~ St. Maximus the Confessor, Ad Thalassium 21
I previously mentioned this pointed and insightful saying of St. Maximus in an earlier reflection, but it is one about which I could probably write 100 posts. I have found no more succinct, clear, and comprehensive statement of the human condition. Death, that ultimate evil, that anti-natural state of being, casts a dark shadow over all our actions, though we seldom are conscious of it. We suffer and, out of fear of the direction suffering appears to lead—death—we cling in desperation to fleeting pleasures, which run like water through our hands. And when those pleasures die, as all such pleasure does (as opposed to true joy, which is eternal), we once again suffer, and suffering we fear, and fearing we desire, and desiring we enslave ourselves, against our own will to live, to pleasures that so assuredly pass away. It is a vicious spiral, always increasing the magnitude of the pleasure needed to distract ourselves from our suffering, which, in turn, always increases the magnitude of our suffering once it comes.
When Christianity was still quite young, the Gospel was described as the way of life. As one ancient epitome of the Apostles’ teachings puts it: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death; and between the two ways there is a great difference.” What St. Maximus is describing is the emotional cycle of the way of death.
While in some ways the language used to describe it changes, I see this ancient teaching of the two ways to still be present in later writers like St. Maximus: it remains fundamental to ancient Christians that the Gospel is not only a mystery revealed, but one that is lived.
St. Augustine, for example, famously prayed, “O Lord … you made us for yourself and our heart is restless, until it rests in you.” For St. Augustine, all our actions are driven by love. Our problem is a matter of setting our priorities straight. Either we love first the world and the things of the world, which pass away and never fulfill the longing of our restless heart, or we love God first and all that is eternal—virtue, truth, and beauty. The former is the way of death, the latter the way of life.
For St. Augustine, it seems to me, the two roads are in fact the same road; the “great difference” is what direction we are facing. Either we are descending back toward the nothingness from whence we came—and this can be empirically confirmed by how empty we often feel when enslaved to pleasure—or we are ascending to God, the source of life and light and beauty. This, again, can be empirically confirmed; those who have even just tasted what that is like know a wholeness that cannot be found among the many pleasures of the world. Indeed, such wholeness has the quality of true holiness, utterly alien to the world itself as we experience it, impossible to satisfactorily describe yet impossible to deny once known.
A week ago, the unreality of death visited Newtown, Connecticut in an especially tragic way. When such things occur, everyone always wants someone to blame and something to do. Important political debates have been sparked, but whatever side someone is on, we are missing something crucial if we think that either the blame or the solution lies somewhere outside the human heart. Our country may benefit a great deal from stricter gun control, heightened security systems, an improved mental health system … but without the way of life, without the Gospel, the human heart will not change and the vicious spiral of the passions of those who walk the way of death will continually play out in our society in tragic ways.
As unpopular as the phrase can be, Pope John Paul II captured this problem perfectly by speaking of a “culture of death” (Evangelium Vitae 12) that dominates our world. When people are enslaved to their pleasures and wander lost upon the way of death, it shapes our very culture and our culture, in turn, shapes us. “Have it your way!” “You’ve earned it!”—these are the cries of death itself (or, at least, the one “who had the power of death” [Hebrews 2:14]), trying to pull us away from the light of reality to walk aimless in the darkness, clinging to our slavery to pleasure.
A coworker mentioned to me that there is a greater tragedy at work than what happened in Newtown, as sad as that event truly is. The greater tragedy is that terrible things like this, even murder-suicides, happen every day and even happened this week in our city, in fact, but they do not become national tragedies, our nation does mourn for them, because, absurdly, “not enough people died.” This is a symptom of a great sickness—the fear of death gripping our hearts—when we only notice and mourn the death that we cannot ignore. Shame on us. We desperately need a cultural shift, a metanoia (i.e. repentance)—an about-face from death to life. As a Christian I believe that the best way to do that is by communion with Christ through the sacraments of the Church, firstly baptism, and through ascetism, which together guide us on the way of life toward God, in whom our restless hearts—and our world along with them—find the peace for which they so ugently long.