“The people of our time are helpless, distracted, and rebellious, unable to interpret that which is happening, and full of apprehension about that which is to come, largely because they have lost this sure hold on the eternal which gives to each life meaning and direction, and with meaning and direction gives steadiness. I do not mean by this a mere escape from our problems and dangers, a slinking away from the actual to enjoy the eternal. I mean an acceptance and living out of the actual, in its homeliest details and its utmost demands, in the light of the eternal, and with that peculiar sense of ultimate security which only a hold on the eternal brings. When the vivid reality which is meant by these rather abstract words is truly possessed by us, when that which is unchanging in ourselves is given its chance, and emerges from the stream of succession to recognize its true home and goal, which is God – then though much suffering may, indeed will remain, apprehension, confusion, instability, despair will cease.”
When I read this passage from Evelyn Underhill’s Radiance, I was struck by the way it echoes what I have been saying about literature (good literature, true literature) for a very long time. We are not healed or helped or eased by escape from reality, whether into the worlds of literature or into a world of esoteric contemplation. The saint cannot very well be a saint if he does not live in reality, after all. We are not saints for God’s sake; we are saints for the sake of our neighbor. God pours Himself into us to make us saints, of course – we can hardly be saints on our own power – but He doesn’t do this because He has some personal need for our patience, our endurance, our joy, our love. He surely desires these things of us, and offers them to us for our growth and strength, but He is all this and all else that is Good, so when we offer Him these we offer Him nothing He doesn’t already have.
Rather, it is our neighbors who need us to be saints. We need to be saints in the midst of the reality of this broken world in order to serve our neighbors. We need to offer them the fruit of the joy, the faithfulness, the compassion, the diligence that He has poured out and wrought in us, to draw them to the only real Hope offered to any of us. We need to find the eternal, to turn to the eternal, to rejoice in the eternal and find our strength there in order to live well here, in, as Underhill calls it, the “actual.”
And while the road of the mystic, the road of contemplation, is one way into the eternal which informs our life in the actual, another road is that of literature, the words of the wise from all of time gathered in the soul to remind us of, of course, the eternal in the actual. I have said that literature shows us the ideal, the way the world ought to be. Not, if it is true, ideal in the sense of unfallen – we have no idea what an unfallen world would be – but ideal in demonstrating to us the way to live well in the midst of that fallenness, to demonstrate courage and compassion and forgiveness and gratitude, and to bear witness to their Source.