Man as Pure Search

REGIS MARTIN

Excerpt from The Beggar's Banquet: Personal Retreat on Christ, His Mother, the Spiritual Life, and the Saints.

I begin with a story told by Monsignor Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, a movement that has mushroomed in recent years, particularly among young people for whom the hunger and thirst for God, for ultimate truth and beauty and happiness, cries out for that fulfillment which only Christ can bring.  It is a story he has recounted in several places, including at the very end of his book, The Religious Sense.[1] It provides an ideal point of entry for a reflection on what Blaise Pascal has called "the Mystery of Jesus."

The details of the story, he tells us, touch on an experience he had many years before, an experience whose impact would prove so immense and far-reaching that it became the defining theme of his life, his work.  It amounted to a sort of signature statement, a benchmark to identify, to summarize, the meaning of his being.

"Once, as a very young man," he begins, "I got lost in the great wood of Tradate . . . and, in the grip of panic, I shouted for a full three hours as the sun sank in the sky.  That experience made me see — afterwards — that man is search; man is search if he cries out . . ."[2]

Now I haven't a clue as to what or where this forest of Tradate is (perhaps it is in the north of Italy, near Milan, the region where he was born); but I suspect it must be a deep and dark and dense forest, a wholly sinister setting in which to be lost.  And, to be sure, only an Italian is capable of producing three hours of full-throated shouting.

But where is Giussani going with this?  What is he getting at?  Only this: That to be human, to aspire to the meaning of what fundamentally defines our humanity, is to be someone whose whole life can only be understood in terms of search.  That, it seems to me, is axiomatic.  Life understood as search, as quest.  To be alive, in other words, is always to have this eagerness to explore, to seek, to study, to find out.  Life as sheer hunger and thirst.  Man, says Plato, is a child of poverty.  The plate is always empty.

All of which, of course, leads one to ask if there is some reason to justify the search.  One does not ordinarily embark upon an empty quest.  So what is the reason?  It is the fact that you are quite simply lost.  And the sudden realization of that fact, of the bloody fix you're in, puts you at once in the throes of a panic.  So you cry out.  What else can you do?  Your situation is exactly parallel to that of the great Dante, the premier pilgrim-poet of the Christian world, who, finding himself alone in the Dark Wood in the middle of the journey of his life, is likewise moved to cry out.  It is the afternoon of Good Friday in the year 1300 and he is 35 years of age.  "Midway in our life's journey," he tells us on the very first page of the Divine Comedy, "I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself / Alone in a dark wood.  How shall I say / what wood that was! I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! / Its very memory gives a shape to fear.  / Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!"[3]

So you have got to cry out, to externalize the fear, in order to find out where you are.  You can't keep it to yourself.  In short, each of us is a kind of castaway, who perhaps by some strange mischance of fate, a bout of bad karma as it were, has fallen from the sky.  I think of that silly Tom Hanks movie (thanks to the privations of monastic life you were doubtless spared having to watch it) which shows some poor guy literally falling out of an airplane onto a beach where, among other absurdities, he develops a relationship with a volleyball.[4]

Not recommended.

Or put it this way: man is a beggar ("the true protagonist of history," Giussani calls him),[5] who must cry out for all that he does not have.  It is not that his glass is half-full; the glass is empty.  And amid "the parched eviscerate soil" (T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"),[6] his roots need rain.  But he cannot stifle the cry.  Lest it leave him strangled in his very soul, he must declaim his hunger and thirst.  He trumpets it to the heavens.  Yes, even if, as Shakespeare puts it, his cries be "bootless."

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries . . .
(Sonnet 29)
Ah, but there is another and still deeper consideration at work here. The experience of being lost — seemingly, hopelessly, forever — that experience, says Giussani, besides revealing man as pure search — as one the whole thrust of whose being simply must cry out — testifies at the same time to a real if mysterious certainty of Another.  There is this real intimation, you see, of the presence of someone who can actually hear the cry of the poor.  "The cry implies the existence of something other," he tells us.  Otherwise, why would man cry out at all?

Is that clear?  If nobody is there, why on earth would you cry out?  It is quite horrible enough just being frightened out of ones's skin.  But to be foolish as well is entirely too off-putting.  "The very existence of the question," says Giussani, "implies the existence of an answer."[7] And why is that?  Because, "expectation is the very structure of our nature, it is the essence of our soul.  It is not something calculated: it is given.  For the promise is at the origin, from the very origin of our creation.  He who has made man has also made him as 'promise.' Structurally man waits; structurally he is a beggar; structurally life is promise."[8]

The Beggar's Banquet
by Regis Martin

Isn't this finally the reason why there must be a God, why this insistent, desperate desire will someday, someway, find fulfillment?  That all the questions put to what appears to be only a blank and indifferent sky will, nevertheless, be finally answered in the You of Another?  "Thus Faith," Joseph Ratzinger reminds us, "is the finding of a 'you' that bears me up and amid all the unfulfilled — and in the last resort unfulfillable — hope of human encounters gives me the promise of an indestructible love which not only longs for eternity but guarantees it.  Christian faith lives on the discovery that not only is there such a thing as objective meaning, but this meaning knows me and loves me, I can entrust myself to it like the child that knows all its questions answered in the 'you' of its mother."[9]

In other words, there is an answer to this cry; indeed, the more desperate the cry for help, the more certain we are of an answer.  But the answer does not come out of any sort of thing we might devise (a compass, say), whose usefulness is seen at once to be equal to the predicament we're in.  The state of being lost is simply not amenable to solution in human terms.  Escape can only come, I am saying, from the outside, from above.  From a source both transcendent to the mess, that is, One who is Himself not lost; and yet, having submitted Himself to a state of being lost, is thus able to identify with His lost brother and so effect the rescue our hearts cry out for.  We are all lost.  There are no exceptions to the desolation we experience, the fearful desperation it inflicts.  And it is only the Event of Jesus Christ, who comes into the flesh of sin in order precisely to free us from its malice and misery, that can lift us finally onto the plane of grace and glory.

There is one final point, which is the most startling of all.  And that is the fact that the very nature of the rescue offered by Christ, when it erupts into our world, bursting through the ceiling of our lives, all at once exceeds every conceivable expectation we have that — somehow, someway — we shall be saved.  What this means is that a life sustained by hope, a life whose scaffolding rests upon the expectation that everything will turn out well in the end ("Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,")[10] suddenly and unaccountably discovers a fulfillment totally surpassing even the highest and loftiest possibilities of human expectation.

I did not know my longing, till I encountered You.
I see what freedom is; Your plan prepared for me.
I will not search for more because
You will save me now.[11]
The castaway, you see, is Everyman.  Or, at the very least, that man who possesses by some inscrutable grace the certainty of the awareness that he is a castaway, lost in the great forest of being, yet strangely aware of a way out.  The very path Christ Himself having first blazed through that forest, the rest of us are now free to follow.

Christianity, then, is really nothing other than an event that each of us is meant to encounter.  It is a radically new and unforeseen happening in the great sea of history.  And, to be sure, what is most symptomatic about it, the feature that fairly leaps off the page, is the discovery we make that precisely in Christ, in the human form assumed by God, we see and experience the pure mercy of Our Father in Heaven.

I leave you with this lovely and expressive passage from St. Augustine in his Exposition on Psalm 71.

You were walking in your own way, a vagabond straying through wooded places, through rugged places, torn in all your limbs.  You were seeking a home and you did not find it.  There came to you the way itself and you were set therein.  Walk by Him, the Man, and you come to God.


Notes

  1. The Religious Sense, trans. John Zucchi (Montreal & Kingston, London, Buffalo: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997).
  2. Ibid., 144.
  3. The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 1954). See "The Inferno," first of three epic journeys (hell, purgatory, paradise), Canto I, 28.
  4. Cast Away is a 2000 American film about a FedEx employee stranded on an uninhabited island after his plane crashed in the South Pacific.
  5. "Existence expresses itself, as ultimate ideal, in begging.  The real protagonist of history is the beggar: Christ who begs for man's heart, and man's heart that begs for Christ" (Testimony before John Paul II, 1998).
  6. Four Quartets from Collected Poems, 140.  "The parched eviscerate soil / Gapes at the vanity of toil."
  7. The Religious Sense, 58.
  8. Ibid., 54.
  9. Introduction to Christianity, 48.
  10. From Julian of Norwich's Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, fourteenth century.
  11. From a hymn entitled Il Disegno (The Design), used by members of Communion and Liberation.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Regis Martin. "Man as Pure Search." chapter two from The Beggar's Banquet (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Pulishing, 2013): 5-9.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.


THE AUTHOR

Regis Martin has served as a professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville for sixteen years.  His courses focus on topics such as the Blessed Trinity, the Catholic Church, the seven sacraments, grace & the virtues, the four last things, the works of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the world of the Catholic literary revival.  With both 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: The Beggar's Banquet, Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God, The Last Things: Death Judgment Hell Heaven, What Is the Church: Confessions of a Cradle Catholic, and The Suffering of Love: Christ's Descent Into the Hell of Human Hopelessness.  He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

Copyright © 2013 Regis Martin




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