On the Importance of Taking Oneself Lightly
Of all the insights that one might encounter in the writings of St. Thomas More, most salient, without a doubt, is his candid appreciation and realistic understanding of death. In a letter to Erasmus, dated August 19th, 1517, More tells of a dear friend of his who only a few days before his death, was boasting of his supposed invulnerability to the "Sweating Sickness". More was under no such illusion. He even makes light of his increased vulnerability to the plague of that year: "Now, as I hear, the plague has begun to rage in Calais, just as we are being forced to land there on our embassy, as if it was not enough to have lived in the midst of the contagion but we must follow it also. But what would you have! We must bear our lot. I have prepared myself for any event. Farewell in haste."[1.
St. Thomas was entirely aware of life's brevity; for he always had death before his eyes. He writes: "For nothing is there that may more effectually withdraw the soul from the wretched affection of the body than may the remembrance of death; that is, if we recall it attentively and not as one who hears a word and lets it pass by his ear without any receiving of the sentence into his heart."[2.
Like More's friend, many of us are often deluded into a feeling of invulnerability towards the grave, but the inevitable prospect of death's dark visage fast approaches, and it will not matter that we were awarded for this or praised for that or even despised for something or other. For life is very brief, and we are only just passing through. Death reveals to me my finitude, and the way I decide to relate to the prospect of my death will affect the way I deal, every day, with the potentiality that I am. This, in turn, will affect the way I relate to others. Should I close my eyes to my death, I soon lose a healthy and realistic sense of my radical potentiality. For I hold my being incompletely (I am a potentiality made actual). I exist in time, and any length of time is one in which I remain open to being enlarged and enriched by the community of beings in the midst of which I exist. My ability to communicate the goodness of being to another suffers to the degree that I set limits on this receiving; for this receiving exposes my existential poverty, which I may choose not to accept. At this point I begin to take myself too seriously and attribute to myself an importance that amounts to arrogance.
Nature helps us here and makes it easier for us to consider our death as well as our existential limits. Usually from middle age onwards, we begin to lose our memory and time begins to pass more quickly. In other words, 'senior moments' become more frequent. Such moments announce death's approach, and they should focus our attention more acutely upon what is of enduring value and eternal. As a middle-aged teacher who can scarcely recall anymore what he taught his students the previous day, I am well aware that the vast majority of my students will not remember five percent of what I taught them during their high school years. But they will never forget who I was and how I related to them, for that is all I remember of high school. The days pass more and more quickly as irreplaceable brain cells continue to die by the thousands every twenty-four hours, and so with age should come the wisdom that regards every day as an opportunity--and every opportunity will either be one that, at the end of the day, is lost and never to be had again, or one realized. In light of death's inevitable approach and the peculiar selections of what the memory chooses to retain, what is our fundamental purpose? The answer is, of course, to use every day as an opportunity to channel the divine mercy. Our purpose is to be empty vessels of the divine love and instruments of His providence--of which, more often than not we are simply obstacles.
It has been said that the fanatic is the one who redoubles his efforts while having lost sight of his end. I have seen a tremendous redoubling of efforts on the part of many Catholic teachers in recent years, engaged as they have been in strategic planning of job action for this, for that, and the other thing, all accompanied by a manifest loss-of-sight of the end of their vocation as Catholic teachers of the baptized. We have become very adept at noticing almost everything that will affect our lifestyle except the wounded and needy student sitting before us on a daily basis. Our purpose is to witness to our students that life is very short and that we are not here for "here", but rather that we are here for "there". And we do this by awakening them to the goodness of the Lord. And what better way to accomplish this than by allowing the student to see his goodness mirrored in our own gaze, that is, allowing them to discover, in and through our own countenance, that they are loveable and indeed loved by God. This is difficult to accomplish when we have lost sight of our end and have redoubled our efforts in the pursuit of less important and more fleeting matters. In other words, it is very difficult to do this when we take ourselves too seriously and forget that we are here for a short time only and that the daunting specter of the grave is not far off from where we are standing now.
It is no coincidence that a sense of self-importance almost always seems to accompany the atheist--although arrogance is by no means his exclusive property. Arrogance is the egoism of inordinate self-importance. As the 19t century Russian Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov writes: "The basic falsehood and evil of egoism lie...in the fact that, ascribing to himself in all justice an absolute significance, he unjustly refuses to others this same significance. Recognizing himself as a center of life, he relegates others to the circumference of his own being and leaves them only an external and relative value." It isn't any wonder to me, then, that all the atheists I have debated in recent years, without exception, admit only a relative value to all human life, especially developing human life in the womb. Yet even the theist who suffers from inordinate self-estimation might not, theoretically, relegate human life to a relative status, yet practically speaking this is indeed what occurs; for the arrogant are not interested in others, but are profoundly interested in themselves.
It is living faith that saves us from the dreadfully blind life of the egoist. It is only be seeing that the 'other' belongs to God (the absolute) that I can attribute to him absolute significance. Solovyov continues:
The matter of true love is above all based on faith. The root meaning of love consists in the acknowledgment of absolute significance for another being. But this being in its empirical being, as the subject of real sensuous perception, does not have absolute significance: it is imperfect in its worth and transient as to its existence. Consequently, we can assert absolute significance for it only by faith, which is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.... Obeying the command of true religion, ...we must, by faith in the object of our love, understand the affirmation of this object as it exists in God, and as in this sense possessing everlasting significance.
So on one hand there is the egoist who relegates others to the circumference of his own being and--if not theoretically, at least practically--recognizes only a relative value in the 'other'. Love, on the other hand, beholds the genuine and absolute significance of the 'other'. For love, according to Solovyov, is at the same time both vertical and horizontal, like the cross; for without the vertical beam the horizontal, which stretches out to embrace all that belongs to God, loses all support and cannot stand. But this marks only the beginning of the spiritual life, a point beyond which very few seem to move. I must learn to love God more than I love my own happiness. Solovyov seems to miss this, but Maritain does not.
Christian morality is, as Maritain points out, a morality of the divine Good supremely loved. But God is supremely loved not for my sake, that is, for the sake of my beatitude, but for God's sake. By grace I can begin to love something more than my own happiness. Maritain writes:
My happiness, which I naturally and necessarily desire, which I cannot help desiring, and which finally consists in the vision of God, has now been subordinated to something better, subordinated to God--and this is implied...in the very essence of that happiness, since it consists in the possession of God, who is infinitely better than my happiness.... Christian hope makes me wish that God be mine, but it is not for me or by reason of myself, it is not for love of myself that I wish God to be mine; it is for God and for love of God, for I love God more than myself and more than my happiness.[7.
This is the long and difficult battle against the self that is the road of the spiritual life--which is not at all parallel to the academic life. It is here that the person not merely recognizes the absolute value of the 'other', but begins to attribute only a relative value to himself--not in any literal sense, as if his life is no longer intrinsically good--but in the sense that he can no longer take himself too seriously.
The priorities of the saint are very different from those of the world. They are in fact entirely reversed. Outside of the opportunity to channel the Lord's mercy, everything else within an ordinary day is either insignificant or at best only secondary. But most people regard what is really only insignificant (or secondary) as of primary importance, and what is of primary importance is relegated to the level of the insignificant if regarded at all. People generally take themselves and their lives very seriously. The saint does not --which is why St. Thomas More could joke with his executioner before his execution, or St. Lawrence, according to legend, could tell his executioners that he was done on one side and that they could turn him over to cook the other. But the saint does take Catholic teaching in its integrity, prayer and the Eucharist and ordinary, insignificant human persons very seriously. For the saint loves God more than he loves his own happiness, and it is for this reason that he loves others more than he loves his own happiness. And so, unlike the arrogant, he is able to live in a habitual exit-of-self, which involves a habitual self-forgetting posture.
The religious orders that thrive today are those that have not lost sight of their end, whereas those that are dying have. And if the blessing of God is to come upon our schools, universities and fellowships, we will have to learn to take ourselves lightly; for the Lord's burden is light and those who carry it are no 'heavy weights'.
"Why need I boast; I am Eternity,
My very name my Empire doth foretell,
As infinite I will forever be,
While Time is mortal, but a passing spell;
What are you but a slight mobility,
Marking each change of sun and moon you see,
When these two cease their course, you will be brought
For all your pride and boasting back to nought."
(St. Thomas More)
1. Quoted in Bernard Basset. Born For Friendship. N.Y.: Sheed and Ward, 1965. P.31.
2. Ibid., 32. English Works, I, p. 468. In the same place, More continues: "But if we not only hear this word death but also let it sink into our hearts the very fantasy and deep imagination thereof, we shall perceive that we were never so greatly moved by the Dance of Death pictured at Paul's as we shall be stirred and altered by the feeling of that imagination in our hearts. And no wonder. For those pictures show only the loathsome sight of our dead, body bodies with the flesh bitten away; which, though it is ugly to behold, yet neither the light thereof nor the sight of all the dead skulls in the charnel house, nor the sight of a very ghost is half so grisly as the deep concept of the nature of death which a lively imagination engraves in thine own heart. For there you see not just one grievous sight of bare bones hanging by the sinews but, if you picture your own death as by this counsel you are advised, you see yourself, if you die no worse death, yet lying on your bed, your head shooting, your back aching, your veins throbbing, your heart panting, your throat rattling, your flesh trembling, your mouth gaping, your nose sharpening, your legs cooling, your fingers fumbling, your breath shortening, all your strength failing, your life vanishing and your death drawing on."
3. "Parenthetically, it is with reference to this preconscious spiritual dynamism of human personality that keeping personal contact with the pupil is of such great import, not only as a better technique for making study more attractive and stimulating, but above all to give to that mysterious identity of the child's soul, which is unknown to himself, and which no techniques can reach, the comforting assurance of being in some way recognized by a human personal gaze, inexpressible either in concepts or words." Jacques Maritain. Education at the Crossroads. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1943. P. 41.
4. The Meaning of Love. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1985. P. 43.
5. "It is self-evident that in abstract theoretical consciousness every person who has not lost his senses always admits for others full enjoyment of equal rights with himself. But in his living consciousness, in his innermost feelings and in deeds, he asserts an infinite difference and complete incommensurability between himself and others: he himself is everything, they themselves are nothing." Ibid., p. 43.
6. Ibid., p. 87.
7. Jacques Maritain. Moral Philosophy: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems. N.Y.: Scribner's Sons, 1964. P. 78-79.
8. In his chapter entitled " Getting to Know Popper", Bryan Magee unwittingly calls attention to the egoism that one tends to find among professional academics when he writes: "I discovered on these visits that there was almost nothing to be gained by my raising any matter in which Popper had not at some time in his life been involved. If I talked about what I had recently been doing myself, apart from philosophy--friends, music, theatre, travel, the current political situation--his lack of interest was unconcealed, and if I persisted he would find an excuse to bring our meeting to an early close. He needed to talk about what directly involved him, and could sustain interest only in what he himself had done at some time or other, or was currently doing." Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey Through Western Philosophy N.Y.: Random House, 1998. Pp. 198-199.
9. More writes: "If you notice that some silly actor was inordinately proud of wearing a gold coronet while taking the part of an Earl in a stage play, would you not laugh at his foolishness, knowing full well that when the play is finished, he must put on his own shabby clothes and walk home in them? But don't you yourself also feel very smart and proud to wear an actor's outfit, forgetting that when your own part is completed, you, too, will walk off the state as poor as he? Nor do you care to note that your play may end just as soon as his." Op. cit., p. 40.
To read more of Doug McManaman's material, and visit his OAC Philosophy web page, click here.
Return to Articles Page.