My conversion to the Catholic faith came about largely through the witness of one of my (public) high school teachers. He is a man of God who understands profoundly that the knowledge of Truth is the end goal of all education. There were many things my teacher said that stood out to me and remain in my memory to this day. Few of them stand out as much as when he told me and my classmates that he was better than us, or so we thought. Standing there at his podium, on the front of which was a sticker that said “Truth”, he picked up his coffee mug and—with a sarcastic smile on his face—turned it toward the class so that we could all see the words on it:
“I’m better than you!”
Naturally, many of the students—myself included—were upset and passionately rejected his claim. He responded, “It’s true,” and then quickly followed with, “This coffee cup is better than you.” The angry faces, I imagine, then turned to confused ones; our attention was captured. Our teacher then went on with one of his most memorable, though somewhat odd, analogies. “It (the coffee cup) achieves its purpose,” he said. “It does what it’s intended to do. It holds liquid without any leaks, and when I tip it back into my mouth, I’m able to drink my coffee. But you guys don’t always achieve your purpose, do you? No. You fail—sometimes miserably—and mess up, and miss the mark.” He was right; and no one could justifiably deny it, even if it was an odd analogy.
My teacher’s words bring to mind the question of purpose, to which the question of meaning is closely tied; to both purpose and meaning together, is closely tied the question of destiny. These questions have always been on the lips and in the hearts of men. We can gain great insight on them from such varied sources as the ancient Greek, pagan philosophers, Jesus himself, the Church Fathers, contemporary Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike, and more. Moreover, these questions are worthy of our consideration if we wish to live the good life of which the Greek philosophers spoke, and even more so if we wish to live the perfect life that is the standard Jesus has set for his followers. It is with this in mind that I wish to reflect on these three questions of the human heart.
Purpose. There are different ways, I suppose, in which one may understand purpose. A basic dictionary definition will tells us that purpose is “the reason for which something is…created or for which something exists.” This is one solid way of understanding purpose. And if we do understand purpose in this way, we are charged with answering a very important question: “What is the reason for which we are created and for which we exist?” The best of the ancient Greek philosophers, I believe, would have been content to answer this question in one word: goodness. On a natural level, this would seem to be an adequate answer. On a supernatural level, however, it must be taken even further—to include perfection, to which Jesus calls His followers (Mt 5:48).
If we are called to such perfection, of which goodness is an integral part, how are we to respond so as to achieve it? The answer, is quite simple. We must live lives of virtue and prayer. If we do this, we can rest assured that we will experience meaning in our lives.
Meaning. When asked what the “meaning of life” is, a good student of the Baltimore Catechism might answer: “To know, love and serve God in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven.” While this is a perfectly legitimate answer, we may also think about meaning more directly in terms of how it corresponds to our experience. Admittedly, this approach to thinking about meaning might be received with criticism by some in the Catholic world, as phenomenology and anything suggestive of a positive view of human emotion, is sometimes disregarded (wrongly, I think) as subjective nonsense. Nevertheless, many figures in the long and noble intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church, have held human fulfillment—or, perhaps more accurately, happiness or beatitude—in the highest regard. This is important to consider when discussing meaning. Why? Meaning, you might say, is experienced as fulfillment. In other words, one who lives a meaningful life—i.e., a life which seeks to fulfill its (general and specific) purpose—is one who is fulfilled. Why is this important? Because the fulfillment of a live well-lived urges us on to further pursue of our purpose, and is integral to our arriving at our destined end.
Destiny. Every human being is destined for glory. However, we must not understand this truth in the same way as the Universalists, who declare with “certainty” that all will go to Heaven. St. Paul tells us that, “the Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17). While it is true that every human being is destined for glory, it is likewise true that not all will be glorified; and we should tremble with fear at the thought of being among those not glorified. For to be glorified is to be “set free from slavery to corruption” (Rom 8:21), and to be made majestic and beautiful through full incorporation into Christ. Whereas to be among those not glorified at the end of life’s journey, is to be among those infinitely more enslaved to misery than life on this earth would already have them.
If we understand this, then we can glean the profound importance of the interconnectedness of purpose and meaning—understood in terms of how it is experienced. If we focus only on fulfilling our purpose, we may fall into legalism, becoming obsessed with doing good works only to appease our consciences. Likewise if we focus only on the experience of meaning, we make ourselves vulnerable to a shallow emotivism, which measures the value of one’s faith on the basis of the intensity of one’s feelings. Neither of these paths are likely to lead us to attaining our destined end, as they both lead to exhaustion and desperation. If, however, we encounter Jesus in our good works and are therefore moved in our hearts to continue carrying them out, we will be able to say with confidence that we will be made glorious when we meet Him face to face. Make no mistake; this takes prayer. It is by no means natural, and we will by no means always feel good about doing good. But we shall nevertheless keep moving forward. Who knows? Maybe one day we will change someone’s life by making a silly analogy with a coffee cup.