An Encouraging Word: The Meaning of Life

A well-lived life is characterized by a constant evaluation of the meaning of life. Socrates said: "The unexamined life is not worth living." The meaning of life evolves as we change. There are times in which the meaning of life is crystal clear. Everything in our world is in proper order, then something slips up on our backside and our world falls apart. We lose someone or something that is central to our happiness and sense of meaning, and suddenly life is in shambles at our feet. There are times in which meaning falls through a crack in the bottom of our life, and we are left in a state of meaningless confusion. There are periods of time in which life seems like a mindless but arduous boot camp that is preparing us for we know not what. In his "Meditations" Marcus Aurelius, (Roman Emperor, 121-180 A.D.) wrote: "The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing for it requires that we should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected". Meaning is a moving target. It is slippery; hard to find and easy to lose.

The meaning of life is not the same for everyone, and it is not always the same for any one person. The shifting sands of experience constantly cause us to lose what we thought to be established and unshakeable meaning. Things happen that make it necessary for us to find new answers to old questions, and new meaning for old commitments.

We long for permanence though we live an existence that is characterized by constant change, much of which is beyond our control. Life is a journey in which we have to "live in tents"--temporary housing, yet what we want is a mansion by the side of the road from which we can watch the world go by. We come from a place we do not remember and we are on our way to a destination we cannot see. It becomes increasingly clear that life is a journey and that we are not permanent residents of this world.

In Father Anthony de Mello's collection of parables titled THE SONG OF THE BIRD, there is a story about a man from the States who visited the famous Polish rabbi, Hafez Hayyim. He was astonished to see that the rabbi's home was a simple room filled with books. The only furniture was a table and a bench. "Rabbi, where is your furniture?" asked the tourist. "Where is yours?" replied Hafez. "Mine? But I am only a visitor here." "So am I," said the rabbi.

We long for permanence and lust for knowledge, yet in the scheme of things we have very little of either. We want to know what God is up to. Request denied. Our situation is best stated in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes (3:11): "God has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man's mind, yet so he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end."

In his brilliant little book "Man's Unconquerable Mind" (circa 1954) Gilbert Highet opined that one of the truest sayings of the medieval thinkers was "Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium" (All things pass into mystery). Highet says: "We are not intended only to diagnose and calculate, but also to wonder; to admire; and to expect the unexpected." There are things we will never in this world know. Mystery must be factored into our attempt to grasp the meaning of life. Near the end of his life, in his farewell discourses to his disciples, Jesus said: "I still have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now." (John 16:12) That is still true. There are imponderables that we cannot bear and must negotiate by faith. Thus faith becomes our ultimate source of understanding the meaning of life--for now.

There is more. Next week. Stay tuned.