The Crisis of The Reduced Life

Giorgio Vasari | The Last Judgment, 1572-1579 | Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Firenze

Giorgio Vasari, The Last Judgment, 1572-1579 | Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Firenze


Money. Sex. Power. These are the commandments of modernity. With enough money, we can get what we want. With enough sex, we can feel loved. With enough power we can be fulfilled.

In a culture that eschews any norms of behavior, endlessly attempting subjective revision, these constants may amount to an alluring proposition, but they certainly fail to be easy signposts to follow. Think simply of the exhaustion of the life that seeks after these: the countless hours of dissatisfaction, the agonizing attempts at giving away one’s heart in the hope of quenching desire, the endless chase after the illusory threads of control that then shatter, leaving us slaves of our own making.

It happens every so often that one has moments of enough clarity, or piercing enough pain, to notice the mediocrity of this modern proposal for what it is. These are the days of too little; no longer is it possible to aspire to great things because great things are trivialized, reduced to categories of human achievement and perfection that are just that — simply human, and therefore insufficient at best.

Not that money, sex or influence are bad things in themselves, but that they are not the final ends of the human life project. The package they come in is a package at a reduced price — the kind of thing that goes on sale because it is old.

Why is it that purity is so reviled, that sacrifice is refused, that belief is ridiculed? Why do we find it so difficult to suffer? Why the extraordinary afflictions of depression and sadness among our youth? Why the uprise of suicides? Why so many broken and ungiven hearts? Why hopelessness? Why the pervasive discontent? Why jaded lives? Why such chronic existential boredom?

Could it be perhaps because we are being offered far too little? Asked for less than who we are?

We tend to think that the culture we live in presents us with ever higher expectations, higher standards of achievement. And surely it does. Anyone who has passed a day in New York will tell you that they have never met more high-strung, high-powered, higher achieving individuals.

But does it ever present us with the option of immortal life? The credible possibility of eternal happiness?

We are living the crisis of reduction, where convenience and the predilection for the status quo has dulled our capacity for clear sighted desire of the good, and our will to fight even against the culture, against our lower selves to achieve it. We have undersold the power of the Christian life of virtue and reduced ourselves to living the latest ‘lifestyle’. We are no longer able to understand the age old dichotomy of virtue and vice. Those standards that once governed order in the world, that distinguished hero from villein, no longer mean much to us. We have redefined these against a modicum of convenience, diluting their essence.

In this we think we have done ourselves a favor, made things ‘easier’. We have elevated ambition to a virtue. Ambition is a natural human tendency, and used well, it can be a force for good. But ambition at the cost of one’s interior freedom is nothing more than a massive loss. The whole project works well enough until suffering strikes, as it often and always does. Then the tower of the easy life begins to crumble in to a babelesque rubble. Our tendency, naturally, is to fall for the solutions to our weakness that the culture has set before us: more of the commandments that govern modern lives, more sex, more money, more power. It is here that the downward spiral begins; ambition turned against us.

We seek for solutions to the problems of our lives, to the very problem of our existence, and look for them horizontally rather than vertically. We appeal to our limited means of influence and, perhaps unknowingly, effect more and more damage on ourselves. The allurement of evil works this way; it looks like the the first easiest option — the seemingly non commanding commandment, the easy way.

Sex. Money. Power.

I dare say all this is offering all too little. It amounts to the reduced life.

If the heart is lonely it seeks fleeting pleasure. Sex is the temporary thrill that jades us further. And for this thrill we begin to lose our hearts, we squander the freedom of our innocence, we waste away our dignity. We slowly lose the capacity for the sacrificial union of two in one flesh, rooted in the prior good of love, the greater good of friendship, the stronger bond of chastity, the higher virtue of hope that together we might become saints. Why limit ourselves, we are tempted to say? The more people buy into this reduced vision of pleasure at all costs with minimum pain, the harder it is to resist it, the more normative it becomes. It is convenient to fall for ‘easy love’. Or so we think. Sin is first sweet. If it were not, we would find it harder to commit. The problem with sex is not that there is too much of it, or not enough of it, but that it set up as the standard to define who we are, and proposed at the ‘real’ means to our happiness. And that’s just wrong. Incomplete. An insult to the godly imprint that constitutes nature of our souls.

If we need affirmation we cloak ourselves in the superficial. The billboards tell us that buying new jeans will do wonders for our self-esteem. As if some stretchy cotton canvas can infuse the soul with worth. And so we mindlessly follow along. We lavish one another with compliments rather than correction. It has become difficult to count on friends for that form of friendship that looks beyond pleasing, and aims at loving, even when love is hard and demands honesty and perhaps sure disappointment. We cover faults under the guise of that vanishing niceness that gets us past a coffee chat and then leaves us empty handed on the corner. We have been defeated by ease, cloaked in superficial affirmation; we have received the least from the storehouse of non virtue, and walk away unchanged. The friendship that does not change another for good is not friendship at all. It is the meager exchange of insufficiencies; a temporary lull of burdens that then resurface heavier still. It is the insipid proposal that fails to satisfy; that pair of jeans that fades with time and tears.

If we are tempted to control, we feed the pride that made even the angels fall. Pride drives us on a relentless quest for self aggrandizement — the kind of thing that pollutes the soul’s capacity to see its own need. Devoid of this capacity, we become so self-reliant and end up trapped in ourselves. Nothing and no one matters besides us and our fame, our image. We trample onwards, destroying anything in the way of our need for constant adulation; the makeup of our lives becomes a constant self-referring arrogance, and a credit seeking conquest game. We begin to worship ourselves and those who are like us in this way. Pride closes the door on charity, and so becomes the death of love. Slowly, we are in smaller and smaller universes, only to the realize, if we ever do, that we might be forfeiting our very freedom.

What is the contrast to this irreligious mandate? To this reduced life?

It is the life of more.

It is the life of more sacrifice. The life that offers sorrow and pain as sacrifice for the sake of another’s soul.

It is the life that births hope by surmounting passions and fleeting impulse. It is the life that chooses that harder way even though it feels incapable of a greater love.

It is the life that says friendship, chaste friendship — the best of human gifts, is the portal to God, because it frees the body, the heart, and the mind to long for eternity — for such is our destiny.

It is the life of more love and less sex. Yes, a radical proposal that orients the human towards the divine, rather than attempting to reduce the divine to the human. Because sex is not God. And it will never be. But God is Love.

It is the life devoted to works of corporal charity because the need is heart rending and real, and the salvation of souls depends on the offering of our hands in charity.

It is the life that sees a hierarchy of priorities, that devotes itself to causes that few have the courage to champion publicly lest they be ridiculed, but does so because truth is at stake, and anything that is not Truth is a lie. It sees no middle way — no compromise.

It is a life that knows the greatest poverty on earth is the poverty of the soul, and seeks to save here what may well be lost — knowing this is work we can take on only because God first assumed it on a Cross, and enables it still through us.

It a life in which the more money we have the less we feel the need or acquire it, abuse it, because we are made to be masters of the material, rather than slaves to it.

It is the life that says that the gifts we are given must be used for good, and the influence we have cannot be silent in the face of the greatest losses of our time: the squandering of human life, the loss of innocence, the wasting away of our worth on the altars of temporary control and pleasure.

It is the life that understands the dazzling worth of each soul, its eternal destiny, and the price paid for our redemption.

It is the life where sex and money and power are simply not enough.

In sum, it is the life that aims vertically — that raises its vista to wonder that there might in fact be more to living than living for ourselves.

The hopeless discontent of the reduced life has one answer: God’s life — living grace.

We must become more than what we are on our own, lest finally we succumb to the woundedness that is ours by nature, and fail to see that the battle has already been won and the victory assured. To understand this is a great gift — the first portal to happiness.

An it is this realization, this assent to grace, freely given, first given, always given, never merited, that is the grandest exercise of human freedom the heart, and soul, and mind are capable of. If, as Dostoyevsky says, the battleground of good and evil is the human heart, then we must fight for the territory of the heart that the reduction of our lives has stolen away.

We are held in being by One who wants our happiness — everything in us cries out for God, the happiness of God, the beatific union.

Why then is it that purity is so reviled, that sacrifice is refused, that belief is ridiculed? Why do we find it so difficult to suffer? Why must we always have more stuff? Why the extraordinary afflictions of depression and sadness? Why the dissatisfaction? Why the uprise of suicides? Why so many broken and ungiven hearts? Why always sex, and so much more money, and ever more power? Why the pervasive discontent? Why jaded lives? Why such chronic existential boredom? Why the endless discontent?

Because these are days of too little hope. Days when we have unlearned, yes, crushed the most fundamental instinct of our humanity which is to seek to ‘possess’ God — insofar as it is possible for mere mortals to posses God — and so we have been paralyzed. We have become unable to aim towards the real end we are created for, uninterested in more than merely that which we can see, and have chosen instead and perhaps unknowingly, but ever more certainly, the reduction of our desire for the infinite.

“The Christian who hopes seeks God for himself or herself. In technical language, the formal object of theological hope is God-as-possessed.”
Romanus Cessario, O.P., The Virtues, or the Examined Life, p. 38.

We have silenced the hope that is in us because we have traded our souls for meager thrills. And this is why we are surrounded by the futility of living that is cloaked everywhere in the commandments of modernity — because modernity has no ambition to possess God: to receive him as He wishes to give Himself — living, in the flesh, as sheer gift. Modernity, rather, has the altogether different ambition to be God, and in attempting this losing project, it annihilates Him.

God will not be replaced. And ‘He who is’, cannot not be.

Until we learn this, we will suffer on the road of modern desolation, cloaked in couture, dazzled in virtual friendship, unwed to fleeting passion in the lonely bedrooms of the world where all is reduced to a thrill; endless passing shadows in all pervasive darkness.

This is the proposal before us, which we are made powerful enough to reject were we to awake and realize

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
2 Corinthians 12.18

Sex. Money. Power. The crisis of the reduced life, available for sale everywhere, at ever higher cost — the cost of our very souls.

Or just ‘My grace’. Offered freely.

And the enduring radiance of that love that beckons us to love as He has first loved, ‘that we might have life, and have it more abundantly’.(cf. Gospel of John 10.10)

For we are not meant for all too little. We cannot be satisfied with fleeting feelings and cheapened thrills; a modern vainglory that fades. We must begin a prodigal return to the Father’s house. We must seek to reclaim the inheritance lavished on us so as to finally enter into that higher union of glory, where we will posses all we could ever really want, hearing it said even to us ‘All that I have is yours’. (cf. Gospel of Luke 15.31)

Yes, so that we might possess even God — we pray — saints among the saints.
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