh and what a loss his death was to the Catholic community. Another is that almost everything I believe about the mystery of the human person is mentioned in his book, and presented better than I ever could. His insights into the contingency and fragility of the human person speak to me in a new, striking way now that I am more than 25 years older than I was when I first read his insights into a consumer culture.
I very much like Father Kavanaugh’s insights into the tendency to handle our fragility and contingency by amassing things. We are fragile and dependent and our good fortune and future can change in a matter of seconds. A friend of mine frequently says, “Our lives can change suddenly for the worse in the blink of an eye!”
We are radically needy and vulnerable and when we become aware of this, we look for some protection, some way of guarding ourselves. Father Kavanaugh writes the following:
“Unfortunately, upon the discovery of our precariousness and insecure contingency, we seek to ground ourselves, to finish and fill ourselves, by running away from the fragility of our personhood. We submit to the blandishments of threat and domination, the pathological inversion of our drive to know and understand. In languishing for security, we enter into patterns of ultimate competition and accumulation, the pathological inversion of our affective potential. If we consume, collect, or produce enough, we seem to think we could eliminate the risks of being human, of trust, of intimacy. But we find instead the emptiness of a closed, monadic world that turns upon itself in violence. Finally, we seek escape, refusing to commit ourselves in the face of our own frightening unfinishedness. At times, slavery seems less terrible, and certainly more safe, than freedom.” (p. 68)
Facing Our Finitude
I agree completely with Father Kavanaugh that it is not easy to face our mortality, our finitude and fragility. We want to forget about it and so we substitute other activity in place of serious reflection. Yet, I have become convinced that if we are going to allow ourselves to be fulfilled, and to experience the deepest joy of living, we have to deal intelligently and correctly with our mortality.
Running away from it is neither correct nor intelligent. Ultimately, it is not even possible.
I suggest that the most intelligent way of dealing with our mortality is through living out in our daily lives the mystery of love. The most profound way of living out in our daily lives the mystery of love, I believe, is through Christian faith and commitment.
I think that I have come to see in a new way that our very weakness is our strength, our neediness is essential to our being who we are and our poverty is ultimately our wealth. The new way of viewing our fragility, finitude and mortality is due to my reading Pope Francis and listening to his talks. In trying to explain this I have to appeal to two mysteries, perhaps the two most profound mysteries in our experience: the mysteries of our unfinishedness and the mystery of God’s unlimited love of us.
An Unselfish Act
God has creatively fashioned us so that our deepest selves long for God, are directed toward God and can only be fulfilled by a love relationship with God. This relationship will be fulfilled beyond the grave, but here on earth, a loving commitment to God is as close to heaven as we can come. The fact that God made us so that we can only be fulfilled through a relationship with God is not a selfish act. Rather, it is most unselfish because God creates us this way for our benefit.
Why would God – the Infinite God Who keeps the stars, planets and millions of other creatures in existence – want a love relationship with me, Bob Lauder? The only answer I can give is that love is giving. When humans act unselfishly, they are imitating God.
No creatures will ever fulfill us. I think of Francis Thompson’s masterpiece poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” The poet confesses that he searched for fulfillment through creatures, at times sinfully, but only the pursing God could fulfill his longing and neediness.
We don’t have to deny or run away from our fragility and finitude. Rather, serious reflection on how needy we are may help us to appreciate God’s love more. Serious reflection on our fragility and finitude when linked to prayerful reflection on Jesus’ death and resurrection may lead us to a deeper realization of just how important we are to God.
Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).