For the Christian, every experience has meaning.
“Religion consists of the belief that everything that happens to us is extraordinarily important. It can never disappear from the world for this reason.”
Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), Italian poet and suicide
I once attended Mass where the Gospel reading was St. Paul’s conversion on his way to Damascus [Acts 9:3-9]. In his homily, the priest observed: "Well, our lives are very different from St. Paul. Our lives don’t have such drama in them."
Mine does! I thought. Mine has unbelievable drama in it every day, all day! Will I get that photo of the wisteria buds just right? Will I for once in my life "pause when agitated" in this conversation I’m about to have with the billing department of T-Mobile….Will my half-gallon of milk hold out for my coffee in the morning or will I have to walk down to the 99-cent store and if the latter, should I go past the liquor store and pick up the L.A. Weekly, or should I take Marathon up the hill and see whether that fig tree that hangs over the sidewalk (thus making foraging allowable) is bearing fruit yet? Will I ever mange to get this sentence, paragraph, essay, blog post, book just the way I want it?….
Carl Jung once observed:
We come to believe not through what someone tells to believe, in other words, but through what has happened to us. And most of what happens to us is not, if you look at it from the outside, terribly remarkable. Still, if you’re human, at this very moment chances are you’re lusting after someone, pissed off at someone, jealous of someone, resentful of someone, troubled by someone, feeling abandoned by someone, afraid of someone (possibly you’re feeling all those things about the same person, which is always fun). You’re worried about your finances, weight, teeth, transmission, aging parents, aging self, wayward children, cancer markers, whether you made a fool of yourself last night, that you’re not way kinder and more compassionate than you are, and what you’re going to eat for lunch.
It took me a long time to learn that religion is not what we do after we get all that squared away. Religion is realizing that a power greater than ourselves is with us in the midst of all that.
"Through all my daily life, in those I came in contact with, in the things I read and heard, I felt that sense of being followed, of being desired; a sense of hope and expectation," observed Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
Life lived inwardly at fever pitch, but in a way that is outwardly contained, focused, and largely invisible, is the mark of the saint. “To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul,” observed St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and that “for love” is the concerted work and the fruit of a lifetime.
Of course, there’s a thin line between passion and pathology: the belief that everything that happens to us is terribly important is also the belief of the narcissist. So it’s important to remember that everything that happens to us isn’t important because we’re important, but because God is.
The other day I spoke with a man who confided that he still carried a torch for a woman he’d once dated who had broken up with him seven years earlier and was now married with children. “Sometimes I think I’m crazy!” he said. “I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not stalking her online or contacting her or acting out in other ways, though I’d sometimes like to. But I can’t get her out of my heart! I don’t know where to put all that emotion! I can’t contain it! And it’s a kind of anguish.”
I understood completely. Dorothy Day felt that way about Forster Batterham, the love of her life who she left in her twenties in order to serve the poor and the Church. Margot Fonteyn, the prima ballerina, remained faithful to the Panamanian playboy she married, nursing him even after he was shot and paralyzed by the husband of one of his mistresses.
At the height of his career, Pavese was found dead in a hotel room. Distraught over a failed love affair, he’d taken a fatal dose of sleeping pills. I understand that completely, too. Only Christ, I’ve learned, can contain my full heart; my desire, longing, aching, and yearning; my hunger and thirst; my love. Otherwise, life can become SO dramatic, SO extraordinary, that we crack beneath the intensity of our feelings.
Although to die for love, whatever the reason, is perhaps recisely why religion can never disappear from the face of the earth.
Heather Kingis a Catholic convert, sober alcoholic, and writer whose most recent book is STRIPPED: Cancer, Culture and The Cloud of Unknowing. She speaks nationwide and blogs at Heather King: Mystery, Smarts, Laughs. For more, see her new About page.