Cycling into the theological college every day brings with it many unexpected benefits.
It is a 22km round-trip and this affords me the opportunity to have many an interesting interaction with my fellow road-users; sometimes we even exchange words as well as hand-gestures.
A few months ago, I was rather taken aback by a question posed to me by the driver of a car, idling alongside me as we waited for the lights to change.
Due to the proverbially changeable nature of the weather in Melbourne, I had left the priory kitted-out for a ride in full sunshine and, by the time I was stopped at that intersection twenty minutes later, it was pouring rain.
As I took off my sunglasses and attempted to dry them in the hope that this would improve my capacity to see the road before me, the driver of the car leaned out of his window and struck up conversation.
To abbreviate slightly I can say that the heart of his peroration is able to be encapsulated by a restatement of the question he was inspired to pose after he had assessed my appearance; bedraggled and wet, haplessly attempting to wipe dry a redundant pair of sunglasses.
He said: ‘Why bother? Especially in the rain?’
My acclimatised, Melbournian response – “It wasn’t raining when I left” – is only part of the story.
It seems to me that the driver in our tale has captured the spirit of the age and our society; a world that looks around and, despairing of what it sees, poses the same question: “Why bother?”
Surveying the horizon and perceiving only cause for pessimism, many of our contemporaries seem inclined to despair.
They consider their efforts futile in the face of such an overwhelming number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and evils.
And, as a result, they give up.
It is understandably tempting to wash our hands of responsibility for or involvement in the greater and lesser complications of life.
This apathy can – does – even extend in certain instances to our faith: Why bother going to Mass? Why bother praying? What difference does it make?
Yet these despairing questions can only have been gleaned from the tortured society that surrounds us: a world that sees random acts and events, beyond its control, apparently taking charge of our lives.
As people of faith, our adoption of these attitudes ill becomes us.
Perhaps the remedy is a reminder of our belief in the beneficent hand of God, directing all things through His divine providence; even those events that – for now – seem to us unfathomable and incomprehensible.
We ought to remind ourselves that every person upon this earth is the fruit of a thought of God, and that – in light of this fact – our lives, all lives, are imbued with profound meaning and purpose.
And we ought to realise that this itself presents a challenge.
For we do not merely exist, but are accountable for the use we make of our existence. A great part of the potential nobility of our human nature lies precisely in the fact that we are aware of the challenge that life presents; and that we feel ourselves bound by self-respect to meet that challenge.
As the great theologian Romano Guardini once wrote: “I did not confront the possibility of my own existence and decide that I wished to be, but I was cast into being. The event of my birth said to me, “Now you are. So live your life.”’
Our decisions and actions, however small and seemingly inconsequential, are all expressions of our determination to take up – or reject – that challenge, that opportunity presented to us by God.
The decision to cycle into the theological college in rain or shine – much like Madeline – is hardly momentous in and of itself.
But the decision to cycle can be viewed as a determined expression of the Christian counterpoint to the question: “Why bother?”
Because it would seem a revolting denigration of human dignity to believe that God has created us to wallow in lassitude, indifference and indolence all our lives.
As though the ultimate expression of our humanity would be to spend our days suspended in a plush hover chair, never moving, having food and drink brought to us by robotic minions as we gaze hypnotically into a screen.
That may be an extreme scenario – though Pixar Animation Studios did a fairly good job of making it seem plausible – but it is in reality simply the supreme articulation of the attitude which conceived the question: “Why bother?”
The great twelfth century Cistercian, William of St Thierry, once wrote that a person who so lives, “has received his soul in vain, that is to say, lives to no purpose or does not live at all, since he does not live the life for which he received his soul.”
We are all called to the immense dignity of a divine vocation; it is a challenge and it requires effort, but the realisation of this fact is the supreme response to a secular attitude that manifests itself as – “Why bother?”
We choose to bother because, in the words of Pope St John Paul II, “man is called to enter into a relationship of knowledge and love with God himself, a relationship which will find its complete fulfilment beyond time, in eternity. All the depth and grandeur of this vocation are revealed to us in the mystery of the risen Christ.”
Our every action – or inaction – is an expression of our engagement with the grandeur of the call placed upon us.
You may all think I am drawing a rather long bow in favour of cycling to work.
Not so – the vocation to which we are called manifests itself in a life of virtue and a virtue, St Thomas Aquinas says, is “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good”.
Habitual decisions expressive of the elevated nature of our vocation manifest themselves in all aspects of our lives, and a disposition developed in a seemingly inconsequential and unrelated area – choosing the less comfortable, more challenging mode of transport – ultimately expresses itself in other more consequential areas.
A habitual disposition so developed helps us all to realise and live the reality that there are difficult, challenging obligations that are worth undertaking.
Anything our faith asks of us that seems at times inconvenient could well fall into this category.
Take, for example, divine worship.
The Mass and prayer generally do not primarily exist for our comfort, or something to be undertaken when it makes us feel comfortable, or – even worse – something only to be engaged in if we feel like it.
Recognition of the immense dignity of our divine vocation ought to make us realise that communion with the divine is essential to our lives, and our virtuous habitual expression of that vocation in regular Mass attendance and continual prayer will in turn draw us deeper into the mystery of what it means to be a member of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Pope St Leo the Great expressed this most beautifully: “Christian, recognise your dignity. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.”
I would like to think that if we followed that advice, if we truly called to mind more often the fact of our redemption, we might all smile a bit more.
I suspect that part of the reason the driver of the car asked me his profound question had much to do with the idiotic grin on my face as I contemplated my bespattered sunglasses.
During winter I took great pleasure in hurtling past the stalled traffic, pedalling through the driving rain, bouncing over storm grates and buckled bitumen while treating the world to a rousing rendition of, “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus …” – all the while smiling to myself.
Friedrich Nietzsche once famously remarked that he would be more inclined to believe in the Redeemer if Christians looked more redeemed.
I would like to think that my demeanour in cycling is an answer to both Nietzsche and the general attitude of “Why bother?”
I would encourage you to smile, my brothers and sisters, reflecting on the splendor of your divine vocation, and take up the challenge of life that it poses.
Smile, even in the pouring rain while you are cycling into the theological college; even if the seat of the bike falls off and you have to complete the return journey without it, as happened to me on the morning of my Greek exam.
Smile, even if you get a flat tyre halfway to the destination and have to run the rest of the journey with the bicycle, as happened to me the morning of my biblical studies exam.
Smile, knowing that your life has meaning and purpose; knowing that the universe was created for you and that Jesus Christ has redeemed you.
That is a reason to bother.