Arts and Culture

The Special Choices in Our Personal Stories

In the last two columns I have been stressing that we create our personal stories, especially through our free choices and God’s free choices.

Recalling what philosophers refer to as the transcendentals (being, unity, truth, good and beauty), I pointed out that whenever God creates anything, that creature has the five transcendentals because the transcendentals are aspects of every being. That means that God cannot create anything that does not in some ways resemble God.

Though we may not frequently advert to this, in every choice we make we are trying to increase the beauty in our lives. I have come to believe that there are some choices that have a special potential to increase the beauty in our lives.

Those choices are what we refer to as life commitments. Examples would be a person being baptized, a person entering religious life, a person being ordained, a person entering marriage.

I believe every time a person enters into the celebration of a eucharist there is an opportunity to renew a life commitment.

I have long wondered why some of the most talented people in contemporary culture, for example, writers, philosophers and people in the arts, seem to have given up on traditional religion.

For years I have noticed that some people in show business, when being interviewed, make some statement like, “My upbringing was Catholic.” Often that statement implies that they are no longer practicing the Catholic faith.

John Haught in his book “What Is God? How To Think About the Divine” (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, pp. 143, $14.95) makes an observation that for me may explain why some very intelligent and talented people do not seem to be drawn to the story of Catholicism or to the story of any traditional religion.

Haught notes that the way that human consciousness has at times been frozen in particular narrative patterns deserves some of the negative criticism from some contemporary thought. He writes the following:

“In spite of its inevitable protests to the contrary I would suggest that … its criticism is directed less at narrative as such than at narrative fixation.

“… For the demise of story is first of all the result of our childish obsession with particular versions of a dynamic narrative tradition. The attempt to freeze a particular tradition in an absolutely conservative way, is already the end of story, the true ‘nihilism’ that prevents the story from remaining alive.

“Story fixations bring about the end of story, and with it the impression of the death of God. … By bringing the ‘ending’ into view prematurely, by failing to wait in the midst of struggle, and by narrowing the ending down to dimensions too suffocating to satisfy the human desire for the infinite, story-fixation is already the death of narrative. To be properly narrative the cosmic and human story must remain in process. To freeze the story artificially is to kill it.” (pp. 81-82)

    Using Haught’s insights I have been thinking of some moments in my life that demanded important decisions, important choices that could change my life dramatically.

Four such moments come to mind: my decision to enter the seminary, my decision to accept the Bishop’s calling me to be ordained a priest, my choice to accept the Bishop’s invitation to enter graduate school so that I could teach philosophy at the college seminary he was planning to build and my choice to accept the invitation from St. John’s University to teach philosophy there.

For me each of these decisions was difficult, some very difficult. In each of these decisions I was blessed to have close friends and spiritual directors who advised me wisely.

Looking back on my decisions, I think they were “correct” decisions. Each of these decisions I think deepened and broadened my story.

It would have been a big mistake to settle for narrative fixation in any of these moments of my life. With other less important decisions in my life I think I did make the mistake of settling for narrative fixation instead of taking the opportunity for growth and choosing an increase of beauty in my life.

Fortunately, no “incorrect” decision need ever be the final word about our lives. Often we have new opportunities to correct our mistakes.

Not knowing the future, every free choice we make involves a risk. Some choices, such as the choice of a life commitment, involve a very serious risk.

Such choices should be taken very seriously. However, not so seriously that we are frozen and seemingly unable to choose.

It is good to recall that not to choose is itself a choice. I think if we believe that we are not alone, that God is present in our lives when we are called to choose, we may experience a special courage to choose.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.