The following reflection was written by an anonymous author who was inspired by their own anxiety to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with others. Several descriptions in this reflection are graphic, and the subject material can be quite heavy, so viewer discretion is advised. We figured that Holy Week would be an appropriate time to share this. The purpose of this article is to provoke thought; the events described are not literal ones, and the Theology it presents is not necessarily representative of Clarifying Catholicism.

THU-THUMP. THU-THUMP. THU-THUMP.

The lights are on, but no one is home. Home. It’s a place I used to love but have since grown horrified of. I clutch my cross tightly and shudder at the mere thought of returning. Returning…

To return. Where to, though? To return means to go back to a place. But the leaves fall, and flowers die. Is there ever really a return? Memory is scary. It traps us in illusions of comfort and security when nothing really stays the same. Think about it. Are the forests we used to play in as children the same places once they’re transformed into neighborhoods? Are the neighborhoods we lived in the same places once our neighbors have divorced, moved, or died? Are the neighbors we loved even the same people anymore? Are we? Seven-year-old you certainly wouldn’t make the same decisions as seventy-seven-year-old you, and Adam before Eve surely would not have done what Adam after Eve did. Sameness haunts us. It is a drug: an illusion that gives us comfort. We are arrangements of atoms and particles. When we are picked apart, we are either nothing or everything, but we are certainly not the same.

“Deny yourself.” “Leave your family behind.” “Let the dead bury themselves.” There is but one Great Force that ensures our unity as individuals, and that is Jesus Christ. The Alpha, Omega, and Eternal Constant cautions us against clinging to the unstable, very movable, changing, and ultimately fleeting foundations that we call identities. Our selves will change, we will die, and the dead stay dead. Identity and memory will not last. They will fail. There is only one unmoved mover, and He is beyond identity. That’s when I realized what I was.

THU-THUMP. THU-THUMP. THU-THUMP.

Everything I love will soon die. My existence is a drop in an ocean of being. I am worthless. Meaningless. Nothing I do matters, and I cannot bear the burden of existence. The inevitable cessation of life torments me. Every breath tugs away at a strand of my essence like a small child playfully tugs at his brother’s hair; the irritation builds until it is unbearable. With every beat my heart teases me: “Yes, I am here now, but soon I won’t be.” Life is a seemingly endless death sentence. It’s a sham. A lie. We only know what being is, not non-being, and yet throughout the entirety of our being, we are threatened by non-being! Oh, the stress! The anxiety! Life gives us just one single assurance that has haunted every man since Adam: that we shall surely die!

I curse my existence! I close my eyes. I give up. Death wins. If there is a Heaven, it is incomprehensible to us simple mortals. If there is a Hell, God has cursed us with glimpses of goodness before abandoning us. If there is no Heaven, then life, and being itself, is a cruel, sick, joke, and I eagerly await the punchline. Either way, God has entrapped us in a house of horrors.

THU-THUMP. THU-THUMP. THU-THUMP.

I clutched my cross and my Rosary as tears streamed down my eyes. Why? Why? Why?

Days passed. The beating of my heart continued until my body and mind were beaten as well. Exhausted. Winded. Defeated. “All I see is straw. All I write is straw. All I know is straw.” And that’s when I realized what I was.

“But my Lord, why?” I trembled beneath the apple tree. Silence. I was locked in an asylum. I clutched the knife and edged closer. “Why…” I panted, desperation escaping my hollow voice. “Why?” I demanded, cold blood coursing through my veins. “WHY?” I screamed, looking up from the corpse of the angel. My heart no longer “Thu-Thumped.” Instead it rang: “Being. Change. Imperfection. Being. Change. Imperfection. Being. Change. Imperfection…”

I curled up into a ball alone in the room whispering the spells and chants they taught me in school to no avail. Psychology? Insanity. Evolution? Boredom. Sociology? Genocide. Physics? Nuclear holocaust. The blood was on my hands as I choked on my own tears. And all I could think of was time. Time…

Time. The source of all change and evil. Changing. I was changing. In one moment, the apple was in the tree. The next, it was in my hand. In one instant the dream was so distant. But then the dream consumed me. I had become the abyss I stared into for so long. That’s when I realized what I was. A disgusting glut, fattened up from what I thought was good for me, weeping next to my dead brother.

Suddenly, my room shook as a band of demons chorused in laughter. The agony of what I had done. The angels I had slayed in my fervors and delusion. The idols on the shelves that I had built myself. I glanced at my library: my personal testament to “the strength of man.” The Over Man. “I believe”: A total lie. A phrase I presented when what I really intended was “I know.” But I didn’t know, and when the Voice that Knew overtook that of the demons, I lost my breath. My heart skipped several beats.

THU-THUMP. THU-THUMP.

Down fell the idols of Baal and Ashera. The Tower disintegrated as the prophets set themselves ablaze. It took a tidal wave to stop the fire, but there were costs. I was alone. The Nephilim… Nothing could bring them back.

I made promises I couldn’t keep, so I ran away into the desert. I was so convinced that the bread You gave me was a mirage, so I exchanged it for gold and kept coming back for more. I thought that I had fooled You, but in the end, I starved myself. So much pain and anguish. So many moments that slipped away. Years of my life in exile. And when You gave me eternal bread, I drove nails through its wrists. Slowing down. My weakest point. Devastation. God was not in the apple. He was not in a flood or in the tower. The temple I built was collapsing and the Saints I had murdered were groaning. As the walls started collapsing, my heart skipped yet again. All I could shriek was “why?”

THU-THUMP…

He sat there in silence, coolly overlooking the destruction of my deeds. Then He spoke. Two words. Just two words were all I could make out and I could barely hear them. I’m sure He said more, but I could not decipher Him. All I could comprehend were the two.

“Why not?” Then I passed out.

There is Being, and there is Not Being. But are we Actually when we actually Are Not? Life comes and goes to the human race, but it comes only once to the human person. We stumble through life as drunkards, but we still stumble nonetheless. Since all we know is being, and not non-being, we are predisposed to the eternal. Yet when time passes for the animal, it cares not for its being. Thus, the temporality of the average being is not the same as our eternal Being, and in our temporal being we are not always aware of our eternal Being. Being is here and Being has always been here, yet we waste it when we are least aware of it.

When I gaze into the sunset, there is no time, there is no change, but there is still Being. Being as it should be. Being as it was meant to be. When I hear the laughter of children, feel the mist of the ocean, and smell the scent of Spring, I know that I Am. I Am. God Is. God always Is, and God always speaks. But when we lock ourselves in our rooms, distract ourselves with boredom, and isolate ourselves with our personal demons, the collective artificial noise makes it almost impossible to hear the voice of God. Eventually, all we can hear is “TH-THUMP TH-THUMP TH-THUMP” without realizing that even our physical hearts are temporal. What is not temporary, however, is the Being that comes from God, and we catch glimpses of Being all around us.

But when the smiles are exchanged for masks, nature is a window away, and the Bread of Life is replaced by sourdough, it becomes increasingly difficult to hear God. And when we fail to hear God, we fail to Be as God intended us to, with Him in the Garden. When we abandon or are deprived of these eternal moments, we no longer Are.

And so, in times of great stress and anxiety, we see the material structures we depend on come crumbling down. And why shouldn’t they? A million dollars is no Unmoved Mover. With a click it can all go away. It is stress and anxiety that cause us to question the fabric that holds our Being intact, but it will not sow us back together. It is a thermometer, but not the temperature itself or an air conditioner. It only helps us to rediscover what we often subconsciously depend on. And it is only when we are torn apart that we finally see that the God we thought we knew was just another temple torn in two.

When we rely on customs and laws to dictate our lives, when we blindly obey rules that present so much yet mean so little to us, we abandon the primordial pursuit of God and Being, and we are no better than the hypocrites who nailed Him to a tree. We, again, cease to Be. Encountering God, therefore, is a process of avoiding the “Two Profane Elevations”: the elevation of objects to God and the elevation of our intellects above God. Every time we ask “why” and every time we claim to know an answer, we risk descending into the depths of Hell with our Dead Dogma.

To every “why” there is a “why not” that is packed so densely with love and sustenance that it carefully guides us to God’s graces. We never needed to be, yet here we are. This is “The Great Why Not” that neutralizes “The Great Why.”  Likewise, to every answer there is another question. Studying God is aesthetics, not physics, in its highest form. To study aesthetics is to appreciate, not to totally comprehend, the colorful canvas before us. When we appreciate God, we appreciate His nature. A failure to appreciate God will inevitably end in the “Two Profane Elevations,” since when we claim to comprehend God, we claim to comprehend His nature, and we risk either elevating objects we see as God into idols or elevating ourselves above God when we reduce Him to an object. We so easily become idol worshipers or idols, ourselves.

Staring into the setting sun, time stands still, and we are faced with a dilemma. We can choose to admire and appreciate the sunset, to Be in what is given at hand, or to fruitlessly expect the sunset to either explain itself or be explained by us. When we elevate objects, we reduce the sunset to a photograph, interrogating a replica that we have raised to the status of the thing itself. When we elevate ourselves, we arrogantly claim to see and know every color, and the sunset becomes subordinate to us. Likewise, when we demand to know “The Great Why,” we spit on God’s precious gift of life. We become Adam. We become Cain. We become the Babylonians, Jezebel, and all of the Ancient Tribes who betrayed God’s Will by elevating theirs above His or elevating objects to His nature. At the same time, when we refuse to acknowledge the truths and realities of “The Great Why” we neglect what has been presented to us in “The Great Why Not.”

Every sunset has rules. It has colors and operates based on principles. To rejoice in our feeble mastery of its presentation is as intelligent as shouting “Look! Red!” At the same time, to abandon the quest for its meaning is as stupid as proclaiming “There is no sunset!” Instead we can say, “The red is composed of slight hues of purple and yellow” acknowledging the truth presented in an intelligent manner without exhausting what we interrogate. We approach the object of mystery, but we do not force it to explain itself or claim to exhaust it. Like the sunset, God presents Himself to us every day. The glimpses of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty that we are presented with must be cherished and appreciated like a masterpiece. Every masterpiece has superficial elements in its presentation, but its marvelous manifolds and its Master’s intentions will never be fully realized by us unworthy pupils.

To Be, therefore, is not to possess knowledge or beauty, nor is it to manufacture what we think is wise or beautiful. No, no, no. To Be is to allow for God’s beauty and radiance to flow through all of us as we recognize it. We are vessels and admirers, not makers and experts, of the Truth. We will never know the answer to “The Great Why,” and the longer we demand such an answer, the higher we ascend into the tower of Babel. And the higher we ascend into the idol of our own design, the more painful the fall will be when our world comes crashing down under the weight of stress and anxiety. However, our lowest moments provide ideal times to begin our walk with Moses up to Mount Sinai. Like any mountain, the hike up will reveal hints of what we can expect at the summit. Beauty, Goodness, Truth, and much more will show themselves on our ascent, and when we finally arrive the Master will greet us, not with a “Nice to meet you” but with a “Nice to see you again. Welcome Home.”

2 comments on “The Catholic Existentialist

  1. i felt uneasy reading this because I felt a sense of discrepancy, what so many call “intellectual dissonance” as he names Jesus at the very beginning before a lot–A LOT–of anguished words. I felt he was cheating. Like a chess game that is very difficult, but it ha been memorized, and no matter how many pieces are lost (in anguish) the checkmate at the end is preordained and inevitable.

    There exist, of course, already three men recognized as “existentialists” who call themselves Christian: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Gabriel Marcel.
    From them, I have come to appreciate something of what that ideology is all about, the Christian/ Catholic response to it, and something of a Buddhist-Catholic (cf. Thomas Merton) settlement.

    Living and being, free will and (the meaning of) God, personhood, time, and the meaning of life–all tie in together as functioning parts of the whole. Existentialism, like Catholicism, Scholasticism, Stoicism, modernism, and so are are all “isms” which, in the end, require a kind of conformity and/or compromise with the individual person. You must “deny yourself” something to change into a member of that thought-group, accepting major insights in such a way that they overwhelm, and/or cause a denial of “lesser principles” which may seem important but which one may sacrifice to belong to the larger “-ism.”

    My settlement involves a denial of “isms”–not of faith, not of growth, and not of knowledge and my acceptance of (new and old) knowledge. It is the denial of the conformity facet of every -ism in service to the larger picture of faith that accepts–accepts persons as they are, sunsets and nature as they are (cf the article and “red”), and accepts the inevitable unknown that is both the not-yet-known, and the mystery right now. I follow the Jesus of the Gospels, aware that Paul saw Jesus in a way different from mine as he both ignored the lifetime of Jesus and saw Jesus as the starting point of an organization (that existed before Paul converted).

    I see life as tensions–healthy tensions. The timeless stuff of my soul–love, hunger for justice, grief over loss, and humility are permanent wealth–Christmas gifts I will bring to my death. The time stuff of mistakes, event, appreciation of love & friendship–these I may or may not bring. I don’t know. My body, and its miracles of autonomic nervous system, T-cells, replenishing of skin cells–these end.

    In the meantime, with Thoreau and Jesus, I work to live deliberately, to spend each precious moment of my lifetime with Mary’s Magnificat’s first line–to expose the meaning of God (glorify–with the deeper Semitic meaning of giving weight to) by what I am, do, say and leave. My major in philosophy will always lead me to reflect and question, to remain, like Socrates, unfulfilled with an glib answer–and with many a wise one. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses and many a Hopkins poem, I want to pursue always the mystery that envelops the mystery, the God-ness of God, the There-ness of being, the significance and allusiveness of the Kingdom of God. I agree with Jesus that it can be described or defined only by allusions…it is like this or that.

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