Meditations for Layfolks - Idealism

The great objection to ideals is not that we do not believe in them, but that we grow impatient of them. They often seem to us mere day-dreaming, a pretence, a mere visionary thing, impractic able, unreal. We are accustomed to grumble to ourselves that life is quite hard enough as it is, and why, then, should we add to the burden of it by contrasting with its greyness the glad glory of some imagined city? That were only to add to the living the torment of the damned! The very plague of Tantalus was the placing before his eyes of very beautiful fruits and wines that his hands could never reach nor his lips taste; and surely those who would try to introduce ideals into life are really in this way torturing the fragile soul. They are setting before us wonderful pictures of what life might be or might have been, of ourselves in beautiful garments, whereas our souls are out at elbow and in tatters, the clothing worn threadbare by incessant use. Surely the wiser plan (we are often led to argue) is just to take things as we find them, content, patient, plodding; not to lift our eyes to the mountains, nor think about the heights to which we might climb, for to do this would be but to make our courage fade away at the sight of so impossible an achievement. We comfort ourselves by bidding the human heart neither expect too much nor aim at things too high, but just to do what lies to hand. Why need we make our necks ache with gazing at the stars? It makes us stumble. Let us rather, we say, look for the puddles in the pathway that we may escape from them, nor lift our eyes ever from our work.

The answer, of course, springs at once to the mind. It is just because we need so much the strength to plod along patiently and with perseverance, that we need also to have hope in our hearts and the vision of an ideal standing before us. We need, that is, something to make it worth our while to go on, something that with its own splendour will light up the mean streets and make them appear transfigured with the glory of God: else we shall be oppressed by the surroundings, shut in by its limits, reduced to dulness and listless despair. It is like children who find the pattering of the rain depressing, and the nursery to which they are thereby confined too narrow, until by some leap of the make-believe they have transfigured it into a palace or a shop or a field of battle. We are like that; for the world is all too strait for a soul that has immortal longings, until by an act of faith this world is seen in terms of the world to come. Yet I must begin by acknowledging the ideal to be ideal: it is something that can never be realized. Supposing I had imagined such a portrait of myself as was to be the purpose of my life to achieve, and supposing I did actually achieve it, then I would stand still for the rest of my days: I should become contented, satisfied, and idle. The self-complacency of the Pharisees must have come pretty largely from the fact that they pitched their ideal so low that they soon reached up to it. If my ideal of myself is simply one who tithes mint and cummin and obeys the external precepts of the law, then that will stand in the way of my improvement. But if I realize that I am made for better things than that, then I shall realize also that the better things will never wholly be mine.

The first step, then, is to make myself quite certain that the ideal is unattainable. I must start by recognizing to the full the great gulf that exists between what I am and what I should be, else I shall become discouraged because I can never bridge the chasm. Moreover, the better I become, the more strongly shall I notice the difference, for I shall have trained myself to see all sorts of beauties in the ideal Christian, and in consequence all sorts of defects in myself. This will never depress me, but only stimulate me to renewed efforts. Browning in his dramatic fashion says:

"A man's reach must exceed his grasp, Else what's Heaven for?"
He implies that we go on getting greater, nobler, finer; but with every advance in our actual practice of goodness there is a corresponding growth in the ideal figure set before us. Perhaps what really happens is that we have before us a vision of our Lord as the perfect man, for He has bidden us follow Him. We picture Him in the various moments of His life, in His various circumstances; we note how He bears Himself, what He says and does. With this we contrast our own failure, meanness, little-mindedness; but we then say to ourselves: "Well, in spite of all this, I am not going to lose heart. Of course, I can never catch up to Him as He swings down the road; but, then, He never asked me to catch up, He only asked me to follow." Follow, then, I can. For me He is the perfect figure of a man much more human than the saints, than the Baptist, because He is divine. He is a pillar of fire by night to me; and I follow, a speck in the distance, stumbling, wearied, dusty, frequently falling, yet for all that a follower. Christ is for me the ideal, which is in Him real, and in me, though never to be realized, provoking to continued action.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.