“Keeping Ourselves from Ourselves”
Last week I heard an interview with actor Frank Langella discussing his new memoir Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them. Frank Langella comes across as both a wise and interesting man, and something he said during the conversation has stayed with me all week. He was talking about how the famous people he met when younger, as they got older had (in his words) “a deep and profound terror, and so kept holding on to all the outside things, all the toys we use to keep ourselves from ourselves” [“sex appeal, pills, booze”], so that “as they got older and older and older there was very little center in any of them, very little sense of self.” He then went on,
The Eastern philosophy is whenever you feel nervous or scared, throw something out of your box, if you’re a box. Those of us here in this culture keep packing our boxes with things like fame, like money, like success, so as we get closer to death we’re very heavy, we’re weighted with all those things. [New York Times Book Review Podcast, April 20, 2012]
I found Langella’s remarks compelling on several fronts. Since both my parents worked in show business, I spent much of my early life around famous people. I know from my experience of those years the truth of Langella’s analysis of the corrosive aspects of fame. Over the course of the rest of my life, though, I’ve consorted with many people who, while not famous, have been highly successful in some area of human endeavor—business, the academy, the church. And I know from my relationships with those folks that success—even ecclesiastical success—is never finally enough. We spend much if not most of our lives pursuing success, and when we achieve it we pause, look around, and realize that even success does not ultimately satisfy our deepest needs. And so we find external things that will help “to keep ourselves from ourselves”. For some of us those things are toxic relationships. For others they are toxic substances. Whatever they are, they keep us from personal authenticity and depth.
This week I’ve also been rereading one of my favorite books on the life of prayer: English Spirituality, by Martin Thornton. This book dates from the early 1960s and is now long out of print. Thornton, a Church of England priest and pastoral theologian, wrote a history of English spirituality in order to show how Anglican worship and prayer had their own unique, sensible, pragmatic characteristics, rooted in the Benedictine tradition of monastic prayer, study, and worship.
Here is what Thornton says about Benedict’s understanding of the relevance of monastic vows to the lives of everyday people. In Benedict’s understanding, “obedience, poverty, and chastity are not monastic but Christian virtues”. What he means is that these virtues are the virtues not just of monks and nuns but, understood properly, of all Christian people. All of us are called to be obedient, poor, and chaste. As to obedience: “obedience is to be ‘according to the Rule’; what we might call canonical obedience, holy obedience, or even loyalty, but not servile submission.” Poverty “consists in keeping a happy mean between rigorism and laxity.” And chastity “is both a practical monastic rule and a general Christian virtue, applicable to both married and single alike”. [Martin Thornton, English Spirituality, pp. 79-80]
I have always found Thornton’s explanation of the monastic virtues deeply helpful in understanding my own attitude toward life’s desires and challenges. As Frank Langella says, we have a choice. As we grow and mature, we can either put more things into our box or take more things out of them. The culture we live in tends to exalt grasping, consumption, and excess as the signs of the fulfilled life. Rome was not that different than the First World of the 21st century, and its temptations and blandishments were pretty much the ones we’re offered these days, too. There is, though, another way. Jesus, the one we follow, lived under Rome’s shadow, and his life and teaching suggest that our true fulfillment consists in going in the opposite direction from putting more stuff in the box.
Live simply. Live compassionately. Live thankfully. That’s how Jesus lived. He gathered a group of companions who shared that mode of life, and they were able to experience, celebrate, and share a joyful abundance in living that they could not otherwise have imagined. As you and I contemplate the myriad invitations we have to accumulate things that keep ourselves from ourselves, we hear as well Jesus’s invitation to throw the things out of our boxes that draw us from knowing ourselves and so from knowing God. Poverty, chastity, and obedience may not sound as alluring as fame, power, and success, but don’t just trust me, trust Jesus: their benefits exceed all that we can ask for or imagine. Living as Jesus lived, our boxes may be empty, but our lives will be full.