It might seem somewhat tangential to write to You about “contingency” but I often think about Thomas Merton’s transcendent epiphany as he stood at the corner of 4th and Elm in Louisville, Kentucky, and watched all the people going by in different directions. He needed to see that and to be brought up short by what it evoked in him. I need that too! I need to look at all those around me and realize my contingency upon them. I need to realize and think about the contingency of the whole world.
Contingency denotes dependence, and there never was a single person who trod this earth – in any direction – who was not dependent. To be human is to be dependent because we live in a contingent world.
If I recollect correctly one of the arguments for the existence of God is the argument from contingency – the idea being that all contingency radiates back to a non-contingent source just as, in the argument from cause and effect, effects radiate all the way back to an uncaused cause.
The fact that each one of us is a contingent effect should, when we behold from our own position those around us, make us miraculously aware of the common intertwining of the Spirit of God in our lives. To be able to see through ourselves to others: to their facial features, their hair styles, their bodily figures, gait, speed, direction, intensity, skin, clothing, disabilities, etc. and then, through them, to reflect back on ourselves – this is truly a grace-filled gift. We so seldom get passed those things that set us apart so as to be able to contemplate the contingency that draws us all together in sameness. Even to Merton it came as a surprise; and it touched him deeply.
We are not separate islands apart from the mainland of our being which is not separated from the ground of our being upon which we are contingent and upon whom we depend.
The concept of “latent religion” is interesting to consider. It manifests itself in the formation of metaphors. We are compelled from within to express figuratively the urges that seem to be built-in. Religion itself is our metaphor for that by which we try to make comprehensible who we are, where we come from, and why we’re here. The latent questions deep inside us have genuine specific answers that our minds cannot wrap themselves around. So, to answer the urge to know, we devise constructs that suffice, to varying degrees, to satisfy our understanding – metaphors; and the need for the religious metaphor is latent, I believe, in all of us.
Latent religion, with its accompanying metaphors, is as present in the atheist as it is in the saint. However, it can be ignored. The seed comes as standard equipment but its nurture is up to us. We have a lifetime to respond to the urge. We have a lifetime to construct our metaphor. Indeed, in a very real sense, our lifetime is the gift during which we choose to respond to or reject this urge which moves us toward our spiritual destiny of union. For us, metaphors seem the only way we are able to deal with the spiritual, and this fact alone is evidence of the latent religion in all of us. Yet it is so easy to ignore. It is subtler than the consciousness of our respiratory or cardiac functions. But, ignoring it results in a spiritual demise as opposed to a physical one.
I don’t see how any man or woman can believe with conviction that he/she is an agnostic or an atheist. They may say it, they may argue it, they may swear it; but deep within themselves they cannotembrace it.
How much of my “religion” or my so-called “spirituality” is a seeking after a state in which I can be left as myself and still be approved? I’m sure that’s not the highest ideal, but it may be the reality. I guess for me it reaches its best when I forget entirely about the approval of others (which is seldom) and seek only Your approval.
The approval of others is much easier to discern than Yours – or is it? With the approval of others we never quite know for sure what mental reservations or qualifications are being held. But with You we know that when Your approval is granted it is without reservation or qualification. Yet, my need for approval must indeed include a validation of myself and what I am doing; thus, in seeking approval I manufacture my religion/spirituality to validate myself. This seems very human but there also seems to be something not quite right about it.
To have the feeling at any particular stage that I am validated or approved may be interpreted as permission to stay where I’m at. Yet, if I accept the reality that at any given moment I am a being becoming, resting in validation or approval does nothing but impede my growth. I become OK to myself because I think others think I’m OK and because I think You regard me as OK. But, in fact, such an evaluation may first come more from me that from You or others, and, second, it can be a dam to the flow of Your graces. Thus, falling prey to this seductive spiritual trap makes us more Pharisaical than we would admit to ourselves. The discomfort such an admission causes does not fit into my “religion.” But, if we can admit that this is pretty much what takes place then we can begin inuring ourselves to the effects of seeking approval and moving on without it.
On the other side of this dilemma, a total disregard of validation or approval may result in a callous disregard for the honest consideration of others. You did not need approval or validation from men; only from Your Father. From men all You sought was acceptance of what You offered. But in Your own time You got very little of this. Maybe the lesson is that we’re never approved, validated, or accepted until the life in which we seek it is over.
To communicate with others we try mightily to frame our thoughts, words, and beliefs in the clearest way we know. But we fail. We fail over, and over, and over. We dash around the Tower of Babel unintelligibly. What seems perfectly clear to us, perfectly simple and uncomplicated is utterly baffling to others. This is a great pain of being human. It is what Kierkegaard calls the “martyrdom of unintelligibility.” Each time what is intelligible to us is unintelligible to another, a piece of us is forced to die. And when a piece of us is forced to die, a bit of our self must die. Because of our estimation of our self, it is painful! The fact that what we say or believe may be unintelligible to others renders us martyrs to the cause of understanding.
Your own life is a prime documentation of this. The simplicity of Your message and Your teachings was unintelligible to the Pharisees and most of the Jewish people resulting in Your physical martyrdom on the cross. But it must have been equally painful in Your life to suffer the inability to make Yourself intelligible to the very people to whom You were sent. Yet, accepting this predicament is something with which every human must come to grips. And there is only one way to do this: by denying the self that seeks to be intelligible and by discounting the desire to have others feel and think exactly as you do. It is prideful! Each of us is a martyr to unintelligibility, each a citizen of Babel. Only one other can make out anything intelligible about us – You!
It will always be so that we look for consolations to affirm that we are loved by You. But again, we are so often sad about traits of our own personalities that seem surely to make us less than loveable.
Recently the feast of St. Jerome was celebrated. Highlights of his life were read at Mass and they intrigued me enough to do some further research on him. To put it kindly, he seemed something of a curmudgeon. Two words kept popping up while reading about his life: “abusive” and “irascible.” But he’s a saint!
I tend to think that I often come off as something of a curmudgeon. I can be abusive and I’m often irascible. I am consoled by the fact that a saint struggled with the same things. Maybe us curmudgeons have found our patron saint.
The point, I think, is that even those who are canonized saints had to deal with human foibles and personal flaws which, through effort, they overcame – but not always. When we encounter an irascible, abusive curmudgeon the one thing we don’t see is how much or how little that person is struggling to overcome those parts of his/her life. If we knew that struggle and all it entailed we might be more likely to consider the saintliness of an individual. While I do give credence to the exterior demeanor of a person as it is influenced by his/her inner self, I can also see the possibilities of an interior life that struggles mightily with exterior flaws.
Julian of Norwich says that you lay on each person you love some particular thing which, while it carries no blame in your sight, causes them to be blamed by the world.