When placed in the presence of greatness, we tend to feel our own inadequacies. Perfect things make us feel uncomfortable. They tend to highlight our failings in a way that nothing else can. A counterfeit or replicated piece of art always looks worse when placed next to the original. The original possesses a certain form that the derivatives can only imperfectly reflect. Or, an athlete or artist always looks their worst when compared with the greatest in their field. For us human beings, we tend to have one of two types of reactions when we meet someone who is higher than us in some regard. One tendency is to tear them down. We seek to advertise flaws so that we can feel comfortable in our own lower position. The opposite tendency is to honor them and hold them up as an exemplar for ourselves and others. We find some sense of comfort and encouragement that there are people who live at a higher standard than ourselves.
Recently, I watched Into Great Silence with a group from my summer ministry. This documentary film about Carthusian monks is remarkable for both its lack of speaking and its emphasis on the mundane aspects of Carthusian life. Afterwards, some of the members of the group shared their thoughts on the film. One woman in particular mentioned that she appreciated the fact that there were some people who were able to live that way. For some reason, the simple fact that men were able to live such an austere life ordered towards God gave her a sense of comfort. While strange at first, there is something about a purer and higher form of life that can provide comfort for the rest of us. Our lives may pull us in a multitude of directions, but simply knowing that there are some who live a life purely directed towards God is a consoling thought.
Rather than just making us feel our own imperfections, a purer form of life can show us the meaning of the workaday. We like to know that someone, somewhere, is able to live at an elevated level. There is a beauty present that captivates us. Works of art are rarely shunned for their perfection, but rather prominently displayed and enjoyed. While few of us would be capable of creating our own artistic masterpieces, the work nonetheless possesses something that all of us can enjoy. We can find comfort in the midst of the elevated. Few people will ever find themselves agitated when standing in the midst of a great cathedral.
In the Church, saints are often elevated and honored because of their purity of life. We find examples that God’s action within human lives can raise them to a supernatural state. Throughout history, Christians have found comfort in reading lives of the saints and asking for their intercession. Their purity is something that we seek for ourselves. But the lives of the saints are also a reminder that someone, somewhere, at sometime, was able to live at a higher level. Even while we ourselves are imperfect and tarnished, it is comforting to know that God can, and has, made men whole and pure again. We seek this same end.
Image: Ma Yuanyu, Flowers, Birds and Fish