Adventure may be an overused word, but therefore it is in need of recovery.
The words “advent” and “adventure” share a common Latin root – adventurus – about to happen. In Advent we looked forward to the coming of Christ at Christmas, remembering his first entry into the world and expecting his return. In an adventure, we look forward in expectation of something new and exciting, which will break us out of our routine of boredom. It implies that we are looking for something; that we expect something exciting to happen.
Human life, bound up with change and growth, implies adventure by its very nature. This is why Chesterton said in Heretics that “the supreme adventure is being born.” Life is something that is always about to happen, to develop, and grow. Yet, sin throws a wrench into our expectations. Life is never fully what we expect. In our dissatisfaction we can either give up on adventure by giving into distraction, or we can focus so much on something new happening to come to our rescue that we miss out on the real adventure of our life right before us.
I just finished teaching a course on St. Benedict—his life, Rule, and the legacy of the Benedictines for our culture. As a young man Benedict felt deep dissatisfaction and broke out of the mold set for him by his parents. He abandoned the plans for his education in the decadent city of Rome and, after ditching his nanny, he set out into the wilderness. A monk named Romanus found Benedict and cared for him, but when Romanus died Benedict nearly starved to death before he was discovered by a local priest.
In the midst of the course, we had a guest speaker, Sam Guzman of The Catholic Gentleman. Sam was on campus at the University of Mary for a panel discussion on our campus-wide read, Into the Wild, which chronicles the travels and death of Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp). Chris’s story has become widely known, not only through the bestselling book, but also from the movie of the same title by Sean Penn. As we discussed the book in the Benedict class, some striking parallels between the two figures stood out: both left society to set out into the wild in defiance of their parents’ plans; Chris starved to death in his seclusion, while Benedict escaped with a close call. Both figures demonstrate a bold response to the youthful call of adventure.
Chris McCandless has embodied this call for many and vividly described it in terms that resonate with our culture:
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.
Chris set out on an adventure into the wild to discover himself. His spirit resonates with Chesterton’s vision in Orthodoxy of “the original instinct of man for adventure and romance. . . . And the perils, rewards, punishments, and fulfilments of an adventure must be real, or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare. If I bet I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting. If I challenge I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging.” Chris’ adventure brought him to the ultimate payment, but his premature death left the ultimate goal unfulfilled.
The connection with St. Benedict, therefore, can only reach so far. Benedict’s youthful experience in the cave blossomed into a life of mature leadership. His adventure led to an abiding peace and stability that has served not only as an inspiration, but also as a rock for others.
Men need adventure. We need to test and prove ourselves and to grow through the experience. St. Benedict, unlike McCandless, shows that real adventure entails an interior pilgrimage rather than a life of novelty and excitement. It is popular to seek adventure in ways that are merely fun, and therefore dull, or that are too focused on self, and therefore do not lead anywhere. Chesterton, once again, points us toward the true nature of adventure, which in the end leads us back to and not away from family:
A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land of authority. One can find no meanings in a jungle of skepticism; but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of doctrine and design. Here everything has a story tied to its tail, like the tools or pictures in my father’s house; for it is my father’s house. I end where I began—at the right end. I have entered at last the gate of all good philosophy. I have come into my second childhood.
St. Benedict left the plans of his father only to discover that in the end it is obedience to the Father that makes all the difference. We need the guidance and support of community and the security of authority and truth to shed light on the goal of our pilgrimage and to bring us safely there. Real adventure comes when we embrace a plan which is greater than ourselves and which we do not need to figure out on our own. This does not cheapen the romance of having to walk the arduous paths, which remain unknown in their details and full of twists and surprises.
Learning from St. Benedict, we discover in the monastery, where nothing exciting seems to happen, the nature of real adventurus.
Therefore we must prepare our hearts and our bodies to do battle under the holy obedience of His commands; and let us ask God that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace for anything which our nature finds hardly possible. And if we want to escape the pains of hell and attain life everlasting, then, while there is still time, while we are still in the body and are able to fulfill all these things by the light of this life, we must hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.
The adventure of the Christian life is not possible on our own, but comes only from the breaking forth of the divine into our lives. Superficial adventure, seeking out beautiful vistas in this world, does not perceive the true dawn from on high which is breaking upon us. To accept it, we, like Chris McCandless, need to be willing to break out of the mold of our society and give up our superficial comfort. But we also need deeper guidance and support. Our adventure must make the ultimate bet, paying with our lives the price of the arduous journey, ultimately by dying to ourselves. On the surface it won’t compare for excitement with the world, but on the inside we’ll be doing battle and living out the only real adventure.