Bungee jumping for the soul

Not all views that you take of your own life are equally valid. We can grant, surely, that some views are less valid. That dark and morose foreboding which you may feel sometimes when you wake up at 3 a.m., or, in contrast, that light feeling of elation when you are shopping on a holiday, or perhaps the dejection and worthlessness you may feel after an unexpected setback -- these intuitions, although they may contain an element of truth, are mainly deceptive.

But are there views that are more reliably true? I know a couple who had accepted the "contraceptive mentality" but, after the wife's father died suddenly, they almost immediately conceived a child. Did the sudden death of a loved one give them insight that they lacked before? Did they "see" now that what looked like recklessness before was "actually" generosity? A friend who was wasting away from cancer, and then recovered, told me about the spiritual clarity he attained in the midst of illness: "spiritually I was alive and well, delving ever deeper into the mystery of the redemptive meaning of suffering ... I could almost kiss this cancer for the spiritual benefits it fostered." Which was more valid, his view before, or after, he became sick?

The executives who abandoned the rat-race after witnessing the Twin Towers collapse; couples who are in love and who dream together; the alcoholic who changes his life after he "bottoms out" -- unless we are always victims of inescapable subjective illusions, these seem to be people who have attained some kind of deep and true insight into their lives.

But here is the catch: Until we attain the insight, we do not know what we are not seeing. We can, after all, live superficially. Generosity can continue to look like recklessness; faith, foolishness; suffering, pointlessness; prayer, a waste of time. Nothing calamitous, it seems, will strike us just because we are spiritually dissipated, distracted, or habitually superficial. "The unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates said, but it is precisely the person who is living a life not worth living who is in the worst position to recognize it as such.

What if you could bottle up the insight that you would have of yourself on your deathbed and administer it to yourself at will? Is there an analogue of bungee jumping and skydiving -- to revive the soul, not the animal spirits? How convenient to gain the insights that come from illness and death, without anyone's needing to get sick or die!

So there is: It is called a "retreat." Not a "retreat-lite", with icebreakers, facilitators, and singing folksongs in a circle holding hands, but a bracing, silent, traditional retreat, with lots of time for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and the opportunity for a general confession and spiritual direction, and meditations preached on Sin and Repentance, the Four Last Things, and the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love: not spiritual lounging but "spiritual exercises."

Pius XI in 1929 wrote a marvelous encyclical on the value of a retreat, "Mens Nostra," which should be required reading for all Catholics during this Year of Faith. What was true then is no less true in the age of Facebook, Twitter, email and texting: "The most grave disease by which our age is oppressed, and at the same time the fruitful source of all the evils deplored by every man of good heart, is that levity and thoughtlessness which carry men hither and thither through devious ways." -- What you say? Levity and thoughtlessness are evils, and the source of other evils?

Suppose a retreat were a merely philosophical exercise, the Holy Father supposes, a few days of silence away from our usual business, affording someone "the opportunity of examining those most grave and penetrating questions concerning the origin and the destiny of man: 'Whence he comes; and whither he is going.'" Then its benefits, the Holy Father says (as must seem almost naive to us, today) would be denied by no one.

But spiritual exercises are much more than that: "they compel the mind of a man to examine more diligently and intently into all the things that he has thought, or said, or done." The result is that, with the assistance of the grace that one receives on retreat, "the mind becomes accustomed, in the spiritual arena, to weigh things maturely and with even balance; the will acquires strength and firmness; the passions are restrained by the rule of counsel; the activities of human life, being in unison with the thought of the mind, are effectively conformed to the fixed standard of reason; and, lastly, the soul attains its native nobility and altitude." (Surely this is one of the most beautiful sentences ever written by a spiritual authority.)

Quoting St. Gregory to summarize, Pope Pius adds that: "The human mind, like water, when shut up around, is gathered up to higher things; because it seeks that from which it descended; but when it is left loose, it perishes; because it spreads itself uselessly on lowly things."

If you sense that your mind has indeed "spread itself uselessly on lowly things;" if you sense a diminishment of the "native nobility" of your soul-- then you can sense, too, your need to go on retreat. But if nothing which the pope describes seems important to you -- then you can be most sure you need a retreat.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor and Chairman of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. A recognized authority in professional ethics, this month he is an ethics instructor with the Boston Tax Institute.