Only if we adore something beyond ourselves will we stop adoring ourselves.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said as much when we wrote that we reach moral maturity on the day that we realize that we really only have one choice in life: Genuflect before something higher or begin to self-destruct.
Simone Weil agreed: Despite being a fierce defendant of independence and private conscience, she makes it clear that the deepest need within the human soul is the need to be obedient to something beyond ourselves. Without this, she states, we inflate and grow silly, even to ourselves.
We know the truth of this through experience. We feel within ourselves a constant, congenital press towards a healthy self-abnegation and the adoration of something higher than ourselves. We only feel good about ourselves when we don’t put ourselves at the centre of the world and we only feel right about what we are doing when we are giving our lives away, when, as Richard Rohr says, our lives are not about ourselves.
From this, we see that we are built for altruism and, ultimately, for martyrdom. Within the secret of life lies a great paradox: We only experience the true meaning of life when we are dying to ourselves and giving life away.
We understand this, for instance, in the truth of the axiom: I defy you to show me a selfish person who is really happy! But there is more to this. In the spirituality of the early Christians, it wasn’t just a question of being unselfish; it was also a question of dying, really dying. They believed that we are intended for martyrdom, that dying as a martyr was the normal way that a Christian was intended to end his or her life. To live out discipleship fully was to die physically as a martyr. That is one of the reasons why the early apostolic community had some problems with the Apostle John, who, unlike the other apostles, did not die a martyr’s death. For some, the fact that he died a natural death made them suspicious of his discipleship.
And this belief, that the ideal way to die as a Christian was through martyrdom, continued through the early years of the church, when indeed many Christians were being martyred. Moreover it continued even after the persecutions stopped and the Roman powers stopped killing Christians. The belief remained that the ideal way to end one’s life was through a martyr’s death. The only thing that changed was how that martyrdom was now conceived. A rich spirituality developed within which martyrdom began to be conceived more metaphorically, as giving out one’s blood, drop-by-drop, through selflessness, through sacrificing one’s hopes and dreams for others, through giving away one’s life through duty, through letting oneself be constantly called our of one’s personal agenda to respond to the needs of others, and even through the emotional crucifixion of celibacy.
We would be happier if we understood this. When we try to live as if our lives are about ourselves, we either end up too full of ourselves or too empty of everything else, inflated or depressed. Put simply, we either end up dying in selflessness on one hill or we end up full of ourselves and self-hatred on some other hill! There’s no neutral space between. The early Christians, with their spirituality of martyrdom, understood this. Only one thing can save us from infantile grandiosity, dangerous self-righteousness, bitterness about life, and aging badly, namely, some form of martyrdom.
There is a reason for this. We are made in God’s image and likeness and, because of this, carry inside of ourselves an immense fire; a fire for love, creativity, glory, greatness, and transcendence. But that deep, restless, insatiable, burning energy is not simply a chaotic one, as Freud believed. It’s a configured energy, an energy arranged in clear, meaningful patterns. We burn with fire, but it’s a fire with meaning, purpose, and direction.
What is its meaning? It is a fire to carry others, feed others, and create delight for them, even as it is an energy to die for them. It is a fire to act as Jesus did and therefore it is a fire for crucifixion, for martyrdom. We are born to live for others and we are born to die for them, with one and the same energy, and we are only happy when we are about the business of doing both.
This longing for martyrdom has various disguises, some lofty and others less so. The desire for martyrdom manifests itself in the desire for heroism, the desire for greatness, the desire to be a great lover, the desire to leave a mark, to be immortal. Underpinning all of these is the desire to take love and meaning to their ultimate, altruistic end, death in sacrifice for others.
This is the deep instinctual pattern written into the soul itself and it posits that real maturity lies in being stretched truly tall, on some cross, in crucifixion.