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What is the purpose of life?

Everyone has hard days. For all of us, there are those dark periods of life from which it seems like there is no liberation: A husband becomes sick and there is no cure; a child starts down a life path that is dangerous to themselves, unexplainable to friends, unacceptable to family; a wife chafes at the narrowness of her horizons; a friend betrays a trust.

But all of those things, difficult as they may be, are redeemable. A second marriage, we find, can be wonderfully happy; life itself teaches children to settle down and begin again; we come to realize that we can spend ourselves in different, more fulfilling ways, good not only for us but, as a result, good for the people around us as well; new and better friends come to rebuild our sense of security. No, such things as these are not the stopping points of life. They are simply part and parcel of it all, milestones along the way to growth and understanding and fullness.

There is one point, however, at which all life stands to sink precariously into the pit, comes to a crossroads, demands a resolution. If, all of a sudden, we discover that life has lost its sense of purpose for us, the dark closes in, smothers our hearts, blinds our steps, leaves us swimming in a sea of uselessness. Getting up in the morning takes all the energy we have. Going to work becomes a grind. Putting up with the family irritates to the bone. Caring about what we cared about before this comes to a full stop. Why? we ask. Why anything? Why everything?

The ancients were well-acquainted with the problem. They called it acedia, listlessness, a poisoning of the will. And they had two answers to it. The first is reflected in a Zen saying, “O marvel of marvels,” the disciple recites. “I chop wood; I draw water from the well.” It is, in other words, in the daily, the ordinary, the regular, and the necessary that the soul grows and the heart expands. It is by doing what we must, consequently, that we come to enlightenment in life, seeing it for what it is and giving ourselves to make it better.

The second is a story from the Talmud. Rabbi Akiba, the Talmud tells, in the midst of a long journey, stopped at a town to lodge along the way. None of the townspeople, however, would give him room. So Akiba took his only three possessions—a lamp, a rooster, and a donkey—to a field outside of town and settled down for the night. While he slept, the wind blew out his lamp, a cat devoured his rooster, and a lion ate his donkey. Now, he had no light for the night, no food for the journey and no way to complete the trip. Undeterred, Akiba said, “Whatever the Merciful One does, it is done for the best.”

That very night, a band of thieves raided the town and carried off half the population to sell to the caravans. “I am sad for them,” he said, “but their turning me away from the town simply proves even further that whatever the Merciful One does, it is done for the best. And, had the light been burning, and the rooster crowing and the donkey braying, I could also have been abducted as well.”

Life is about coming to an awareness of the eternal demands of the ordinary and learning to trust the loving presence of God in what we too often regard as burdens. Then, we will indeed have life and have it abundantly.

       —from the March 2024 issue of The Monastic Way, by Joan Chittister. If you do not subscribe to the FREE Monastic Way, click here to begin receiving an email with a link to download each month’s issue.