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Staples of our perennial struggle

Iris Murdoch

"Like religion, art also 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," writes Fr Ron Rolheiser.

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 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, channelling them, and directing them so that 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 make-up, we should expect that, this side of eternity, to struggle perennially with four things.

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The martyrdom of inadequate self-expression