Tuesday, November 26

The Search for Meaning and Value

St. Bonaventure’s About Meditating on God’s Most Blessed Trinity by using God’s Name ‘the Good’, St. Clare’s The Testament, Don DeLillo’s excerpt, Waves and Radiation, from his breakout 1985 work White Noise and Homer’s The Iliad offer us a glimpse into the ultimate search for value and meaning. In the first reading, St. Bonaventure attempts to clarify and elucidate various aspects of God as a Trinity. The concept of the Trinity is a rather complicated Christian teaching, and has been discussed for centuries. It can often be a difficult concept to grasp for Christian and non-Christian alike. The only real avenue to understand something existing as three yet one is through analogy. For example, God exist as the lover, the loved and love itself. God IS Love. He also LOVES, and IS LOVED, i.e., lover, loved and love. This is essentially Bonaventure’s point concerning God as a Trinity (Note: this article was written in response to various selected readings and assumes the reader’s familiarity with said works).

However, human experience may help clarify as well. In The Testament, St. Clare wrote about her time with St. Francis of Assisi, noting that Francis pointed the way to Jesus. St. Francis modeled his life and his actions after Jesus, and followers of Francis “strive always to imitate by way of holy simplicity, humility, and poverty, as well as [maintain] the nobility of our holy way of life, as we were taught by Christ and by our most blessed Father Francis from the beginning of our conversion” (290). Francis, then, modeled his life after Christ, who is Himself God the Son.

Through the process of imitation (mimesis) in human experience, God gives us a way to understand how He works and exists. God knew that mankind had (and has) a very difficult time understanding how He can exist as three in one. Although God left hints of Himself as three in one from the earliest account (Genesis1:26, “Let us make man…”) as well as various other  references, God slowly revealed things about Himself over time, much like two lovers learn about each other as they grow. So gradually, the Holy Spirit came to be mentioned (Genesis 1:2), and then finally, God the Son took on flesh and through experiencing what we do as Humans, God not only found Himself more able to relate to us – but by humanizing Himself, we find ways to relate to God. For Bonaventure and Clare, the search for meaning and value yielded results in the person of Jesus Christ – it is through God that we find meaning and value. Others, however, find meaning elsewhere.

When considering DeLillo’s excerpt, the word “death” itself carries various positive and negative connotations. The character of Jack Gladney possesses a certain fascination and fear for death. The concept itself appears in various forms within the reading – to “die,” to “kill,” to “murder,” among others. Gladney is a professor of Hitler studies in which he studies the life and works of Adolph Hitler. The mere mention of Hitler brings to mind the horrors of the Holocaust and brutal death. Gladney is entirely preoccupied by the concept, but the idea becomes much more solidified in later chapters when he seeks to alleviate his fear of death by killing of another man, which does not work out. Gladney’s obsession over death also leads him to wonder whether it will be his wife or himself who will die first.

Perhaps the most relevant question to this excerpt in regard to the search for meaning is: what is the meaning of death? For some, death is just another path, one that we all must take, as Gandalf notes in The Lord of the Rings. Yet “death” is not the end – it is simply the entering of the soul into the next plane of existence.When we consider near-death experiences, supernatural encounters, paranormal activity and various other religious and mystical teachings, we see that these experiences and practices provide people with meaning in death. For these individuals, your death is necessary for the transition of the soul that currently inhabits your body. In this, the meaning of death is the ability to finally reach happiness that we could never have had in this earthly form.

Homer’s The Iliad has captured imagination since its composition. There are several prominent themes in the Homeric works – most prominently, that of hospitality (Greek xenia) as well as the concept of honor. Value and meaning are here seen through a scene between two mortal enemies. Book 24 is the final book of The Iliad, and it is worth noting that Homer ends it simply with a heart-to-heart between Priam, king of Troy and Achilles the demi-god. Prior to this conversation, Achilles is well-known for being selfish, prideful, quick to anger and extremely impulsive. Before this Achilles does not think of others, yet thinking on the death of Patroclus in Book 24, “he burst into tears” (313). Achilles returns the desecrated body of Hector to Priam, and Achilles shows honor to his enemy. Even in the face of the horrors of war, there is tenderness, there is compassion and there is honor. Now, in Greco-Roman times there was a guest-host relationship in which you would serve the guest. When a guest came to your house you would offer wine, good food, and sometimes gifts to him or her, and they would show you kindness in return and sometimes offer their own gifts.

Although the Greek concept of xenia (hospitality) is more heavily featured in the sequel, The Odyssey, where Odysseus and his men visit numerous locations, it is still seen in this work. In antiquity, there was a guest-host relationship that was to be expected when you travelled. In this relationship, if a guest came to your house you would generally offer wine, good food, and sometimes gifts to him or her, and they would show you kindness in return and sometimes offer their own gifts. The Norsemen also had a similar concept of hospitality as displayed in the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda. . In The Iliad, however, there is not much room for hospitality as the main narrative concerns the war being waged between the Greeks and the Trojans. During his lifetime, Hector prince of Troy “never failed to offer precious gifts... [especially] of wine and the aroma of burnt meat” (315). Also, when Priam comes to Achilles, he offers him food and rest before Priam eventually makes his way back to Troy. In an act of kindness, compassion, hospitality and honor, Achilles has Greece declare a halt to battle while the Trojan people mourn their prince and honor Hector.

The concepts of honor, compassion and hospitality are noticeably seen throughout the epic. For the ancient Greeks of Homer’s time, meaning and value in life was seen through these lenses. The afterlife was not something they longed for, because Hades (and the lower level, Tartarus) was a shadowy existence, a dim echo of their former lives. Very few were able to enter into the Elysium Fields (the Greek view of heaven), and Hades was the norm. As such, the Greeks sought value and meaning in this present state of life – and so, they believed in hospitality, in compassion but above all, in honoring yourself and others. You could not enter into a war without carrying honor with you, although you could leave out hospitality and kindness. Honor is the highest virtue in the Greek ethic, and we the virtues of honor, hospitality and kindness even in the Christian ethic. St. Paul declares that the three core theological virtues are faith, hope and love. People living in the 1st century at the time of Jesus were taught to be hospitable to guests as well as kind and compassionate.

It is at this point which we will reiterate the idea that as humans we will always search for value and meaning in life. C.S. Lewis once said, “If I have a desire for something which nothing in this world can satisfy, it therefore means I was created for another world.” King Solomon, as recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes, tried to solve this very dilemma. Solomon tried to fulfill his search for meaning and value with women – he had one thousand wives, but it did not make him happy. He tried vineyards, intellectual and academic pursuits, entertainment – and none of this made him happy; none of his attempts for meaning and value actually provided him with such. Solomon concluded that everything “under the sun” does not give us meaning. Instead, he notes, God has placed eternity in the human heart – hence the burning, insatiable desire that nothing in this world can satisfy. Therefore, we can conclude with Solomon, as Christians in our search for meaning and value we find that although nothing “under the sun” truly satisfies, it is what lies beyond the sun: God the Creator who provides us with meaning and value.

Works Cited
Bonaventure. (2013). about meditating on god’s most blessed trinity by using god’s name ‘the good’. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 276-278). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

DeLillo, Don. (2013). waves and radiation. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 292-308). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Homer. (2013). the iliad. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 313-332). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

St. Clare of Assisi. (2013). the testament. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp.288-291). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

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