Lessons on life from a fictional Russian monk and "Gaudium et Spes."
Parents, as you send your daughters and sons off to college, may I have a word with them first?
Because I want to share with them a story from one of my favorite films: an obscure Russian work called “Ostrov,” which means “The Island.” It’s a beautiful tale about an Orthodox monk, Anatoly, who is the unwitting spiritual leader of a remote monastery.
His life is one of self-denial, penance and hardship. Tending to the monastery’s furnace, he hauls barrels of coal across a precarious, icy strip of land to the furnace, day and night, in bitter conditions. By the time we meet Anatoly, he has already become renowned for his holiness. He receives visitors from near and far who seek his guidance and wisdom—as well as miracles.
One bit of drama in the film is the contentious and somewhat humorous relationship Anatoly has with a younger, prideful monk—Fr. Iov—who is continually pained by Anatoly’s playful assaults on his sense of self-importance.
Eventually—near the very end of Anatoly’s life, Fr. Iov comes to understand Anatoly’s goodness. Too late, it seems. Anatoly tells Iov that he expects his death before the week passes. What anguish and yet how human! As Anatoly climbs into his wooden coffin and Fr. Iov sees the end is at hand, he finally cries out in humility: “How should I live?” And Anatoly replies:
“We are all sinners. Live the way you can. Just try not to sin too much.”
Curious parting words for a saintly monk, but words that capture the comedy of the drama of the human person. The spirit of the message seems to be: It’s hard to live well. But it has to be tried.
Now, as you head off to college, you are faced with the same question: How should I live? And I say with Anatoly: It’s hard to live well—but it has to be tried.
But, dear young people have courage in the face of the difficulty. Like other great feats of human achievement, living well can be accomplished with the right preparation and with proper attention to the nature of heroism.
First, preparation: What does it mean to “prepare” to live well? Right—education.
We’re not born as finished products. Wherever you are, wherever you are going, aim to acquire the kind of education that will enable you to live well. Seek teachers who are truly wise. Read books of lasting value. Become intimately familiar with The Good so that you can conform yourselves more closely to that Good.
We live in a frivolous age, an age when institutions of higher learning generally plead the fifth on what constitutes a good life. So in case no one else ever tells you, I want you to hear it now:
Virtue is the essence of the heroic life.
And how can this be lived? What is the secret to living well? Let’s go back to our hero, Anatoly. Would you like to know how he arrived in the monastery in the first place? He killed a man. Not out of malice or spite, but out of cowardice. As a young sailor in the Second World War, his boat was captured by German soldiers. They boarded the ship and ordered that he shoot his commanding officer to avoid death himself. This he does. But the Nazis then go back on their word and blow up the ship.
Miraculously, Anatoly survives, and washes up on the shores of a monastery by the sea. Plagued by guilt, he enters and spends the rest of his life praying for the soul of the man whom he has killed. Simply put: Anatoly spends his whole life after that living for another person.
Recall the iconic words of the Second Vatican Council: “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 24).
This, therefore, is the secret of living well: to live for another person. Not, I tell you, to live “for the whole world,” or for “others” in some vague sense. Because “others” in a vague sense rarely make demands upon us, rarely need our sacrifices. You can’t live for everyone if you don’t live first for someone. Very concretely, the idea is to live for the good of another person, and to spend yourself in pursuit of that good.
And when you have succeeded, for many years, at spending yourself in the little and big ways for another person, or several persons, then you will really have begun to live well. And, you will find, you’ll get all the other good things you wish for in the bargain.
Are you too young for this challenge? You’re not married yet? You have your “life to live” while you’re in college? Quite the contrary: it’s while you are young that you must choose the path of self-gift, because the habit of it takes many years. Moreover, it is easier to choose love without counting the cost when you are young.
But the intention is not enough. And this is a startling truth. The reality is that is it very difficult to live for someone else without committing yourself to that person in some institutional way. Why? Because we are fallen. Because we are weak and selfish. Because we are not able to carry out—on our own—the noble intentions of our youth.
It is for youth to say: “I choose to love. I choose to give.” But it is for the wise to say: “Well-done, you chose wisely. Now commit yourself to love within an institution where you can succeed at fulfilling the generous intentions of your youth.”
Therefore, if you want to give yourself away and really succeed, you must give up your liberty, and submit to follow rules and norms you don’t get to make up for yourself.
Your peers—and most of society—believe that institutions constrict and constrain. But in reality, institutions—good ones—exist to help us achieve a good we cannot achieve on our own—what we call the common good.
This is why institutions have those rules and norms—and why they hold us to them. It’s also why institutions bind us to one another—there are no institutions made up of solitary persons. Because heroism, in the end, requires fellow soldiers: You can’t be a hero all by yourself—not for lack of wanting, but for lack of someone to save.
And saving people is the whole point, after all. We are not called to give ourselves away so that we can “find ourselves.”
We are called to give ourselves so that we can save others from the existential loneliness that leads to death—and in so-doing, in so-saving, to understand the meaning of our own existence. There is no loving without saving. And there is no easy way to save anyone.
Institutions make this possible.
The Church herself is one such institution, though we rarely think about it that way. It is true that the essence of our faith is not a set of norms or rules—the essence of our faith is the crucified Lord. However, being a loyal disciple is difficult on our own. If you need convincing look at the apostles! In fact we need to be told how to do it, and we need friends to hold us accountable.
So sometimes we worship because we feel like it, and sometimes we do so only because Mother Church insists that we do. The mistake is to believe the times of our fervor are what make the institution—but in truth the institution itself supplies what we lack in fervor, and schools us over time in the essence of true religious sentiment.
Put more simply: the Church doesn’t stay alive because we feel devotion. Rather, we stay alive and learn true devotion if we are obedient daughters and sons of the Church.
If we think of the Church, and her various riches—such as religious life, third orders, lay associations, parish life, and more—as the institutional framework in which to live the basic “yes” to God, then that framework starts to look much more like a great gift to us—helping us achieve a good we could not achieve on our own.
Now marriage is that other great institution in which one can live for another, and usually, for a few more “others,” with the support of the community, according to rules and norms we don’t get to make up for ourselves. It is tough to give up our wants to make our spouse happy. It is tiring to get up in the middle of the night for a crying baby—even if she is really adorable! But in the doing of these things we actually become better—the sort of person who might eventually do something selfless just because it is good and not because someone is crying.
This sort of field makes saints of the weakest among us. Here we can succeed at fulfilling the fervent “yes” of our youth. This is why it can be such a great blessing to marry young—because we can get started with the business of living for another person as soon as possible.
If we are careful students of culture, and we survey the massive breakdown of the family, failures in the economy, political scandals and more, we will discover something fundamentally amiss in the institutions most closely ordered to the common good and man’s final end. We are getting something exactly backwards.
While selfishness has never been in short supply, we have not ever until now seen the institution of marriage socially and politically redefined as an instrument of self-fulfillment. The story of our time, in fact, is the story of the institutional revolution in self-fulfillment over self-gift. But institutions are supposed to be instruments of self-gift. Institutions are supposed to help us love. They are supposed to help us save. In the end, they are supposed to help us live well.
No policy, regime, or system can remedy this sickness. What is needed is conversion, a firm determination to live for others no matter the cost, and strong institutions in which we can lay down our lives to save others. This, after all, is the noblest aspiration of the human heart, and the path chosen by Our Lord who saved us.
So, when you decide how to live, will you choose to live for another? Will you choose self-gift over self-fulfillment? Will you seek out the institutions—marriage, family, Church—that can assist you in these aspirations?
In our quest to live for everyone we are sometimes guilty of becoming people with a “cause”—“pro-life,” “pro-marriage,” “pro-poor.” But these efforts will be empty activism if we do not live for someone first—if we are not friends, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers, sisters, daughters and sons. This is because, as Pope Francis has reminded us, we are not in the first place people with a cause. We are, in the first place, people with a Savior—who gave Himself up for us and invited us to follow in his footsteps.
This is the substance of heroic virtue.
Catherine Ruth Pakalukis an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion.She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010). She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.
This article was adapted from the Commencement Address she delivered at the Oakcrest School Graduation Exercises, June 7, 2014.