On the Fundamental Goodness of Being

Years ago while living in Rome I made my first Jesuit retreat, a memorably intense affair, presided over by a priest so long in the tooth that I naturally assumed he knew St. Ignatius himself.   It was there that I learned the practice of Composition of Place, an exercise central to Ignatian spirituality, in which one enters imaginatively into an event in the life of Christ in order not simply to think about it but actually to see and to savor the details that surround and suffuse the scene.  The event I chose was a bit unusual but, encouraged by the Retreat Master to go ahead anyway, I tried to picture the very instant of Christ’s birth, the moment when, as the poet Hopkins unforgettably puts it,  “God’s infinity / Dwindled to infancy,” suddenly appears outside the blessed body of his Mother Mary.

What would it have been like had I actually been present there in Bethlehem that holy night, to see the Adorable Child no longer hidden away in the womb but emerging all at once into the world around us?  Surely I’d have been as stunned as the poet Richard Crashaw, who, imagining the same scene, exclaims his wonderment in lines of the purest sublimity ever set down in verse:

    Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
          Eternity shut in a span;
    Summer in winter; day in night;
          Heaven in earth, and God in man.
    Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
    Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.    

An amazing sight, no doubt; but forget about my having seen it for the moment. What of Jesus himself?  How might he have experienced it?  I mean, as a human being, as one of us?  For that matter, go ahead and picture yourself being born. There you are, having just left the birth canal, about to be launched into life, poised to begin the human adventure.  What would be the obvious sensation, the salient discovery to be made?  The answer very simply is that it wasn’t you who loaded or launched the ship that thereupon left the harbor.  It is not the creature’s prerogative to create.

Let’s face it, the defining feature of any creature, from angels to amoebas, is that one is always the recipient of a gift one could never oneself give.  How does one go about conferring being upon oneself?  Would one not first have to be in order then to bestow it?  Now there’s an exercise in self-giving that even non-metaphysicians may find a bit daunting.

So there you are on the cusp of creation, the very beginning of your being in the world.  What are you thinking?  What impression would the sudden impact of that shattering event leave you with?  It cannot be too difficult to imagine one’s reaction to the sudden splash of that moment.  An entire life, it seems, could scarcely contain the astonishment inscribed in the memory of that moment.

If to live is so startling, as Emily Dickinson tells us, that it leaves but little room for any other occupation, then here is an event absolutely more startling than any that one could possibly imagine.  Even if one were to climb the mountains of Tibet in a pair of sneakers, or cross Pike’s Peak on a pogo stick, nothing on earth could begin to compare with that first intoxicating instant when, outside the womb, life suddenly bursts into being.

How should one react to the experience of being born?  By taking polite notice of the fact?  After all, a blooming earthquake has just taken place, blindsiding you into a world you couldn’t possibly have foreseen.   Nor have given permission to enter.  Is there a slip one needs to sign in order to authorize existence?  So there you are positively blown away by the event, struck dumb with a sense of surprise and amazement that are simply unrequitable.  Like winning the lottery, only much better since you never had to buy a ticket to get in the game.  And so properly stunned and surprised to find that you exist, wouldn’t a touch of thankfulness be in order?  A dollop of gratitude anyone?

And why is that?  Because here is something you’d never done a blessed thing to deserve.  If God decides to breathe being into that emptiness you’ve just come out of, it is hardly an entitlement to which you can stake a claim.  As if God needed your being in order to shore up his own. Existence is not among the many rights and privileges that define citizenship in a free society.

Sure, you have a right to be born once you’ve begun to be.  Isn’t that the whole point of the movement to extend constitutional protection to unborn children?  And if the state can sanction the killing of the most helpless of humans, then who among us is safe?  But to move from nothingness to existence is a maneuver only God can manage.  And it is that which ought to account for the sheer explosion of joy and gratitude, the wonderment felt in the face of the discovery you’ve just made.  The realization that, good heavens, I exist, when you hadn’t done a thing, hadn’t lifted a finger to bring it about.

In his book on Heretics, Chesterton writes:

“Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.”  The man who expects nothing sees redder roses than common men can see, and greener grass, and a more startling sun. Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall possess the cities and the mountains; blessed is the meek, for he shall inherit the earth. Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are.  Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing.  As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightening, sudden, blinding, and divine.

Here, it seems, is the acid test of all human happiness—the gratitude shown when given a gift that one simply hasn’t the capacity to give.  To whom do we turn to thank for this birthday gift of being born if not to God?   “Statistically speaking,” writes etymologist and poet Lewis Thomas, “the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”

I remember being pretty dazzled myself when I first came across an assertion from St. Augustine, in which he insists that the birth of a child is an event even more miraculous than the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  How can that be?  I wondered.  Because for Jesus to restore a dead man to a life once lived is a feat far less impressive than the sheer beginning of a life that had never been.  Or put it this way, which is how the poet Sandburg once put it, that with the birth of a baby God is giving his opinion that life should go on.

It is good, therefore, to be.  Indeed, it is always better to be than not to be.  There can be no percentage in nothingness.  (Unless, of course, you’re the late Dr. Kevorkian, for whom extinction is something to be prized, legislated even, so that killing people may be given constitutional protection.)  To be, or not to be may be a famous line in Shakespeare, but unless you’re an actor reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy on stage, it really isn’t a speech that should end in a question.  To be is an answer.  A blinding affirmation, no less, that is a judgment of the mind and will concerning the fundamental and indestructible goodness of being, of finding oneself alive in the body of this most beautiful world.  And until the time of the Renaissance when, as Chesterton tells us, “a few men, for the first time, began to disbelieve in Life,” it was almost universally understood that the only sane and civilized stance to take was on the side of being.  “Never until modern thought began,” says Chesterton, did it become necessary “to fight with men who desired to die.”

What a profound and powerful thinker he was!  One of the deepest thinkers who ever lived.  “At the back of his brain,” someone once said, “there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at his own existence.”  Only in his case it hadn’t been forgotten.  Because, for Chesterton, the whole “object of his artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder.”

Such a lovely line that is!  And isn’t that sunrise of wonder precisely the image we need to awaken nowadays in order to see ourselves for the blazing sacramental beings we are?  By allowing ourselves that imaginative glimpse at the very dawn of our lives when, for the first time, we enter the theater of human existence and there we learn to speak the lines of a script given to us by God.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Adoration of the Shepherds” was painted by Matthias Stomer c. 1640-50.

Regis Martin

By

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • ForChristAlone

    A few years back, I had the great fortune of visiting the Holy Land. The site that had the most profound impact on me was not Bethlehem where I had the opportunity to preach as a deacon at the Church of the Nativity, but Nazareth at the site of the Church of the Annunciation – the event of the Incarnation. To my mind and heart, this is where the most profound event in all human history took place and nine months before the Lord’s birth outside the womb. It was for me of greatest meaning because this is where the birth of Jesus began – in his mother Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit.

    In this day and age where babies are aborted like some pieces of trash, we need to recover the full significance of the Incarnational event and drive home the point that God’s taking on a human nature began at the point of conception – the Annunciation. And just as Christ assumed his human nature at that point with all the dignity God bestowed upon humanity by doing so, it is from the first moments of conception that human life begins and not at the point when the child emerges from nine month’s custody inside his or her mother’s womb.

    Wouldn’t it send a clearer message to our abortion-loving world if the Catholic Church honored the Annunciation as truly the event that deserves far more importance than the Nativity itself? It IS here where human life begins – the life of the Incarnate God and our human life as well.

  • tom

    Wow, a “twofer” from Steubenville. First, Dean Martin and now Professor Martin. Thank you for the Hope-filled message about Life itself. As the Church is methodically driven out of the public square, or punished for staying there by our statists, it’s time for us to peacefully “attack”.

    Parishioners need to parade from their own parish to one nearby, perhaps once a month in clement weather. Let’s publicize the wonders of Christianity with our own presence on the public streets.

    It would be a joyous noise and a mighty message to those who want us gone or hidden in catacombs, afraid.

    • Shannon Marie Federoff

      Dr. Martin made a lasting impression on me as an undergraduate at Franciscan in the late 80’s. 🙂

      Tom, if you have children/ grandchildren/ nieces or nephews who are looking at colleges right now, point them to Steubenville. My oldest son is there right now, and I am SO pleased he is receiving a Catholic education.

      • tom

        No question. Steubenville has established a great reputation.

        It keeps the Faith.

  • publiusnj

    I agree with ForChristAlone that the encounter between Gabriel, Mary and the Holy Spirit and Christ is so profound. God so loved the World that He gave it His only begotten Son, but He first asked because He so loves us that He gives us our freedom. I have not been to Israel but I have seen Fra Angelico’s Annunciation mosaics at the Florentine monastery where he lived and painted and I have seen Botticelli’s and Leonardo’s Annunciations as well. The reverence with which Gabriel is portrayed approaching the Virgin shows how God cherishes and honors our freedom.

    I also agree with the author that it is a great gift God gives us in existence. That gift of life is made even more precious, though, because of the freedom God gives us in how we use that existence. I don’t remember that first moment of my existence either in or out of the womb. But then: “youth is wasted on the young.” I also don’t always appreciate the gift of existence even today, but God keeps giving it and I get a choice every day either to waste it or use it productively. I appreciate that because I certainly am not young any more.

    • Objectivetruth

      If ever in Philadelphia, a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to view Henry Tanner’s “The Annunciation” is a must see. It stands amongst the world’s finest.

  • Frodo

    Wow, what a great article. Put me in a thankful mood on a cold, dreary – but glorious – day.
    Thanks,

  • hombre111

    Excellent, as usual. If some of your readers haven’t made an Ignatian retreat, give it a try.

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