Art too has its martyrs and perhaps our greatest pain is that of inadequate self-expression. That’s an insight from Iris Murdoch and it holds true, I believe, for most everyone.
Inside of each of us there’s a great symphony, a great novel, a great dance, a great poem, a great painting, a great book of wisdom, a depth that we can never adequately express. No matter our wit or talent, we can never really write that book, do that dance, create that music, or paint that painting. We try, but what we are able to express even in our best moments is but a weak shadow of what’s actually inside us. And so we suffer, in Murdoch’s words, a martyrdom of inadequate self-expression.
What underlies this? Why this inadequacy?
At its root, this is not a struggle with what’s base or deficient inside us — pride, concupiscence, arrogance, or ignorance. It’s not ignorance, arrogance, or the devil that create this struggle. To the contrary, we struggle with this tension because we carry divinity inside us. We are made in the image and likeness of God. This is fundamental to our Christian self-understanding. But this must be properly understood. We do ourselves a disservice when we understand this in an over-pious way, that is, when we imagine it as a holy icon of God stamped inside our souls, which we need to honour by living a chaste and moral life. That’s true enough, but there’s more at stake here, particularly as it pertains to our self-understanding.
What we are forever dealing with is an immense grandiosity inside us. There’s a divine energy in us which, precisely because it is divine, never makes easy peace with this world. We carry inside of us divine energies, divine appetites, and divine depth. The spiritual task of our lives then, in essence, is that of ordering those energies, disciplining them, channeling them, and directing them so they are generative rather than destructive. And this is never a simple task. Moreover, our struggle to direct these divine energies triggers a whole series of other struggles.
Because we carry divine energy within our very makeup, we should expect, this side of eternity, to struggle perennially with four things.
First, we will struggle, at some level, always, to keep a balance between the pressures inside us pushing toward creativity and other voices inside that are telling us to keep a firm grip on our own sanity. We see this played out large in the lives of many artists in their struggle with normalcy, to keep their feet solidly planted within what’s ordinary and domestic because their push for creativity is also pushing them toward the dark, rich chaos that lies more deeply inside. All of us, more or less, struggle in the same way as do great artists. We too are lured toward the rich chaos inside us, even as we fear for what it might do to our sanity.
Second, we will struggle perennially with an overstimulated grandiosity. The divine fires inside of us, like all fires, easily flame out of control. In a world where everything is shown to us on a screen in our hands and where the successes, beauty, achievements, and talents of others are forever in front of our eyes, we are forever being over-stimulated in our grandiosity. This is felt in our restlessness, in our sense of missing out on life, in our jealousies, in our anger for not being recognized for our talents and uniqueness, and in our constant dissatisfaction with our own lives.
Third, because there is an innate connection between the energy for creativity and sexuality, we will struggle with sexuality. The algebra is clear: creativity is inextricably linked with generativity and generativity is inextricably bound up with sexuality. No accident, great artists often struggle with sex, which doesn’t give them an excuse for irresponsibility but helps explain the reason. In sharp contrast, many religious people are in denial about this connection. Unfortunately that only serves to drive the struggle underground and make it more dangerous.
Finally, we all struggle perennially to find that equilibrium between inflation and depression. We are forever finding ourselves either too full of ourselves or too empty of God, that is, either identifying with the divine energies inside of us and becoming pompous or, through false humility, over-sensitivity, and wound, not letting the divine energy flow through us and consequently living in depression because we have stunted our own creativity.
James Hillman suggests that a symptom suffers most when it doesn’t know where it belongs, and so it is important that we try to name all of this. Divine energy living inside of fallible human beings is a formula for tension, disquiet, and, yes, for martyrdom; but it’s meant to be a creative tension, a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved. Proper naming doesn’t take away the pain and frustration, but at least it affords us a noble, poetic canopy under which to suffer.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.