The meaning of human life can only be understood in terms of goals defined and then either achieved or left unfulfilled. Without a goal, life devolves into a series of random episodes. For some today, this is simply evidence of a meaningless, random universe. On the other hand, to judge by the constant ad hoc initiatives generated by Christian churches, it would seem that even Christians have grown a bit fuzzy in the brain about the whole meaning of life in Christ, in the possibility of a shared, coherent goal that would give purpose to all of our actions.
Shared goals give us a standard by which to judge action as good or bad. Good actions bring us closer to our goal, and evil ones thwart our efforts to achieve the goal.
A sensible goal is one that has some possibility of being achieved. At the same time, realistic goals help us to make sense of the real world, rather than rendering the world extraneous. We believers at least should affirm this: our salvation came about through Christ’s entrance into the world and his assumption of human flesh, not by any shortcut that bypassed the real world of physical bodies, emotions, hopes and dreams of average peoples.
So what is the Christian goal? It is the Kingdom of God, if we are to understand it according to the ancient principles outlined in the monastic movement of the third and fourth centuries. And we have good reason to see this movement as normative for subsequent centuries. At least it was assumed to be so in the West up until the late Middle Ages, and continues to be seen this way in most of the Churches of the East.
But a goal like the Kingdom of God, which necessarily involves knowing a transcendent God as King, does not issue immediately in obvious actions. What shall I do to be saved? First we must keep the commandments, according to our Lord’s own teaching. These commandments, while demanding, are not impossible. Most of us struggle to keep them in their entirety, and so seeking God’s kingdom always involves repentance. Jesus begins His ministry with this message: “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent!” Don’t settle any longer for the compromises that seem expedient when the Kingdom is far off! It is near, and now is the acceptable time of salvation! Begin to live a godly life today! Everyday!
But the Lord goes further with the rich young man: sell everything that you have, give to the poor and follow me. The Lord invites us to a radical act of trust, following Him to the Cross and beyond. This was difficult enough when the Lord walked the roads of Galilee and strode into Jerusalem as her King and true high priest. Today, discipleship requires us to encounter Jesus Christ in a different mode, in the Holy Spirit. Whereas the commandments and the virtues were required to be saved, entering the Kingdom of God requires us to elevate our consciousness to the life of the spirit. This means growing toward spiritual maturity by exercising the theological virtues. Do I exercise faith by believing that Christ speaks through the Church? Do I exercise hope by keeping my eyes focused on things above and not being distracted by things on earth?
Finally, and most important, do I love? Do I love the persons with whom I presently share my life, who are gifts to me from a loving God? Do I love all the members of Christ’s Church, including those of other ages who sacrificed much to pass on the faith and the Tradition? Do I honor all by listening to them, taking them seriously, praying for them, forgiving and asking forgiveness? In short, do I love God and love my neighbor for His sake? If so, then I am “not far from the Kingdom.” I am drawing nearer to my goal.
What prevents me from acting in faith, hope and love? What practices do I need to adopt to make real purity of heart possible? These are the questions that must be answered if we are to have a vision for the Church of the future. The work of answering such questions will not allow us to ignore the actual circumstances of our present world, as I have already suggested. But without making a regular practice of stepping back from those circumstances, without allowing ourselves some silence and reflection (dare I say contemplation?), will we ever evaluate whether we are making progress? We will likely find that specious demands coming from every corner of today’s world will scatter our efforts and render our lives unintelligible to us. We will no longer be acting according to a goal, but simply reacting to a series of disconnected, uncoordinated stimuli. Here again is where we see how central contemplative monastic life is to the Church, a Church who is sent into the world to call all of God’s children to their heavenly homeland. We must be the light of the world. But if our light is darkness, how dark will the darkness of the world be?