Yearning to Escape Ourselves
I am on vacation, so I have cheated and re-posted a commentary I wrote a little more than five years ago about our desire to “get away”. The point, I think, is still valid. Pope John XXIII, whose example I cite below, has of course since been canonized.
I can relate to Pope Blessed John XXIII’s desire to get away from the Vatican occasionally. Probably most of us can. It is a strange quirk of our humanity that we benefit from a change of scene. Quite often, the problems and tensions we associate with one place fade away when we get away to another and very different place, enabling us to refresh ourselves more completely. For good Pope John, apparently, a long drive was sometimes enough to do the trick.
Unlike the rest of us, of course, Pope Blessed John XXIII is going to become Pope Saint John XXIII on April 27th, Divine Mercy Sunday, along with Pope Blessed John Paul II. It is a great thing to be declared a saint. I am convinced that many of us deserve that honor. Unfortunately, we have to die first, and our unwillingness to die could be counted as a strike against us. As I get older, death seems less fearsome, not more, but I have not yet progressed to the knife-point of balance expressed by St. Paul:
For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. [Phil 1:19-24]
The chief problem in getting away, of course, is ourselves. The problem is a kind of a pattern. We are discontented. We identify the cause of this discontent. We address the cause. A few days later, we are discontented again. In other words, we have not really identified the cause. We feel a kind of oppressive emptiness, but its primary cause is most likely not our job, our house, our car, our wardrobe, our vacation. No, apart from genuine psychological difficulties, which may require intervention, this is usually either something lacking in our spiritual life (which may be our fault), or a lack of consolation in the spiritual life (in which there may be no fault at all).
Reduction of consolation is the rule as we progress spiritually. When we get to a certain stage, it is a more effective spur to growth.
That’s why we have to be prudent in how we address these feelings that “something is missing”. In the last analysis, I suspect, our spiritual growth depends more on how we address such feelings than on anything else. These are not feelings we will have in Heaven. Therefore we need to understand the importance of drawing closer to God here on earth in response to them.
But this is not to say there are no other relevant factors that also need to be addressed. There may well be. These things are not simple. It is one thing to take a drive, to go out to dinner, to seek a new job, to take up a hobby, and so on. It is quite another to fritter your family’s sustenance away, or to dump your wife and kids for Fulfillment Now. Each solution must be carefully weighed for its moral and spiritual value, its impact on others, its feasibility, in a word, its legitimacy.
Still, I want to emphasize again that the right sort of respite remains very helpful, and altogether good: As long as we realize that we cannot escape ourselves.
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