CathBlog June 5: Sisyphus and the absurd

John Hill reflects on a continuing echo of French/Algerian novellist Albert Camus, more than half a century after the writer's death.

The Myth of Sisyphus

- By John Hill

It was more than 50 years ago that I first picked up the works of Albert Camus.

I was at the time living with certainty but after reading The Myth of Sisyphus,  I found myself rather confused.

I felt somewhat uncomfortable and perplexed for I was in a comfort zone from which I did not want to be disturbed. 

At that time I believed that I was in possession of an idealistic faith that brooked no opposition. I had both security and certainty. The world was a safe and a very sheltered place and all seemed so well with life.

The Cold War was raging outside my confines and Armageddon was about to strike in the form of the Cuban missile crisis.

Here was I, reading about Sisyphus hauling a boulder up a mountain only to see it coming down again and there he was starting to push it up again.

It seemed so absurd. A Sisyphean task became synonymous with senseless work that had to be done.

Sisyphus had to accept the absurd around him in order to overcome it. I guess that one of the scariest realities is to work for no results, starting over and over again and then having no apparent aims or goals.

However 50 years on, I have had to revise my thinking.

Age, experience, and hopefully wisdom, have opened up in a new direction for me.

In my own life, I no longer have certainty and security because the genuine leap of faith negates both of these.  

I have learnt over the years that security is doesn’t exist in nature nor do we as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger isn’t any safer than outright exposure.

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. But I will return to Sisyphus and see if I can find something that no longer threatens but sustains me in the quest for being fully alive.

Why didn’t Sisyphus give up when he saw the onerous task ahead of him? It would not do for him to give up because he would be doomed.

He would have given in to that existential malaise popularised by the prophets of doom.

So reflecting on the myth of Sisyphus becomes a source of hope. While pushing the boulder up the mountain, he is able to stop at times on the various ledges on the way. He is able to regain his breath and then move on again.

He was not aware that when he got to the top that he would have to start again. In fact his task was to reach the top albeit in stages. If he had known otherwise, he would have given in to despair.

I must ask myself what it is that I am striving for both as an individual and as a member of the broader community.

I see around me the plight of our world. We can fight for a hundred causes.

But this myth has an important message to give.

As a community we won’t give up. We cannot for if we do we fall into the trap of inertia or at worst despair. We have become more conscious of what a community is all about and the contribution we make to it.

Even though at times we wonder how far we have advanced, we must acknowledge that we have.

Let’s for the moment see the church as that community and we the travellers in a Sisyphean world. When we look at the perilous state of affairs the institutional church is bogged down in, we tend to shudder, to be angry.

Many walk away. And there is justification for this.

Many who seek a more authentic church community have been labelled 'cafeteria Catholics'.  

The temple police are out in force safeguarding what has for them and the masters they serve in the corridors of power an ideology instead of a faith.

A recent pope spoke about the perils of relativism. I

n the strict sense, the church cannot be seen as relativistic but as Catholics, the church does contain a multitude of different interpretations and applications of teaching.

Inclusivity is central to its mission in the world.

Catholicism is not a sect but a church because membership in a family of faith transcends ideology.

There will be doves as well as hawks, libertarians as well as interventionists, radicals and hardliners with moderates somewhere in between.

That doesn’t mean that anything goes but one who is truly part of the Catholic community will be disappointed and disillusioned if they expect it to behave like a political party.

The tragedy today in our Catholic community is that many of the officials in the institution and many cardinals and bishops in particular these days seem better suited to be corporate CEOs who prefer to spend their time with lawyers, accountants and bankers.

They readily spout platitudes at the expense of genuine love. They tend to forget that the great enemy for the forming of a gospel based community are those who put it to sleep by worshipping the Golden Calf instead of the itinerant preacher from Palestine. They would do well in executive positions in Qantas, Telstra, Rio Tinto or BHP Billiton.

This excludes them from being servants of the poor, fishers of women and men and ultimately presenters by their actions of the Good News.

Sisyphus had to accept the absurd around him in order to overcome it.

One of the scariest realities is to work as though you were achieving very little. But by drawing a line in the sand we realise the need we have to belong and to be part of a community. A strong individual helps create a strong community, and such can change our world.

This change does not have to move mountains. In fact, if it produces a change in perception it will in turn bring about a paradigm shift which will bring it back to the community envisioned by Pope John XXIII.

It is precisely here where love is central and it is what keeps us going. When we opt for faith rather than ideology and perceived certainty, we can live with a hope that all will be well. 

The boulder in fact becomes lighter for we know that there is an end in sight. It could be summed up as the revolt by the community against the absurd.

- John Hill blogs from Kensington in Sydney.

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