Thursday, January 10, 2013

On the Road of Discernment

In my last blog I spoke about the encounter with truth as mystery—something that is journeyed, something that is familiar, yet, something that is totally new.  As one enters into the quest for the truth, they step outside of themselves and into the unknown.  This is the great paradox of the journey: in order to find the truth, which is something that is known in a familiar way, we must step out into the unknown, into the unfamiliar.  Perhaps we will never fully understand (but perhaps that is precisely the point). 
Recently I made a decision that has changed my life completely (well, not completely, I am still the same person, with the same beliefs, emotions and thirst for the truth—more accurately this decision has changed the course of my life).  For the past three and a half years I have been in formation to become a Roman Catholic priest.  It has been a wonderful journey, and I am very thankful for all of my experiences.  Most especially, all of the pastoral situations that have been placed before me and have allowed me to witness first-hand the work of God in the world. What a gift! I consider myself to be a reasonable person, and the decision to leave the seminary, at first glance, seemed very unreasonable.  As a seminarian and eventually a priest, everything is provided for you: education, food, housing, work—everything.  Furthermore, the path of your life is laid out for you: you have a schedule, you know what you will be doing at any given time, in fact, the rest of your life is planned out; you are told where to study, and for how long; you are told what parish you are to live at—literally everything is provided for you.  For me, it was a very reasonable thing to stay in formation.  But things became different, something changed. 
As I studied philosophy and became more and more interested in it, philosophy began to change my discernment.  Not in a negative way, philosophy did not lead me away from my beliefs and desire to be in a priest.  If anything, it only led me closer to my beliefs and deepened my desire to be a priest.  But, it also allowed me to ask the right questions about myself, reality, and the way I relate to the world: who am I?  What kind of person should I be?  What is the purpose of my life?  These questions eventually began to keep me up at night.  Something was missing.  Although I was totally content in following the path before me, and doing the best I could to make sure I was following it well, I had a growing awareness that perhaps this was not the direction my ship should be sailing.
I recall taking ENC 1101 as a junior in high school.  In my first major writing assignment I was asked to read The Loss of the Creature by Walker Percy, and write an essay on the sovereign knower.  This assignment changed my whole outlook on life and my encounter with reality.  I did not know it then, but this thirst for the truth that I encountered at age sixteen would be something that I would not be able to shake--no matter how hard I tried.  I knew nothing about philosophy at the time, but I knew something was different.  A light had been turned on, and for the first time I was authentically attempting to see.   Of course, since reading Percy, all of my travels have been greatly affected and I often find myself wondering if I am able to encounter different sites before me in a way that I can actually encounter them.  But, nonetheless, it has challenged me as a person to look past the ordinary, to step off the beaten path and take the one less traveled.  Obviously, entering seminary was definitely a way of stepping off of the beaten path.  After all, seminarians account for far less than one percent of the world’s population. 
Who am I?  What am I made for?  What is the purpose of my life?  What are my fears?  What is happiness?  What is love?  Do I love well?  These questions began to become somewhat of an annoyance to me.  To save you from all of the periphrasis, and not to get too personal, these questions led me to the door of mystery.  In fact, my hand was on the handle and I was ready to step into the unknown.  This awareness, an awareness that I no longer belonged in the seminary was completely terrifying, and at the same time it was overwhelmingly exciting.  That’s how I knew it was authentic; that’s how I knew it was the next step. 
As I mentioned earlier, my life had a paved road, with a clear direction of where I was heading.  Eventually, I stumbled upon a crossroad: one way kept going straight, paved, clear; the other broke off from the pavement and wound down into the woods.  I decided to follow the path into the woods.  The trail was clear and established for a while, it was not paved, but it was present.  Eventually, this trail became lost and I have found myself making a new trail.  It is not the same, yet, it is not completely different.  I have great hopes and I take comfort in knowing that no matter what I do, it will have meaning.  A meaning that I may not be able to understand right away, but when I look back at the road I’ve been on, I know that I can only become increasingly surprised at its profundity.  I know this because as I look back now, I can see how much meaning every moment of my life has had, even the banal ones. 
The encounter of truth as mystery, is an encounter that is fearful and exciting.  We are afraid because we are stepping into the unknown.  And yet, we are excited because we know at a deeper level, that if we are faithful, we will not be let down.  In a similar way, St. Matthew tells us that after the encounter with the angel in the empty tomb of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary left there “fearful yet overjoyed.”  They have encountered the Truth.  After all that had happened in the days leading up to Easter, they were patient, they were faithful.  Even when everything seemed lost: the Son of God was put to death in a very shameful way.  Had the past three years of their life been for nothing?  Was it all a dream?  No.  The tomb is empty. And this could only mean one thing: that Jesus had risen from the dead; he is the Messiah.  This kind of realization left them feeling fearful, yet, overjoyed.  The joy outweighs the fear, and sets us free to discover the person that we were made to be. 
So, although things have changed, I still remain faithful.  I don’t have all of the answers, and perhaps I never will.  But I take comfort in knowing that one day I will discover what it is I am supposed to do with my life, even if I stumble upon it in an accidental way.  The only reasonable thing to do is to remain faithful.  And I’ll admit it, I am fearful.  But I can never forget all of the wondrous events of my life which have led me here today, all of my family and friends, and of course the incomprehensible love of God—in all of this, I am overjoyed.    

Friday, January 4, 2013

Who Am I?

The results of the Cartesian project have highly problematized our encounter with truth.  This is due mainly to the fact that truth is no longer something that can be known through our experience of it, it has become that which we can prove objectively, with certainty.  Truth has become fragmented truth, and reality itself has become distorted.  However, it is important to keep in mind that we must not be dismissive of everything that modernity has given us.  Modern philosophy has given us many good things, and it is important not to completely render the whole modern conversation irrelevant.  It is also important to point out that, when we critique modernity, we critique and question ourselves, because we have grown up in a highly modernity-influenced world.  With that being said, where do we go from here?  If certainty is not the best way to encounter the truth, what is?  Can truth be encountered, and if so, how much of it can we come to know?  How can encountering truth as mystery, bring us to a better understanding of reality?  Let us keep these questions in mind as we begin to unfold and develop the idea of truth as mystery. 
Mystery presupposes that there is something unknown, that there is something that cannot be fully grasped or exhausted.  Mystery is not a problem to be solved, rather, it is a mystery to be lived.  It is the wondrous adventure of our lives as we journey back to God, the source of all reality, who has created us and set us into time and space in this world.  As we begin, it is important to keep this in mind.  But, let us not get ahead of ourselves, we must backtrack for a moment and return to this notion later.    
The situation we find ourselves in is quite peculiar.  When we begin to contemplate reality, we begin in media res, in the middle of our experience.  This means that we cannot divorce ourselves from, or step outside of, our experience.  All of our experiences have meaning for our lives, and all of our experiences have led us to this present moment.  That is to say, that every moment of my life has come to form and shape me into the person I am, in this moment.  I am a human being, and my way of being-in-the-world is in and of itself a mystery.  Human beings are the only natural beings that are conscious of their existence, and that are conscious of their own end, of death.  This is truly is a wondrous thing.  At the outset of entering into truth as mystery, we are led to wonder; the beginning of mystery is the beginning of wonder.  Wonder is the guide for our journey into the depths of truth, into the depths of the unknown: who am I?  This question resounds in the farthest corridor of our soul, and stretches forth into the very heart of the mystery of Being.
To enter into mystery is to take the mind of an explorer.  Or perhaps, we could use the example that Jerome Miller provides in his book, In the Throe of Wonder.  Miller gives this example of placing ourselves in the shoes of our childhood:
As children, we do not know what is hidden behind the doors we are on the verge of opening.  We stand there on the verge, on the threshold of a forbidding place we are sure it is dangerous to enter.  If another child is with us, we vacillate between terror and giggling, each of us depending on the other’s courage, and yet at the same time afraid of following the other’s lead.  It is hard for us to imagine now, that even the most remote peaks and distant poles have been reached, what it must have been like to be an original explorer.  Some child in us still starts at the sight of a pathless wood, or at the thought of venturing alone into the unknown waters beyond the lifeguard’s reach.  Explorers had to be foolhardy, or believe, like Socrates, that dying itself is the ultimate venture. [. . .] What fascinates the child, and terrifies her at the same time, is the unknown in its very character as unknown (Miller, pgs 34-5).
Let us then take on the mind of a child, or that of an explorer, as we venture into the depths of the mystery. 
            We have said that certainty has led us to limitations that cannot be described, simply because they cannot be exhausted.  For instance, I cannot come to know a tree in the park with the same certainty that I can know the truth of the mathematical statement 1+1=2.  But, I can come to know the tree to some degree.  In fact, in my encounter with the tree, I am led to a signifier that points beyond the tree itself and into the depths of the unknown.  It is the very aspect of life that is present in the tree that I cannot exhaust or even fully describe.  I cannot be certain about all of the elements of this liveliness, but I can be sure of one thing: the tree is in fact, alive.   This living element cannot be fully captured.  In fact, perhaps I am so intrigued by the living element of the tree because it in some way relates to the living element of myself.  Hence, I am fascinated and at the same time terrified because in this recognition, I realize that there is something beyond me, which I cannot fully describe, something so immense that I am left to contemplate the infinite mystery before me in a state of utter awe.  This signifying element points ultimately to God, the source of all Being.
            The wonder of mystery leads one to continue the journey into the heart of the truth.  Truth as mystery is not an unknowing, or lack of knowledge, rather, it is the case that the more we come to know, we realize how much more there is that we do not know, and in fact, how little we actually know.  But, as in aletheia, the mode of truth as an unveiling, when we enter into mystery, we can slowly peel away the outer layers and draw closer to the source of the truth.  Certainty can only lead us to the door of mystery, it cannot open it, precisely because that which is certain, is not mysterious.  The resulting unsatisfaction from the inability to grasp the truth in its totality, leads one to wonder.  If I am here, alive, how is it that I cannot truly come to express the reality of this liveliness?  Who am I?  The door is here, and what lies beyond is not certain.  It is in this place of encounter, where one is led to wonder, and perhaps merely out of curiosity, the hand grasps the handle. 
            It takes real humility to enter through the door of mystery.  Precisely because one has come to terms with the reality that one does not have it all figured out.  There is much more out there to discover.  It is like the great explorers of times past, when the New World was discovered.  It took real guts to go into the unknown, especially with thoughts of sailing off the edge of the earth.  It is risky business to step into mystery.  Under the guide of wonder, of the hope of a connectedness to Being, and to reality itself, we are led through the door.  We must look again at the signs that are present in our very being-in-the-world.  Life itself is a mystery.  I can honestly say that I am not here by chance, because if everything was just the result of chance, then nothing has meaning and everything, even reality itself, eventually becomes a meaningless quest.
            I will admit that the example of my own personal being-in-the-world is quite unique, and perhaps it is not a strong logical argument because of its uniqueness, but I am not making a logical argument, I am making an existential one.  About three months into my mother’s pregnancy with me, she began to have complications.  One day she experienced heavy bleeding and my father called the doctor.  After recalling what had happened to the doctor, the doctor determined that my mother had had a miscarriage.  The doctor encouraged to have my father bring my mother in to have a follow up procedure, to make sure that there was nothing left behind in her uterus.  Upon arriving at the doctor’s office, my mother persisted to have the doctor give her an ultrasound, to make sure she was no longer pregnant before she would have this procedure done.  An ultrasound was done, and it was determined that, in fact, she was still pregnant with me.  She did have a miscarriage, but she did not realize that she was pregnant with twins, and that I was still alive.  The doctor then advised her to have the procedure done anyway because the pregnancy could become life threatening to her, and the likeliness that she would carry me to term and give birth to a healthy me, were slim to none.  Thankfully, my mother was willing to take the risk and stay in bed, on her back, for six painful months.  She opened the door and stepped into the mysteries of faith, hope and love.  She successfully gave birth to a healthy me, on time, with no threat to her own health.  For as Christians, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
            My being-in-the-world is a mystery.  Oftentimes I wonder why it was I who survived and not my twin.  But it was not up to me to decide, and the reality is, that I am here.  All life is a profound mystery, and the signifiers of life point directly to God who created us out of love and out of nothing, ex nihilo.   In my lifetime, I would consider myself lucky to have amounted enough knowledge that can be likened to that of a small jetty or inlet, on the shores of the vast ocean of truth.  No matter how large or small this inlet is, it ultimately is minuscule when compared to the endless ocean of truth.   And yet it is at these shores, the shores of my contemplation of the mystery, where I begin to encounter and discover truth, and the ocean begins open up into the abyss of Being. So, as we sit here today contemplating the world around us, let us ask ourselves that first question: who am I?