Dear Donagh, Thank you and Simon for your wonderful site - you two are doing good work. Can you send me a bundle of your new bookmarks - I'd like to pass them around to some friends of mine…. It's useful to have the address and a brief description in such a handy format.
My question may be too general for an answer on your page, but it's a question that keeps coming back to me for several months now. Even a few words would help. What's the meaning of life? Or does it have a meaning? Obviously I must think it has, otherwise I'd have gone crazy in some way. But I'd like to get some sort of real answer, instead of the usual clichés. What does it mean, why are we here? Is it just some sort of cosmic joke? Are we just playthings of evolution? If it's too general just say so. I'll understand. Thanks again. Brendan McC.
Dear Brendan, Don’t worry about your question being general: it's a lot easier to respond to general questions than to particular ones! - easier because no one expects much of an answer. We're lucky if we can get even a fleeting glimpse of something.
What's the meaning of life?
Doesn’t it have to come with the package, somehow? It's hardly likely to be something that isn't there already. So I tell myself, anyway. The answer in the penny catechism didn’t take us very far: really it took us nowhere. We are here, it said, "to know, love and serve God, and by this means to be happy with him forever." 'By this means'. So, knowing loving and serving God was just a means to an end: the end being our own happiness. God was not the Ultimate, but a tool for our happiness. If a man said such a thing about his wife we would say he knew nothing at all about love.
Is the question 'what's the meaning of life?' different from the question, 'what's the meaning of this moment?' My sense is that they are the same question.
Well then, what's the meaning of this moment? Again, my sense is that this moment doesn’t have a meaning; it is the meaning. That's why I say the meaning must come with the package. I think the answer is always in the question, the solution in the problem.
If I look at this moment with only one interest - to find some verbal formula claiming to express its 'meaning' - then I am not looking at this moment. Or rather I'm not living it; I'm stepping back from living and I'm talking about living. We have tended to become fatally entangled in explanations, and we end by thinking that our religion itself is nothing but a big explanation. But it was called "the Way" before it was called Christianity, and long before it was ever seen as an explanation (see Acts 22:4; 11:26). To the extent that we see it as an explanation of the world, to that extent it has become a philosophy. Even a very famous theologian whom I was reading the other day used the word 'spirituality' in a dismissive manner, contrasting it with what he called "the hard intellectual work" of theology. However necessary this hard intellectual work may be, it isn't the full story - any more than hard manual work is the full story. To think so would be a kind of activism. Spirituality necessarily includes the passive as well: we have to hold our spirit in readiness, empty like a bowl. "All discipleship is feminine," someone said, and he didn’t mean that it was only for women. He meant that it is not a matter of imposing one's intellect and will on the world, but of having the wisdom to wait for wisdom. "My soul is longing for the Lord, more than watchman for daybreak" (Psalm 129). The watchman cannot bring daybreak about, nor can he do nothing to hasten it; but there are different kinds of waiting. We are both active and passive, and spirituality takes both seriously. "You know my resting and my rising," the psalmist says to God.
In that resting we may get some wisdom about our rising. In that resting or waiting - call it meditation, or contemplation, or anything you like - the question, "What's the meaning of life?" will be changed and deepened. If there was just curiosity in it, or restlessness or unhappiness or an impulse to control, these will be transformed into wonder. See how often the word 'wonder' occurs in the psalms. May I suggest that you live with Psalm 138 for a while? It has great resonance. It's a good place to live with your question.
O Lord, you search me and you know me,
You know my resting and my rising,
You discern my purpose from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down,
All my ways lie open to you.
Before ever a word is on my tongue
You know it, O Lord, through and through.
Behind and before you besiege me,
Your hand ever laid upon me.
Too wonderful for me, this knowledge,
Too high, beyond my reach.
O where can I go from your spirit,
Or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie inn the grave, you are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn
And dwell at the sea's furthest end,
Even there your hand would lead me,
Your right hand would hold me fast.
If I say: 'Let the darkness hide me
And the light around me be night,'
Even darkness is not dark for you
And the night is as clear as the day.
For it was you who created my being,
Knit me together in my mother's womb.
I thank you for the wonder of my being,
For the wonders of all your creation.
Already you knew my soul,
My body held no secret from you
When I was being fashioned in secret
And moulded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw all my actions,
They were all of them written in your book;
Every one of my days was decreed
Before one of them came into being.
To me, how mysterious your thoughts,
The sum of them not to be numbered!
If I count them, they are more than the sand;
To finish I must be eternal, like you….
O search me, God, and know my heart.
O test me and know my thoughts.
See that I follow not the wrong path
And lead me in the path of life eternal.