“A Meaningful Life” Part II
Lenten Faith Formation Series
For St. Vincent de Paul
By Sean DeWitt
A Meaningful Life: Meaning is given to life by its end or purpose. We saw last time how true meaning is found only in the Christian claim that there is eternal life hereafter guaranteed by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the good news, the Gospel Christianity proclaims: a truly meaningful life.
A Meaningful Identity: Yet, more personally, our lives take meaning from our very identity. Who am I? What is my identity? What is the meaning of life for me? There is a deep desire in us all to answer this question in a definitive and final way. In some ways, the young struggle with this the most: always searching to discover who it is they want to become, selecting and erecting idols and heroes to emulate. Yet it is a valid question for us all. Who am I? What does my life mean? What will it mean?
The Way of the World: Our culture has a very clear way of forming someone’s identity. Our culture says that when it comes to our identity “you are what you eat.” What you do, your actions, work or play, define who you are. We are sports players, business men, volunteers, journalists, writers, engineers, advertisers, beauty specialists, politicians, blue collar or white collar workers, stock brokers, stay at home moms, executives, project managers, programmers, etc…We are what we do. The actions we perform define or determine our identity; what we do gives meaning to our lives. Another way of saying this is that function defines meaning. Function defines what we are.
Inconsistencies: Certainly, we have to admit that this way of seeing ourselves and others, this way of defining ourselves is true. We are those who participate in and perform such duties, tasks, and activities. But, if these activities or functions are the only things by which we define our identity and give meaning to our lives, there are a couple of inconsistencies or even crisis we might run into.
Higher by the Lower: The first the simple fact that we are judging or determining the higher by the lower. The lower, more base aspects of reality—external material things and activities—are used to measure and determine the meaning and identity of higher, more noble creatures such as persons and living things. Does a soccer ball, a small round material nonliving thing really define who a person is? Do the things we can produce—a written article, work of art, buildings, or hardware—really determine the significance or meaning of our lives? Do things that have a lower dignity and quality than us, really define who we are? No, or at least they shouldn’t. Yet this is a struggle in our current society. People honestly do not see themselves as greater than, more dignified, nobler, more meaningful or significant than material or external things. Take for example the PETA environmental group and their famous saying: “fish are peopletoo.” Or take some examples of pop psychology which says we are the sum total of our actions, choices, and decisions. While we could take time to refute these views, that is not the current task. Rather the aim is to make it clear how the culture defines who we are.
To absurdity: Another inconsistency can easily be seen when we take this logic to its extreme: this is called a reductio ad absurdum. You are what you do. So if someone is dysfunctional or unable to do anything, their life is now meaningless? They lack an identity? This is certainly the ultimate conclusion of this logic. If you define yourself by what you do, what happens when you can’t do anything? More syllogistically: If you are what you do and you do nothing, you are nothing.
Here we see the underlying fault present in many of the dignity of life issues we currently face in the United States. Take for example Abortion and Euthanasia. Because these babies are unable to do anything—they are not viable outside the womb—they couldn’t be significant or meaningful and, thus, can easily be discarded and eliminated. Elderly folk can no longer function and contribute to society (so they say). So we must whisk them off to nursing homes and quicken their end so that they don’t feel meaningless.
More Subtle: Yet there is an even more subtle manifestation of this logic. In much the same vein, many will hold up a single passion or desire and define a person’s identity totally on that. Take for example “same sex attraction.” People who have “same sex attraction” have with the encouragement of our society begun defining their identity upon this one desire or passion. A person is clearly more than a single attraction or desire. I am more than my hunger and thirst. Here again we have defined the greater by the lesser, the higher by the lower. The sex drive of a person is an integral and essential part of who the human person is and contributes greatly to the formation of their personality and identity. But it is a part, and contributes. It is not the person. We should feel deeply for these people whose dignity as a whole and entire human person is being ignored. For the few people who struggle with same sex attraction and live in a chasteway with whom I have spoken, a huge part of their conversion or coming to peace with this way of life is their realization that they are greater than this one aspect of their lives; that they have in the eyes of God a greater dignity than simply their sexual orientation. Yet we as a society struggle to understand and to trust the Church’s teaching because we all too often succumb to this vision of life: you are what you do.
Identity in Faith: How, then, does our faith see identity and meaning in our lives. If our culture says “you are what you do,” then what does our faith say we are? Our Faith teaches us that our identity is founded upon relationships, relationships with my neighbors and my relationship with Christ. We are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and grandparents. From these relationships, our identity and meaning in life grows and develops, giving us orientation and a purpose, what one might call a mission or way to act. I am a son because of my relationship with my Dad and so I act a certain way because of that. What we are determines what we will do and how we will act. In other words, my identity founded upon a relationship gives meaning and significance to my actions.
A certain school of thought in the Church explains this dynamic with this phrase: “Relationship-Identity-Mission.” My relationship with someone determines and informs who I am, giving me a mission or way to live my life. This view bases identity upon an intrinsic relationship in which I can find myself, my identity, and from that I can go forth and lead a meaningful life.
Movie Quote: In a once favorite movie of mine, there is a scene, which pits in a very succinct way this view, the view of our faith, against this view of the culture. Sitting at the dinner table for the Thanksgiving Day meal, the visiting nephew and uncle go at it: “Why is it always what are you going to do, do, do, do, do? and not more about who I am?” “Because, what you do determines who you are.” “No, who you are determines what you do.”
An Object: One could rightly object that this view is clearly inconsistent because who really lives up to these ideals they espouse? Aren’t we all sinners and at the very least fall short of our call to be disciples of Christ? Then, we must not really be Christian or believers, but something else, otherwise we would live authentically. Such a criticism is certainly felt as of late in the Church, but it does not challenge this inner logic. Yes, sometimes a duck does not act like a duck, but it is still a duck. We just call it a lame duck. The same is true for us. We often don’t live up to our relationship with others, but it doesn’t diminish who we are. Rather, we are challenged to be who we really are in a greater way.
Intrinsic Meaning of Life: This leads to the second aspect of our Faith’s claim on our identity: the meaning or significance of our identity is intrinsic. These relationships which inform our identity are immovable; they do not change. And so our identity cannot either. We as parents feel this most with mischievous children. No matter what they do they will always be our children. Indeed, we feel it a most grievous act to disown or to reject someone from the family. As children we feel this. They will always be our parents. This can be a comforting or agonizing reality, but we feel it all the same. Even more so with our faith, once a child of God, always.
I always like to point out to people the permanence of our Catholic identity: once a Catholic, always. Our being Catholic is not determined by our practice. Being Catholic is about our relationship to God through His Son and the Church He founded, and even if we deny that it remains the same. This is not the once saved always saved doctrine. No, it is about God’s fidelity to His relationship with us, which will never change. We can change, reject, or whatever, but He won’t. God is always faithful to the relationship He established with us. This reality is visible in the laws of the Church. The process for reconciliation with God and His Church is very different for one who was at one point in communion with the Church. Such a non-practicing Catholic is always one confession away from communion! For those who went through RCIA, the ease of this reentry is clear. To put it in biblical terms, Jesus is the vine and we the branches. Yes, some branches can wither or even be cut off, but they are still branches of the vine understood and known only in relation to the vine. In more theological terms, the sacraments bestow upon us a sacramental character, which we cannot shed, even for those in Hell. Like a tattoo which remains forever to our glory or shame, the realities received through faith are permanent and eternal because God who maintains them is forever faithful. Moreover, if life is given meaning by these relationships, we can see clearly now how life has an intrinsic meaning, for these relationships always remain if even just a creature of God.
Our Christian Identity: Now, we have articulated and compared the way both the culture and our faith determine the meaning or significance of who we are. And hopefully it is clear that the Christian claim is a greater claim, a more stable claim which actually bestows meaning upon our identity. What then is our identity? Who are we in terms of culture and faith?
Priest v. Consumer: There are three aspects to our baptismal call and each has a counterpart in the culture. The first is the common priesthood of all the baptized. As the Second Vatican Council states: “He [Jesus Christ] also gives them [the lay faithful] a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men. For this reason the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become "spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ".(199) Together with the offering of the Lord's body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God” (LG 34). Against this the culture speaks of us as consumers. Think of this the next time the news covers the consumer spending reports. They are talking about us! And largely they are telling us we are not doing our job. We aren’t spending enough and being good consumers so that the economy can keep going. Yet, which is greater: a priestly sacrifice which consecrates the world or eating stuff?
Prophet v. Individualist: the second aspect is the prophetic office. We in virtue of our baptism—our relationship to God as His sons and daughters—are called to be prophets of this good news, the Gospel. As the Second Vatican Council states: “In connection with the prophetic function is that state of life which is sanctified by a special sacrament obviously of great importance, namely, married and family life. For where Christianity pervades the entire mode of family life, and gradually transforms it, one will find there both the practice and an excellent school of the lay apostolate. In such a home husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children. The Christian family loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the Kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come. Thus by its example and its witness it accuses the world of sin and enlightens those who seek the truth” (LG 35). Against this our culture calls us to be individuals, to speak on our own terms. Particularly in Texas we are proud we did it our own damn selves. We do it our way. Yet, which is greater: speaking on our own behalf or on behalf of one greater than ourselves?
King v. Conformist: The third and last aspect is the royal or kingly stature of the baptized. In this part of our identity, we reign in the kingdom of God by reordering society and the world according to God’s commands. As the Second Vatican Council states: “The faithful, therefore, must learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, as well as its role in the harmonious praise of God. They must assist each other to live holier lives even in their daily occupations. In this way the world may be permeated by the spirit of Christ and it may more effectively fulfill its purpose in justice, charity and peace. The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfillment of this duty. Therefore, by their competence in secular training and by their activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them vigorously contribute their effort, so that created goods may be perfected by human labor, technical skill and civic culture for the benefit of all men according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word. May the goods of this world be more equitably distributed among all men, and may they in their own way be conducive to universal progress in human and Christian freedom. In this manner, through the members of the Church, will Christ progressively illumine the whole of human society with His saving light” (LG 36). Against this the culture calls us to be conformists. We love to be individuals, but cannot think independently to save our lives. From standing in line to reciting prayers in perfect order, we cannot but conform. So which is greater: conforming to the whims of popular opinions or inaugurating the kingdom of God?