John Heard: Write your life for Him

21 Aug 2008

By The Record

How does one become second-rate? Can you tell me that?
How does the dust fall?
– “Carl Ekdahl” in Fanny Och Alexander

John Heard


Imagine a life is a blank sheet, as young people are often told it is, and then imagine we live by marking the paper.
On this image, those who squander their lives are like those who scribble on the sheet, or who write something obscene in giant letters.
On the page of a human life, that is, we must write carefully, or risk leaving behind something trivial, something worthless as a testament.
Those who spend their time rutting, or speaking about sexual acts, or writing about them, or obsessing in some other way, those men and women inordinately impressed by sexual things, they are the sort who leave behind nothing more exhilarating, and more memorable, than a crude joke printed in a childish hand.
Too many same sex attracted men write their lives in this way.
We squander. We are told to prefer sexualised surfaces. So-called Pride marches feature, as a matter of form, bare-chests, underpants, and sex.
“Gay” lifestyle magazines do not hesitate to prescribe, as a matter of self-constitution and definition, a certain life for “gay” men.
That life, written on a single sheet, would likely contain only a handful of words, such as: “pride”, “me”, “rights”, “will”, “sex”, and “money”.
Indeed, such a sheet might – on the darkest readings – accurately represent the life of any “modern man”, and “liberated woman”.
Christianity, by sharp contrast, calls us to live a life characterised by the antonyms of those words: “humility”, “duty”, “service”, “love”, and “poverty”.
Christ takes the world’s brash “me!” and shatters all self-regarding mirrors.
Some claim that the Christian life is, therefore, fit only for slaves.
The Church has always claimed that, on the contrary, too many people follow a warped view, one that is derived from a mistaken understanding of man’s place in the scheme of things.
Only when man puts himself above God, then, does he think it right, or natural, to speak of himself, and his desires, as supremely important.
This is the sort of tension; these are the sorts of existential struggles, which the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman featured in his films.
Certainly, Fanny Och Alexander lies coiled beneath this column. I watched Bergman’s masterpiece before sitting down to write.
His touchstone concerns: ‘Does God exist? What is man to do with his life? What is happiness?’ can also be said to trouble, in a foundational way, much of modern culture and contemporary life.
It is not useless to imagine one’s life as a sheet of paper to be written on when attempting to engage some of these concerns. It doesn’t pay to labour the image, but it is there.
The image scares me silly.
Why? Because Catholics are called to sanctify our lives in Christ, and one cannot escape.
To attempt to answer Bergman, then, one might begin by saying that happy men are those who need not be oblivious to human weakness; rather they live their lives in full view of the same.Further, many wise men and women come to the sort of vantage occupied by the characters in Bergman’s films. They can see the gap between a new life in purity and an old life in the ruts. A good life, however, is a life lived against the habit of evil.
Instead of coming to the brink, instead of peering into eternity, and losing hope – either in one’s capacity for goodness, or else in God’s existence – saints are those then who steady their hands (to keep with the image) and write freely and surely: “humility”, “duty”, “love”, “service”, and “poverty”.
They live these words. They model them for good-chasers everywhere.
Doubt comes down; therefore, not where Bergman’s generation might have seen it – on the fact of others’ holiness, or the existence of God – rather one finds it in the challenge of one’s own life, lived in light of God’s offer. What will I do? What will I write? When will I start the great work I was given to set down?
These are the central questions of any man’s life, but in Christianity, the deadly, silvery knot that is modernity – and its agnosticism – is undone.
All it takes: love God, and love one another.
Great artists of the last century, such as Bergman, might have found that too simple, but we are told that the very simplicity of Christ’s commandments reveals something of the mystery of God’s nature, and points the way to happiness.
Man becomes second-rate, then, by ignoring this truth. The dust falls, indeed, when same sex attracted men (and so many others) stop too long to ponder unworthy things.
For, we are built to write our lives beautifully for Him.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.