But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart . . .” (Jeremiah 20:7-9)
We live in an age when many an intellectual dismisses religion as “pure myth” meaning untrue. They go even farther and claim there is no meaning to life – we are as pretty and as fragile and meaningless as the butterflies that last a season or so and then dissolve into atoms. Some of these intellectuals are depressed about this – but steel themselves to make the most out of the time allowed us. Other intellectuals rejoice over such a meaningless world because it relieves them of bearing the burden of taxing creeds that – in their opinion – deprive us of the “freedom” to enjoy the here and now – fleeting though it may be.
Of course we ourselves hold on to our ancient creed, our faith, our hope that this world, that our lives do have meaning. The Bible is loaded with episodes and poetry and of course the presence of Jesus and people like St. Paul who tell us about where we come from and where we are going – and the truth about what handicaps us (like greed, pride, sloth, fear). And beyond the Bible there are the poets, people like Dante, Shakespeare, the great stories of our culture that reach confidently toward a happy ending to our lives, our universe.
Indeed, one of my favorite writers nowadays – named George Steiner – argues that underlying the material world we live in is a kind of musical composer who endows all creation with meaning – and inspires every human work of art, music, poetry, theology, even those everyday hopeful conversations we have that demonstrate how much more we are than “nothing at all” – as the cynics would have us believe. Indeed, Steiner uses the metaphor of the “visitor” – that from behind or beneath every story, every parable, every proverb, symphony or even folk song we encounter, every wish we wish there is someone knocking at our door, wanting to become a enduring tenant within our soul, our very body.
And given this faith, what should be our response to such knocking – sometimes a quiet tapping? Steiner says – courtesy! We should read things, hear things, study events in our lives, in the Bible and the world around us with courtesy – which means seriousness, taking our time, postponing the haste that has us running from pillar to post, running away from that deeper meaning that can make our lives more profound, more real. Which – as usual – reminds me of a poem by Walter de la Mare called “The Listeners”: “Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, / Knocking on the moonlit door; / . . . And he smote upon the door again a second time; / “Is there anybody there?” he said. / But no one descended to the Traveller; / No head from the leaf-fringed sill / Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes, / Where he stood perplexed and still. / . . . “Tell them I came, and no one answered, / That I kept my word,” he said. / . . . Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup, / And the sound of iron on stone, / And how the silence surged softly backward, / When the plunging hoofs were gone.
Do you sometimes feel your life is meaningless, this world is meaningless? Maybe you should show more courtesy toward that knocking on your door that resonates from every biblical event, every worthwhile work of art, every kind word you come upon.