We are drowning in a sea of voices.
Superficially, we see this in advertising. Everywhere around us, billboards, radio, television, newspapers, magazines, the internet, and the fashion industry, hold out the promise of something better for us – a new soap, a new lover, a new philosophy of life.
More deeply, however, we experience this sea of voices as a great tension. The different voices we hear pull us in many directions and, after a while, we’re no longer sure who we are, what we believe in, or what will bring us life. Different voices tell us different things and each voice seems to carry its own truth.
On the one hand, there’s a powerful voice beckoning us towards self- sacrifice, self-renunciation, altruism, heroism, telling us that happiness lies in giving life away, that selfishness will make us unhappy, and that we will only be ourselves when we are big-hearted, generous, and put the needs of others before our own. Deep down, we all know the truth of that, it’s Jesus’ voice telling us that there is no greater love, nor meaning, than to lay down one’s life for others. Francis of Assisi was right, we only receive by giving. And so we admire people who radiate that and we feed our souls and those of our children with stories of heroism, selflessness, and bigness-of-heart.
But that’s not the only voice we hear. We hear as well a powerful, persistent voice seemingly calling us in the opposite direction. Superficially, this is the voice calling us towards pleasure, comfort, and security, the voice that tells us to take care of ourselves, to drink in life’s pleasures to the full, to seize the day while it’s still ours to seize.
More deeply, this is the voice that challenges us not to be too timid or fearful to be a full human being. This voice invites us to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy the wonderful energy, colour, wit, intelligence, and creativity that makes the world go round and makes life worth living. This is the voice beckoning us towards romance, creativity, art, sex, achievement, physical health, the voice telling us Jesus’ parable of the talents and holding before us a truth too often neglected in religious circles, namely, that God is also the author of eros, colour, physical health, wit, and intelligence. Life, it insists, needs to be tasted, in God’s name.
So which is the real voice? Is one of these voices to be heeded and the other resisted?
This is a complex question and there’s more to it than meets the eye. Historically, the temptation, at least in religious circles, has been to over- simplistically identify the voice of Jesus with the voice that calls us toward self-sacrifice and asceticism: “Everything is about self- renunciation!” Indeed, it is. Jesus did say that, as did every great saint.
But Jesus and those others also said more and our failure to take heed of the rest of what they said has sometimes made for a spirituality that is a half-truth with some nasty consequences, namely, in the name of religion, we have sometimes become unhealthily fearful, timid, and guilt-ridden. Whenever this happens, the other voice, the one inviting us to enter more fully into life’s dance of energy, is not blotted out but driven underground and there, because we have neglected part of what God has called us to, instead of becoming martyrs, we become people with “martyr-complexes”, frustrated persons whose energies become negative and manipulative in the name of love and service. Moreover, in the name of this half truth, we often end up having God fighting God, truth fighting truth, wisdom fighting energy, and spiritual health fighting physical health, because we’ve put self-renunciation in false opposition to the challenge to also enter into the wonderful God-given energy of this planet where beauty, romance, creativity, physical health, wit, wine- drinking, and good humour also extend part of God’s authentic invitation.
How to find a balance in all of this? If both voices invite us to truth and yet they seem in opposition to each other, where do we go with this?
There is no simple truth, here or anywhere else. Truth is painfully complex (as are we) and truth is always bigger than our capacity to absorb and integrate it. To be open to truth is to be perpetually stretched and perpetually in tension, at least this side of eternity. And that’s true in terms of the seeming opposition between these voices. At times they are in real opposition and we can’t have it both ways, but have to choose one to the detriment of the other. Truth has real boundaries and there’s a danger in letting it mean everything. But there’s an equal danger in letting it mean too little, of reducing a full truth to a half-truth – and nowhere, at least in the spiritual life, is this danger greater than in our tendency to let either of these voices completely blot out the other.