A long time ago, (by which I mean probably about a decade) a book by Rick Warren entitled, “The Purpose Driven Life,” was topping the bestseller chart. It had already taken the evangelical Christian world by storm, and even topped the New York Times Best Seller List. I was on active duty at the time and I remember chaplains handing out copies by the crateful, and book study groups forming at every base. You could find copies flying off the pinewood shelves in the major FOBs in Afghanistan, and even on offer in any of the smaller FOBs that sported a chapel.
I never read the book.
I am not sure why, since I was reading probably well over a hundred books per year in those days (I could kick myself when I recall how I took that ability for granted) but I just never was that interested in it. I suppose I thought the title said it all.
Life should be about a purpose. I had a purpose (becoming Special Forces) and I was ordering my entire life around that goal. Or rather, my purpose was to become a consummate warrior-poet-mystic, triple-role which Brad Miner would dub “The Compleat Gentleman,” and Special Forces was the path I was following to pursue one arm of that purpose.
In the regular Army I was an anomaly, but not so terribly much of one as I thought I was. I was one of the very few who not only wanted, but intended, to become Special Forces, but I was not the only one with a purpose. In fact, most of the guys had a purpose higher than themselves. They had long term goals for themselves, for their families, for their careers,. One of my best friends, Mike, was thinking about going Special Forces with me, but he was then the age that I am now, and he had met someone, and he was feeling the need to settle down and raise a family. As he put it, “At some point you have to decide whether you want to go on being John Rambo, or whether you need to become a good Christian husband and father while you have the chance.”
Perhaps it was our closeness with mortality, but the few in the unit who had no purpose other than making it back to the civilian world so they could smoke weed again, were actually in a minority.
Then when I got into the Q course I was surrounded by purpose driven men day in and day out. Those who were not so driven didn’t last long.
Now I wonder if I might not have done well to read Warren’s book. Being an evangelical Christian he might have pointed out the error in my thinking, namely, that my purpose was not high enough.
This is the great truth of Christianity that I have slowly come to learn, that God has created each human person specially and intentionally and for a purpose, and that our purpose, (your purpose and my purpose) is to exist in relationship with Him.
It is really that simple, no other purpose will satisfy. No career, no family, no retirement, no American dream, no vacation, no adventure, no mission, no glory, no achievement… nothing will satisfy except relationship with Him.
“For you have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” as St. Augustine says in his “Confession.”
Or as Saint Paul would say, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.
This purpose is the beginning and end, the alpha and omega, the source and summit, the starting point and the goal of every choice, every thought and every affection.
But on the other hand, the fact that this is our only purpose as Christians does not negate other, lesser purposes. To the contrary, it places them in context and gives them their true meaning. It is because God has called me to be a husband and father that it has transcendental and essential meaning, rather than merely accidental meaning. It is because He has called me to pursue the path of the warrior-poet-mystic that my training takes on an enduring and spiritual significance, rather than being merely a hobby.
In the light of the One purpose, everything matters. I will offer one example, the thought which triggered the writing of this blog, that is, the placement of my cellphone charger.
For me an important part of pursuing that relationship with God is starting the day with an hour of prayer. I make exceptions for emergencies, (such as staying up all night with a newborn) but in the main I try to pray for an hour every morning.
In order to do this, I need an alarm to wake me up in the morning. That alarm is provided by my cellphone, a recording either of Josquin de Prez’s “Ave Maria for Four Voices” or of Trope’s “Kyrie – Virginitatis Amator.” By a sort of operant condition, it is enough to wake me from even the soundest sleep, despite being very quiet and beautiful. But if I can reach it without getting out of bed, then I can hit the snooze button (or worse, the “stop” button). I have done this without even waking up a couple of times. Or, if I am not quite asleep enough for that, I can argue myself into setting a backup alarm for an hour later, and going back to sleep.
Then that second alarm goes off an hour later and I wake up, realizing that I have now missed my prayer hour, and I have a terrible choice ahead of me. You see, immediately after my prayer hour is my workout time. Training is still a duty for me, and I don’t like to miss my scheduled workout. But, if I haven’t said my prayers, then I am faced with the dilemma. Should I skip them and try to make up a rosary or something in the car, and get on with the workout? Or skip the workout, and do my prayer time, instead.
Or maybe I will just go back to sleep and not do either. That has happened more than once.
So I keep the phone in the bathroom down the hall, on top of my gym clothes on the sink. In order to turn it off I have to get out of bed and walk into another room and pick it up off the stack of gym clothes. If I had to I would put a bottle of cold brew coffee next to it.
That is what I mean by purpose. It is the choice to hem yourself in when the purpose is strong in you, against those moments when the purpose is weak.
That’s what St. Thomas More was talking about, which means that one may think of getting up in the morning as a sort of preparation for martyrdom.