What am I doing here? Is this all to life? Sitting in my work cubicle these thoughts occasionally cross my mind. Struggling with the daily routine of work and family life, my mind tends to wander off toward fantasy. I think part it is it due to a desire to escape my mundane situation. Reading fantasy allows me to attain that escapism while remaining in the comfort of my living room. After putting my children to bed and waiting for my wife to return from errand-running, I had some free time to read. Picking up Chesterton’s Orthodoxy I spent about twenty minutes navigating his semi-autobiographical work. Suddenly, I stopped at a passage from his fourth chapter entitled The Ethics of Elfland. The great English wordsmith writes, “I have said that stories of magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege” (Orthodoxy p. 54).
In other words, life is not something to be merely enjoyed via self-gratification, but rather my existence on this earth should be viewed through the lens of privilege—life is a free gift. My children point to this reality, often lost as we reach adulthood, that life should be joyful. The strangeness and idiosyncrasies of the universe should be something to revel in, not quake at the seeming despair when we encounter things and events that do not fit our controlled world. On the other end of the adult’s worldview is perceiving re-occurrence as a bad thing or something to be avoided. Chesterton put it this way,
All towering materialism which dominates the modern world rest ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation known to fact…A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue…For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony, It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon (Orthodoxy pp. 50-51).
Wonder and awe stems from the ability be amazed at creation even if it is the hundredth or thousandth time viewing a starry night or noticing a bird gathering straw for her nest. Children possess the magic of living—the ability to love life despite doing the same activity over and over again. Monotony, dullness, and lethargy did not enter the vocabulary of the youth. Chesterton reminded me that I need to return to my youth. I need to jettison the false assumption that repetition is inherently bad and variety alone leads to life!
I need not enter the Pevensie’s wardrobe, or a supernatural rabbit hole, or even run headfirst toward a brick-wall on an English train station between platforms 9 and 10 [although I did visit this fictional landmark during my trip to Europe!! 🙂 ]. Instead, I am able to encounter magic in this life by visiting my children’s closet as I gaze at the array of Lego men and women scattered in an apparent random order on top of, within, and under the closet shelves. What adventures are they going on today? I can also lower myself to the level of my youngest son as his eyes open with joy at the sound of the door opening. He enjoys leaving in the morning as he gets to meander outside and gaze at the wheels of my car. How incredibly simple, yet fulfilling would life be if I approached every day as a magical experience? The life of children is akin to that of our Divine Creator—they do not get bogged down by the monotony [apparent monotony that is] in this world. I ask for the Holy Spirit to enliven my soul to view any dullness and routine in my life as a gift!
***Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony, It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon”***
The great Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” His words seemed geared especially for my ears. I tend to overthink and over analyze situations in my life. As a result, instead of simply living I conflate daily stresses into something bigger than need be. I started doing puzzles to help me deal with my anxiety. I also rediscovered my childhood love of maze puzzles. That got me thinking life is sort of like a maze. The dictionary defines the word maze as “a network of paths and hedges designed as a puzzle through which one has to find a way out”. A secondary definition for this word is when it is used as a verb: “to be dazed and confused”. I will incorporate both descriptions about mazes in my writing today. Here are three ways why my life lately is like a maze.
1. Life is complex, yet beautifully simple: Life is a busy and complex event. As a parent of three children life grows greater in complexity: school is starting up shortly, bedtime routines need to be followed strictly, kids get sick, my wife is starting a new job, my job is ever-changing on a weekly basis. Life is complex. But does it have to be.
When I stop and reflect on my life all I truly need to do include: feeding my family and myself, providing a shelter, teaching my children, providing clothing, and helping my wife. Life is a paradox—it is both simple and complex. Matthew 6:25-34 tells of the simplicity in life and Jesus urges his followers [and us] not to worry as we will be provided for because the birds of the air and other creatures are cared for as well.
Mazes are both simple and complex. All mazes have a beginning and end—simple. However, each maze is unique in its level of complexity due to the amount of dead-ends and size—complex.
2. Know the beginning and the end: According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, provides me clarity about the purpose and goal of this life.
The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for:
The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator. (CCC 27).
Through faith and science I know that the origin of the universe began with a omnipotent force—known to Christians as God. Witnesses of the saints’ lives, the teachings of the Catholic Church, and my faith inform me that death is not the end. Rather it is a springboard to a possible eternity with God. Life is like a maze in that it is book-ended with a clear start and finish. Why does the in between section [life] become complicated? Why do I find myself laboring through a labyrinth? The answer is simple—I forget the beginning and end goals of my puzzle that I call life.
3. Dot-to-dot living- perception or possibility?: Along with mazes, I enjoyed completing dot-to-dot puzzles in my elementary years. Having a son going into kindergarten this year has reminded me of these fun and simple type of games. Unlike mazes, dot-to-dots are straightforward—you simply start with the lowest number [or letter] dot and connect it to the next digit until the puzzle is complete. Oftentimes, I wish my life played out more like a dot-to-dot puzzles than a maze. I enjoy order and a linear pattern to living. Why does God allow life to exist in dot-to-dot manner? Why does He permit mazes caused by evil [personal and natural] to tangle up my life?
I asked these questions during period of my deepest depression and intense suffering. Arriving on the other side of suffering, I came to realize both through experience and prayer that God allows mazes to develop in human life due to the gift of free will. Freedom is both the greatest gift and great challenge we face on a daily basis. I am free to try impose my control over this life and fashion it into dot-to-dot living or I am free to embrace the a[maze]ness of this life and learn to rely on others and God for help and support when I inevitably face apparent dead-ends in my spiritual life.
Centering my life on a proper order of love—God, family, friend, fellow men—provides stability. Instead of laboring through life’s labyrinth, embracing my maze allows me to live to the fullest. Saint John tells us of God’s enduring nature in Revelation 22:13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, then beginning and the end.” When I view life through this sense I am able to incorporate Confucius’ teaching in daily living.
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
In the age of the Internet, iPhones, social media, and other technological amenities of the 21st century, is learning from the pages of centuries old writing even relevant anymore? Have we not progressed as a society where psychologists, depression medicine, and other self-help tactics are a dime a dozen? While I do believe there our current social-historical environment enjoys some of the greatest advancements and quality of life in the history of the human race, there still is wisdom to be gleaned from ancient texts. I came across such writing recently in both a familiar yet fresh place—the Epistle of James from the New Testament.
1. Build your house on the living cornerstone instead of out of straw: One of my favorite children’s short stories is The Story of the Three Little Pigs. Along with being able to tell that tale to my children now, I enjoy the practical and simple message that the story contains. Preparation is key and having a solid foundation is vital not only to having a secure home, but also leading a stable and joyful life. Martin Luther, the champion of the Protestant Reformation, once called the Letter of James an “epistle of straw”. He jettisoned this work from his New Testament. As a result, the Protestant canon does not officially contain the Epistle of James.
Simply by reading the writing by St. James, his work is definitely not built on straw. Rather, this is truly an inspired text. I find practical applications of its message in my daily life. James 1:2 provides healing during stressful times in my life. Chapter 1 verse 2 states, “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials.” This advice is much tougher than it sounds to incorporate, but I have noticed when I take time to discover joy in my suffering that weight becomes more bearable! Let Christ me a cornerstone for your life.
2. Tame the tongue: James 3 focuses on the dangers and evils associated with ill words. The New Testament writer uses such eloquent speech and examples. Because I do not want to downplay the inspired epistle I will cite James’ text before I provide the lessons I learned. St. James authoritatively states,
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly, 2for we all fall short in many respects. If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also.a 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies. 4It is the same with ships: even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination wishes. 5In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions.
Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. 6The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.b 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers. 11Does a spring gush forth from the same opening both pure and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers, produce olives, or a grapevine figs? Neither can salt water yield fresh.c (James 3:1-12).
Here is the practical wisdom and spiritual guidance I gather from this passage:
· Words guide actions
· Men may tame the natural world, but only the Holy Spirit may tame mankind
· Failure to control our speech will have dangerous consequences in daily life
· Complaining and cursing lead to destruction of a person’s entire character
3. Actions speak louder than words: Music provided a refuge from my depression in high school. During my junior and senior years, I was a part of nearly every musical group the school had to offer: All-state choir, chamber choir, musical, caroling, and show choir. There was a particular song I remember the varsity show choir sang during my freshman year—Louder than Words from the musical Tick, Tick…BOOM. I occasionally find myself singing the refrain randomly over the years. Below is an excerpt from the more famous part of the song and the section that I most remember.
Why do we play with fire?
Why do we run our finger through the flame?
Why do we leave our hand on the stove-
Although we know we’re in for some pain?
Oh, why do we refuse to hang a light
When the streets are dangerous?
Why does it take an accident
Before the truth gets through to us?
Cages or wings?
Which do you prefer?
Ask the birds.
Fear or love, baby?
Don’t say the answer
Actions speak louder than words.
I am not sure what the original intention the songwriter’s had in composing the lyrics, but the juxtaposition between cages or wings is a simple and relatable image that I reflect on constantly during my battles against depression. I often toe the line between freedom and entrapment. What this song does a good job doing is reminding myself that deeds define a person. Words are cheap. Verbal promises are created easily. Where it gets difficult if when we our actions need to be consistent with our words—especially in times of trial! How often do we select cages over the freedom of wings? Do we allow sloth and our pride to prevent us from seeking new opportunities to act, to serve others, and engage in things that bring us true and lasting freedom? Do we choose fear or love?
The epistle of James provides us an answer to these questions. James states, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?i If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?j 17 So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17). It is not sufficient to say that you love God, or that you love your neighbor. True faith is demonstrable. It dons the cloak of charity in feeding the hungry, comforting the depressed, or helping the disenfranchised.
Will you make your house out of straw? Why is refraining from sins of the tongue a good thing? Do you prefer cages or wings? The Epistle of James provided me practical answers to these questions. His writing leads me to have the possibility for daily success!