“A Meaningful Life” Part III
Lenten Faith Formation Series
For St. Vincent de Paul
By Sean DeWitt
A Meaningful Life: We have seen in the past two sessions how the promise of eternal life made to us by the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives true meaning to life. We have also seen how this orientation gives meaning to each of our individual lives by giving us an enduring and significant identity based on a relationship with God as His son or daughter. Now it is time to see what this meaningful life looks like; how it is lived or achieved, so to speak. How are we to stay true to this identity and hold out for the ultimate reward of life eternal? And what’s more, how does this way of life give meaning, deeper meaning to our lives than what the culture has to offer?
Good Counsel: In order to live a meaningful life, both the culture and the Gospel give us advice or counsels. These counsels are given to us by our role models, idols, and mentors. These people have lived a meaningful life, so we have determined, and thus advise us; share with us the secrets of how to do the same, how to live a life like their own. This is most easily seen while checking out at the grocery store. The magazines and tabloids that line the checkout lane boast of a particular figure or celebrity featured in splendor and majesty on the front cover. Around them eye catching lines say, ‘10 secrets to slimming down;’ ‘3 ways to improve your life;’ or ‘4 ways to have a more fulfilling ___ life.’ Both Jesus in the Gospel and our celebrity/Pop stars in the culture offer us advice on how to live a meaningful life like their own. Indeed, they both offer us three counsels. In order to love and to serve the Lord God as His sons and daughters in this life and be with our Father in Heaven in the next, Jesus advises poverty, chastity, and obedience. In order to attain the pleasure of tonight and establish a legacy by which we will be known for what we have done, the culture suggests wealth, pleasure, and honors.
Wealth: Wealth: As the guarantee and solution to all of the difficulties and obstacles preventing us from living a meaningful life, the culture recommends to us wealth. Wealth or money provides security, a means to acquire happiness, and an out in times of trouble—a rainy day fund. For some, whose life will be meaningless unless they experience the pleasures of tonight and establish a legacy which will last beyond them, the culture advises a great sum of wealth for which we must beg, borrow, and steal. Think here of Fergie’s song “Glamorous.”
For most of us, however, the aim is a bit lower, the desire a little less, and the suggestion a tad more subtle. A meaningful life is more along the lines of the Jones with whom we must always keep up: a nice 4/5 bedroom house, two cars, flat screen TV, iPhones all around, and still enough left over for the family vacation and the kids college fund. We desire and work for a good life, a comfortable living. Here the culture also counsels money as the best means to living this meaningful American Dream. Yet it is more subtle. Certainly, ‘money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly helps.’
The Rich Young Man: In the Gospel, however, we see Jesus meet this man, a young man, searching for a meaningful life. Yet, wealth is not what He suggests.
And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which?" And Jesus said, "You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22)
Why so Sad?: We can see in this man, this rich young man, although he knew it not, our own culture. After coming to Jesus excitedly desiring to know the way to attain eternal life, he hears Jesus’ advice and goes away sorrowful. Likewise those in our culture come to Church still every Sunday—we hope—looking for a meaningful life, yet when they hear the Gospel proclaimed, and go away sad, sorrowful, disappointed, unfulfilled, bored, indifferent. But why? Why does the rich young man go away sorrowful?
Fears to Face: The idea of lacking money, let alone giving it all away, is for our culture terrifying if not a heretical suggestion. How are you going to live or survive? What about the practical necessities of life: food, water, clothing, and a roof over your head? This is just irresponsible! Indeed, our culture, particularly in the south, embodies one of Aristotle’s greatest virtues: magnanimity or ‘large-souledness.’ In this view, giving oneself into poverty is a vice or bad thing to do, since it inhibits one’s ability to give to another. If I give away all my possessions, I will not be able to take care of my family, friends, let alone give to charity. If I do not hold on to these possessions, I will become a hindrance on society, rather than one who contributes. If I give up my wealth, however small or large, my life will be meaningless.
Poverty and Morality: Underneath many of these fears is a deeply embedded presupposition: Poverty corrupts, or said differently, poverty causes immorality. We can see this exhibited in the play Les Meserables. While slightly more pronounced in the book, the play offers a stark contrast between the goodness of Jean Valjean and the thievery of the Thenardier’s whose state of poverty causes them to beg, borrow, and steal just a squeak out a living. More profoundly in the book, both Jean Valjean and Fantine, originally normal kind and caring souls, are slowly corrupted becoming wretched and even wicked as they spiral into poverty. This cause/effect of money and morality is only confirmed as we watch Jean Valjean continually redeem the other characters primarily through what seems to be an endless supply of wealth. Indeed, Jean Valjean’s own redemption was wrought through the gift of two silver candle sticks given him by the Bishop.
We really believe that wealth will cause a person to shape up and to lead a moral life. And while there is certainly some truth to this correlation—certainly poverty can encourage more extreme measures—it fails to take into account the vast history of corruption and wickedness by those with a great deal of money. Certainly, there have never been any wicked or evil rich people!
Wealth and Suffering: Yet there is another assumption here, that wealth can prevent suffering. Suffering is to be avoided at all costs, for it is bad. Thus, wealth, which allows us to put off suffering, is good, the more of it the better. Again, while there is certainly a grain of truth here—proper medical care and certain standards of living remove a great deal of unnecessary suffering in the world—one cannot spend away all suffering. At the very least, death, the ultimate suffering, is inescapable. We see this most profoundly in our categories of 1st and 3rd world countries. These ‘underdeveloped’ countries experience great sufferings due to a lack of wealth. Yet to these categories, we have to ask: are we really happier than they who have less?
Poverty v. Destitution: To the rich young man in search for eternal life, Jesus recommends that he give all of his possessions to the poor and follow Him. Jesus calls the man to an act of poverty. In the Tradition of the Church, this call to poverty has been understood as the renunciation of all possessions. This is an important definition because it distinguishes what Jesus is asking from what we typically think of when we hear the word ‘poverty.’ We typically understand poverty as destitution. Poverty is a lack of possession, whereas destitution is the lack of the basic necessities of life. Jesus calls us to a life of poverty, that is, to a lack of possessions, not to starvation. To better understand this, think of the Religious Sisters. They take a perpetual vow of poverty. Thus they have no personal possessions. Everything is owned by the community. We do not, however, starve them of the basic necessities; they are not destitute.
Poverty v. Cheap: Another important distinction lies between cheap and poverty. Poverty does not mean that we or the Church cannot have nice things, lest we should reevaluate our Church buildings. No, again, poverty focuses on the lack of personal possessions.
Why?: But why? Why would Jesus ask us to do this? How does poverty remind us of our identity and help us attain eternal life? In other words, how does poverty help us live a meaningful life? Consider these words from the Second Vatican Council:
“All the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state… Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away” (Lumen Gentium, 42).
Worldly Attachments: Here Vatican II lists two primary ways poverty helps us live a meaningful life. First and foremost, poverty helps us refrain from worldly attachments. Poverty, or a lack of possessions, helps us not “come to terms with this world,” that is, conform or get to comfortable here, thereby increasing our desire and longing for life hereafter. Attachments to things of this world, particularly riches, can weigh us down and keep us from look up and striving towards perfect love. We feel this particularly during Lent when we are asked to give alms. Such a time of intense love reminds us of our goal and purpose here in this life, that is to love and to serve the Lord in this life and be with Him in the next. In this way, poverty gives meaning to our lives by allowing us to focus more on those realities which actually give meaning to life: eternal life and relationships with others, particularly God.
Imitation of Christ: The second reason is that through poverty we imitate Christ. Christ was a poor man. From His birth in a manger to His death on the cross, Christ entered and left this world with nothing. During His life, the austerity with which He lived is astounding if not baffling. The pinnacle would be that moment during those long forty days in the desert when, thrice tempted, He denied the food, glory, and power of this world for something, someone greater: His Father in Heaven. We are encouraged to live in the same way, so that in times of trial we might not be brought down by the weight of worldly attachments, but lifted up by our gaze heavenward.
Vocation and Status: But how do we do this? Notice how the Second Vatican Council prefaced its remarks: “All the faithful are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state” (Lumen Gentium, 42). The call to holiness and the embrace of these counsels is always seen in light of one’s vocation: married, religious, etc…, and one’s status: Government leader, business man, etc… Our vocations inform us of our obligations to love. If you are married, you are obliged to take care of and to love your spouse and children, which includes feeding them and nourishing them. This will require a great deal of possessions in most cases. Thus a family’s embrace of this evangelical counsel of poverty will look quite different from that of a religious sister. Furthermore, one’s status, which we can understand here as job or role in society, requires certain worldly associations. In order to be a credible lawyer, you must have a particular kind of suit and car. Now, lest a Catholic be barred from ever passing the bar, poverty has to in some way adapt and reincarnate itself. Here the lawyer can live out this counsel of poverty by choosing a lower end, yet still acceptable suit and car; he need not have a Rolls Royce. The lawyer could certainly leave everything and become say a priest or religious, but we also need good Catholic lawyers. Someone needs to do it. To describe this distinction we use the words poverty and simplicity. Poverty is a radical embrace of Jesus’ counsel giving up one’s status in life for a different vocation, while simplicity is act of humility in accordance with our vocation and status in life. In short, either drop everything and follow Him, or just get an older model iPhone.
Pleasure: The second counsel our culture give us in order to live a meaningful life is that of pleasure. Certainly, by pleasure the culture means sex. The multibillion dollar porn industry, massive divorce rate, and abortion and contraception are sign clear enough to see that meaning and happiness in this life must, must include sex, and not a small amount. Sex is good for you, aiding in self-discovery, self-expression, and the maturation process. I have even heard it suggested as a good form of exercise! Yet, the suggestion of pleasure is not limited to sex. It also includes drugs, and other quick hit escapes: comfort food, movies, video games, etc… Again, these give meaning to life by allowing us to experience the pleasure of the moment and escape the drudge of day-to-day life.
Personal Fulfillment: The culture says that we will be incomplete and unfulfilled as persons without the consistent and frequent experience of this pleasure. Thus we must eliminate its consequences so that we are not punished by its effects: contraception and termination of a pregnancy. Can you imagine 9 months without sex! Or we must find other more perverse ways of attaining such please when it cannot be found or attained in this way: pornography, masturbation, and prostitution. Yes, it is hard to believe but in some circles these are spoken of and talked about as necessaries to living a meaningful life. If they weren’t then why would we spend so much on contraceptive for 3rd world countries? Never mind the extremely dangerous procedures and terribly damaging side effects of this behavior and these procedures, both physically and psychologically.
The most tragic part of this cultural counsel of pleasure is the advice given to those who suffer from “same sex attraction.” We have spoken of this in the prior session, but it merits repeating. Instead of looking out for the genuine dignity of these people which exceeds a simple reduction of their personal identity to their sexual orientation; instead of taking care of their health which is seriously put at risk to Aids/HIV and such; and instead of teaching them how true happiness is attained and a truly meaningful life is lived, they are cheated, sold short, and robbed by the lie that they will not be fulfilled, not be meaningful, indeed be meaningless, if they do not have these sexual experiences with those of the same sex. This is blatantly false. One’s personal fulfillment is not dependent on the pleasure of a sexual encounter! Again, we should feel deeply for these people and reach out to them, for they are true victims of a lie that our culture perpetuates both to heterosexuals and those with “same sex attraction.” It is this solicitude for their greater good that the Church teaches what she does.
Chastity: Counter to this, Jesus advises chastity, and what is more virginity. In another discussion on marriage and divorce, Jesus turns to the disciples and concludes with this second of His evangelic counsels.
But he said to them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it." (Matt. 19:11-12)
The Church has traditionally understood these lines as the call to chastity. In addition to the vocation of marriage which Jesus holds in high regard, requiring deep commitment and fidelity, Jesus gives praise to those who have kept themselves chaste for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, He says whoever is able to do this should. In fact, the Second Vatican Council speaks beautifully of this counsel:
An eminent position among these is held by virginity or the celibate state. This is a precious gift of divine grace given by the Father to certain souls, whereby they may devote themselves to God alone the more easily, due to an undivided heart. (14*) This perfect continency, out of desire for the kingdom of heaven, has always been held in particular honor in the Church. The reason for this was and is that perfect continency for the love of God is an incentive to charity, and is certainly a particular source of spiritual fecundity in the world. (Lumen Gentium, 42)
Chastity, as if it found in those who commitment themselves to a life of virginity or celibacy, gives meaning to life by keeping, as Vatican II says, an “undivided heart.” This “undivided heart” held in “perfect continency” compels one to greater acts of charity, particularly a spiritual fruitfulness or fecundity; chastity gives spiritual, not biological life. Chastity in this way gives meaning to life by keeping our hearts set on that eternal life for which we strive, and establishing new relationships based on spiritual ties which define us as spiritual mothers and fathers, even spiritual spouses of the Lord Jesus.
Implications for Married Persons: The implications of this teaching are quite profound, even for those in the married life. Just as with poverty, there is a way for this to become incarnate in each of our lives. For the married person, this counsel is followed in three ways: first and foremost is the fidelity of the two spouses. The choice to remain faithful both physically and emotionally to a spouse in directly related to this virtue of chastity. Secondly, in refraining or abstaining from sexual intercourse when a pregnancy is undesirable or possibly irresponsible, a couple exercises chastity. Anyone who is familiar with NFP (Natural Family Planning) is familiar with this. Lastly, a couple lives out this call to chastity by being faithful to the marital act, not separating the unitive or procreative aspects so as to simply attain pleasure. It is incredibly important that couples learn this virtue of chastity together, particularly if they are to expect their children to follow suit and hold off until marriage. Marriage is not a legalized or sanctioned sex contract! A meaningful life as a married person includes so much more. If it is seen this way or lived out in this way, it is no wonder our children reject it as an institution and see no value in waiting. A couple who lives chastity within their marriage will have a great deal more credibility and compassion in teaching this to their children.
Widows and Widowers: Jesus speaks of those who are made eunuchs by men. While certainly He is referring to those who experienced some sort of mutilation or torture, I think we can also see in this category those persons who have to accept a life of celibacy or perfect continence due to particular circumstances in life. For example widows and widowers and single man or woman who never finds Mr. or Mrs. Right. Here Jesus offers them a meaning to their lives, which certainly the culture would not see.
Born that Way: Jesus speaks also of those, who for whatever cause, were born this way. Here we understand those who suffer from great physical birth defects, mental retardation, and other such ailments. To these people as well, Jesus offers a meaningful way to live life and prepare for the kingdom of God. No their life is not meaningless even though they cannot partake in what the culture offers them. In fact, their life is venerated and celebrated by the Church as a clear sign and witness to the coming of the kingdom of God.
We might mention here those who suffer from “same sex attraction,” for many claim that this is a inborn tendency. I think that the science is still not clear on this, but suffice it to say that either way, individuals who experience “same sex attraction” can live meaningful lives by living out this evangelical counsel of chastity.
Priests and Religious: While a lot could be said about priests and religious in terms of their lives of virginity and celibacy, it is clear enough that the culture does not approve nor understand. The key to understanding this is that “spiritual fecundity” mentioned earlier in conjunction with the reality of being sign of the kingdom of God. Priests and religious live joyful meaningful lives through their fatherly and maternal care for souls. Most of us here have experienced this in one way or another during our lives. Indeed, we call them Fathers! Yet, even more they give witness to that eternal life for which we all strive, a life in which no one marries or is given in marriage (Cf. Matt 22:30). I think this is most felt by those who have to live such a life of chastity not by choice but by situation, such as the widows, or those born in such a state. They see in the priest or religious a sign of a meaningful life to come through eternity with God.
Imitation of Christ: Yet lastly and most importantly, the priest and religious and all the faithful are called to this counsel of evangelical chastity because Christ Himself lived it. Christ never married. And that was no accident. He calls those closest to Him—His priests and religious—to do the same; and those He has called to married state to imitate Him by faithful marriages. Indeed, chastity makes the most sense and gives the greatest amount of meaning to our lives when we realize we not following the idols of this world, but conforming ourselves to Christ Jesus.
Honors: The last of the major counsels that our culture gives us are honors. A meaningful life is one which receives recognition, accolades, and rewards for the various accomplishments and goals we achieve. Meaning is felt as the satisfaction of job well done and the trophy to prove it. We implicitly teach this to our kids through “the everyone wins” mentality seen in many of the competitions for young kids. Another good example is looking at the college application of any high school senior. The meaning of their past four years of life culminates in what one hopes to be a long list of accomplishments and rewards. It is not merely enough to be a good student. One must be recognized as such by this or that organization, receive this or that academic award, etc…The absurdity of this logic is felt when we receive participation awards. Oh wait, everyone loves those! Consider this: A Christian whose meaning in life and identity is dependent on God and a life hereafter is really okay with a winner and a loser. A man of the culture, whose identity and meaning in life very much hangs on this outcome, will out of fear find ways to redistribute these honors so the most win and least loose; he cannot handle failing himself or others, because to do so would be to take meaning from their lives.
In a more extreme way, this counsel of the culture is seen in those who do whatever it takes to rise to top of a given sport, career, cause, or group. A meaningful life literally hangs upon success and the accolades that follow. We see this “stop at nothing” pursuit of honors in various ways, for example the recent steroids scandal in baseball, a culture of cheating seen among university students, etc… When you identity and meaning in life is dependent on honor gathered from others, everything is directed to that 15 minutes of fame. What do you think drives so many hundreds of thousands of people to try out for American Idol!
Obedience: Contrary to the allurement of honors felt even in His day among the Pharisees, Jesus counsels evangelical obedience. We hear this counsel as a description of those who follow Jesus when He says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). One of those sheep, John the beloved disciple, John put it best when he said: “He who says ‘I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him” (1John 2:4-5).
Obedience to God by following His commandments set before by His Son our Lord Jesus Christ is the way to live a meaningful life. In many ways, this counsel by Jesus is the only counsel we need to follow, for in so doing we will adhere to the rest. But what are we talking about here? Listen to the Second Vatican Council:
Because the disciples must always offer an imitation of and a testimony to the charity and humility of Christ, Mother Church rejoices at finding within her bosom men and women who very closely follow their Savior who debased Himself to our comprehension. There are some who, in their freedom as sons of God, renounce their own wills and take upon themselves the state of poverty. Still further, some become subject of their own accord to another man, in the matter of perfection for love of God. This is beyond the measure of the commandments, but is done in order to become more fully like the obedient Christ. (Lumen Gentium, 42)
By obedience is meant the submission of the will or “renouncing” of one’s own will to another, primarily God. In its most profound expression this is done by the priest and religious who promises or vows obedience to a superior. That is what the council means when it says “some become subject of their own accord to another man [or woman], in the matter of perfection for love of God.” Obedience to their superiors whether they be Bishops or Mothers or Prior or Abbots, you name it, is a true act of humility. It is even called a poverty of will, giving up all possession even that of one’s own will. Such an act of obedience gives meaning to one’s life since it clearly adheres to the pursuit of a life hereafter, and also clearly defines the person’s identity as one in relationship with our Father in heaven.
Obedience in the Family: Yet obedience, like the others, is not limited to the priest and religious. Obedience is learned first and foremost in the family. Remember the 4th commandment: Honor your Father and your Mother. This is an important virtue for children to learn and to foster even as we get older, for it does not simply mean follow the rules of the house or do what they say. Certainly, it includes this, but it also extends to times when Mom and Dad are not around. What would they do? Particularly when we are surprised by a situation in which we have to act on their behalf, say a phone call, or an expected visitor to the house when they aren’t around. Later in life, this means being faithful to our relationship with them, visiting and staying in contact. Eventually, it will mean taking care of them and seeing them off into that eternal life. All of this falls under obedience.
For the parents, obedience is lived both between the spouses and with the children. This is seen easily enough in the “honey do” list for Saturday and the endless sacrifices we make for our kids to pursue what they love.
Other spheres: Yet obedience is not limited to the family. We must be obedient to our civil leaders, although only if the laws established are just, and we must be obedient to those for whom we work. Yes, one of the great calling cards of the Christian is that he is a good citizen and a good worker; we participate in society. We do not live our lives on some parallel track like some religions or faith backgrounds do. No, we engage the public square. Our success in this is greatly dependent upon our living out this counsel of obedience.
Imitation of Christ: Yet more important than any of thing, this evangelical counsel of obedience is meaningful and significant because Christ lived it. Think most vividly here of the Agony in the Garden: “Let this cup pass, but not my will, but thy will we done.” He complete obedience to God the Father is what kept Him even in His darkest moments in communion with God.