We crave few things as deeply as self-expression. Deep within the eros that makes us restless and dissatisfied lies the incurable need to express ourselves, to be known, recognized, understood, and seen by others as unique and as having deep riches inside of us. Self-expression, being known and being experienced in our depth, is vital to living and loving. A heart which is unknown, unappreciated in its depth and lacking in meaningful self-expression is always a restless and frustrated heart. It is normally, too, a competitive and bitter one. But meaningful self-expression is difficult and full self-expression is impossible.
In the end, all of us live in obscurity, unknown, frustrated. Our lives are always smaller than our needs and our dreams. Ultimately, we all live in small towns, no matter where we live; and, save for a few brief moments of satisfaction, spend most of our lives waiting for a fuller moment to come, waiting for a time when we will be less hidden. From this frustration stems a tremendous restlessness and dissatisfaction. Each of us would like to be the famous writer, the graceful ballerina, the admired athlete, the movie star, the cover girl, the renowned scholar, the Nobel Prize winner, the household name. But, in the end, each of us is just another unknown, living with other unknowns, collecting an occasional autograph.
Our lives always seem too small for us. We sense ourselves as extraordinary persons living very ordinary lives. Because of this sense of obscurity, we are seldom satisfied, easeful and happy with our lives. There is always, too, much still inside of us that wants expression, that needs recognition, that feels that something very precious, unique and rich is living and dying in futility. And, in truth, seen only from the perspective of this world, much that is precious, unique and rich is living and dying in futility. Only a rare few achieve meaningful self-expression.
There is a certain martyrdom in this. Iris Murdoch once said: “Art has its martyrs, not the least of which are those who have preserved their silence.” Lack of self-expression, whether chosen or imposed by circumstances, is a real death. Like all death, however, it can be paschal or terminal. If merely accepted as inevitable, it leads to bitterness and a broken spirit. If linked to the paschal mystery of Christ, if it is seen as an opportunity to enter the hidden life of Christ, it leads to a new ease in life, to restfulness, and it lays the axe to the root of our competitiveness, anger and bitterness.
Today we are called, as Christians, to the martyrdom of obscurity. Christianity always invites its adherents to martyrdom. To be a follower of Christ demands that one lay down one’s life. But this takes various forms. For Jesus and his apostles, as for many early Christians during the times of the persecutions, martyrdom meant physical death. They had to give up the possibilities that this life offered in order to remain true to a more distant possibility – permanent intimacy with God and each other. In dying, they entered the hidden life of Christ.
That type of martyrdom is still being asked of Christians in many parts of the world, notably in Latin America. In North America and Western Europe, however, at least of many of us, a different kind of martyrdom is being asked. Our culture persecutes its Christians in a different way. Affluence and leisure have created a higher psychic temperature. These have focused us on interpersonal, sexual, artistic, athletic and scientific achievement. In a word, they have focused us on self-expression. In our culture, meaningful self-expression is everything; lack of it is death. Yet, it is this death that paschally we must enter.
Not that we should, in the name of the Gospel, be uncreative, unresourceful, phlegmatic or stoic under-achievers. But we should, in the name of the Gospel, enter the hidden life of Christ within which that current of eros which drives us mercilessly toward self-expression can be more properly channelled, so that we do not go through life unhealthily competitive, bitter, angry, hopelessly restless, not at ease, and basically unhappy because we are ordinary and obscure. Only when we enter the martyrdom of obscurity will our ordinary lives be enough.
Thomas Merton, after experiencing solitude for several years in a hermitage, once wrote: “It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one’s hunger and sleep, one’s cold and warmth, rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying, I live as my fathers have lived on this earth, until eventually I die. Amen. There’s no need to make an assertion of my life, especially so about its being mine, though doubtless it is not somebody else’s. I must learn to live so as gradually to forget program and artifice.” (quoted by J.H. Griffin, Follow the Ecstasy, Page 37)
Ordinary life can be enough for us, but only if we first undergo the martyrdom of obscurity and enter Christ’s hidden life. It’s not easy, however. In many ways, it is easier to sacrifice life itself than to sacrifice dreams.