The Mystery of Individuality
BY Melinda Selmys
March 29-April 4, 2009 Issue | Posted 3/20/09 at 12:19 PM
It is spring. A gardener stands looking over her freshly turned up beds, and she looks down at the little packets of seeds that she has in her basket. She looks at the tender plants that she has been germinating on her windowsill since late winter, and a plan emerges in her mind. In an instant, the newly thawed earth is transformed into the garden that it will be: She knows every plant even before it has germinated; what it will look like; what it will become; how it will attract the butterflies and keep the cabbage worms at bay.
She sets to work sowing.
To God, this is something like how we look. From the berth of eternity, he doesn’t see only the imperfect, half-finished product that we are at the moment, but the complete whole that we will be at the Final Judgment. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). From before conception, he knows each of us in the fullness of our identity.
For us, living in time, our identity is a mystery. We know that it comes from God, from our being made “in the image and likeness.”
What does this mean, though, to be made in God’s image?
The central mystery of the creation of the human person is nearly inexhaustible, but one of its properties is that we are unique. God does not make mass-produced people; there are no soul factories spitting out identical Toms, Bills and Harrys, with an occasional St. Thomas Aquinas designer special to liven things up.
Each of us is a distinct conception, a new idea in the mind of God which has not been seen before and which will never be realized again.
None of God’s ideas are boring or humdrum. In the complicated, interwoven narrative of history, there are not heroes and bit characters. There are no extras mucking up the set to create the illusion of a complete world. In God’s story, every character — no matter how minor they appear — is the hero of his own distinct narrative.
We are not only capable of heroism; we are called to it. Heroic sanctity is not for the few, nor is it merely a matter of following the rules and attaining moral perfection.
Some atheist thinkers have suggested that the world would be boring if everyone were a saint, presumably because we would all be cookie-cutter images of a sentimentalized piety.
This is absurd.
The canon of saints is a varied and colorful crew — much more varied, in fact, than the secularized masses who have devoted themselves to the cause of “just be yourself.” The saints thunder on the mountain tops; they live on pillars in the desert; they lead armies to victory, conquer dragons, get boiled in oil, and bring dead babies back to life. This is the stuff of legend, and it is a great deal more interesting than being a “self-made businessman” or a “nonaligned anarchist lesbian.”
The great and terrible thing is that all of us are made to be saints.
The gardener does not plant any tomatoes in the hope that they will become stifled, pathetic little plants with piddling fruits and yellow-spotted leaves; God does not make nice, normal, decent folk.
The modern idea that you have to do something spectacularly evil to be deserving of hellfire is untrue. Hell is not an eternal dungeon for the abominably depraved; it is a garbage heap where God throws all of the human beings that got late blight or mildew and didn’t produce any fruit.
God is an artist who has given his works the tremendous gift of being able to participate in their own creation. In his Letter to Artists, John Paul II tells us, “All men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: In a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”
But becoming a masterpiece is not easy. It requires courage. The man who gambles his entire life for pennies will never win big. Or, as Kierkegaard puts it, “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
Imagine if St. Joan of Arc had decided that it would be better to just stay in Rouen and be a nice, pious, good little girl? Or if St. Peter had decided that it was irresponsible to leave his fishing nets untended? If St. John the Baptist had tried to find a way of calling Herod to repentance without offending anyone? If St. George had been too modern and sensible to believe in dragons?
The courage required to become ourselves is, more often than not, the courage to be taken for a fool. “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10). The respectable Christianity that is so often mocked and abused by atheist writers deserves every ounce of venom that it receives; Christ never called anyone to be respectable.
Why? Because heroes are never respectable.
They are very often respected (though generally not until after they have completed their quests), but, nonetheless, they are always a little odd. There is a kind of glamour that hangs around a Bilbo Baggins after he returns from the Misty Mountains, but the upright, ordinary folk will continue to warn their children that people who go in search of treasure are liable to become a dragon’s dinner.
Now, not everyone is called to be a public hero.
Raskolnikov only ever made the evening edition for his sins — it is unlikely that his redemption was trumpeted in The St. Petersburg Times. The interior of man is a broad landscape as rich and complicated as the whole outer world. All that we perceive, that we feel, that we imagine, that we apprehend is contained within our souls, and, for a great many, this is where the journey lies.
It is not an easy task. Material creation is rarely populated with such fearsome monsters as dwell within, and the inner quest cannot be comfortably undertaken by cowards.
The soul that risks little cannot accomplish its own being. Peter Kreeft warns, “We alone can fail to achieve our nature. Our nature is a task given to us to achieve, not a fact given to us to receive.” Boethius adds that “when anything falls away from its nature, its existence too ceases.”
Yet, it is frightening, because we do not know what we are called to become. Our identity is a mystery, hidden in the mind of God. It cannot be penetrated by our attempts at knowledge, “for no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going” (to quote Benedict XVI’s address to a conference on “The Changing Human Identity”).
It cannot be discovered through navel-gazing and self-realization workshops. It can only be discovered in the process of living.
To those who are victorious, God has promised the eschatological revelation of the fullness of identity: “a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). Next week: i-Dentity
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer
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