In her novel, A Map of Glass, Canadian novelist, Jane Urquhart, tells the story of an aging woman who recalls how, as a little girl, she used to steal her father’s stethoscope and play with it. Why?
“I loved the rubber earpieces that shut out the noise of the world. But, even more, I loved the silver bell at the end of the double hose, a bell I could place against my chest in order to listen to the drum, to the pounding music of my own complicated, fascinating heart.”
The pounding music of my own complicated, fascinating heart! What a wonderful phrase! It is not a simple thing to be a human being and, in this, we parallel the universe in general.
Science tells us that there is a deep, intelligible pattern evident in the universe as it is unfolding, but that this is only part of the story. Together with this intelligibility there are, at the same time, powerful, wild, unpredictable, chaotic forces that wreak havoc with the design and meaning and make for every kind of random occurrence that seems to make no sense at all. The center holds, but the surface often does not. Small wonder that many philosophers consider ambiguity the fundamental phenomenon in the universe and some scientists argue that there is no pattern or meaning to things at all.
And our lives can seem the same. At a deep level, at least when we are healthy, we generally have an inchoate feeling that ultimately things make sense, that there is a moral underpinning to everything, that love has meaning, and that we are called to give ourselves over in altruism. The center holds, but the surface of life, like nature itself, is often full of powerful, wild, unpredictable, and chaotic forces that threaten to wreak havoc with what is beneath. Our personalities, like the universe, are caught in the tension between deep meaning and wild occurrence that seems to belie what is deeper.
The genius of Henri Nouwen was that he was able to give expression to this. In his diaries, time and again, he would share how complex his heart and feelings were and how saint and sinner would vie with each other inside of him: “I want to be great saint, but I also want to taste everything that sinners get to experience. … No wonder my life is often tiring!” Nouwen left no doubt about his trust in and commitment to the deep things of faith and Christ, but he also left no doubt that our lives are also full of wild, chaotic, random forces that drive us in contrary directions.
The universe isn’t simple and neither, it seems, are we.
Why? Because of the very depth and riches of things, not least our own hearts. God did not make us or the universe simple and without freedom. The universe is not a machine and we are not robots, programmed to act out in a clear, predefined way. The universe resembles more a living organism than it does a machine and we are beings of mysterious depth, ambiguous freedom, and immense complexity and our deepest problems do not stem from the fact that the mechanism isn’t running correctly. Our deepest struggles stem from the fact that we have a certain disquiet inside of us, a madness that, it seems, is evident even in the physical cosmos itself. The center and the surface are often not in harmony, both inside of nature and inside of our hearts. Why?
We need think no further than Augustine’s famous line: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you.” In the same way the biblical author, Qoheleth, points to a certain nostalgia for the infinite inside of the human heart, a “timelessness”, and suggests we are torn in many different directions because of this. Plato called this “divine madness” and believed it was what was best inside of us, the force that draws us relentlessly towards higher things. Thomas Aquinas explained human complexity by saying that our congenital unrest comes from the fact that the adequate object of our hearts is being as such. What would satisfy us, he asks? Only everything, he answers! Small wonder that not all parts of us always pull in the same direction.
Blaise Pascal suggested that all of our miseries stem from the fact that none of us can sit still in a room for one hour. He’s right.
There is in us an innate, pathological, fascinating, and holy complexity. Knowing this doesn’t make our lives easier, but, if nothing else, it can introduce us to ourselves so that we no longer need to pretend that our lives our simple and deny that we struggle – physically, morally, sexually, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
Ruth Burrows, the renowned British Carmelite author, begins her autobiography, a wonderfully deep and sensitive book, with the words: “I was born into this world with a tortured sensitivity.” Weren’t we all!