I REMEMBER the Prague metro as being a rather impressive series of tunnels and spectacularly steep escalators.
The descent is so precipitous that, upon first experiencing the swift and seemingly vertiginous journey into the earth, I could not help but think that I was entering into the opening chapters of a Jules Verne novel.
The graffiti on the metro walls is also a sight to behold.
Jackson Pollock seems to have been far more of a formative influence on the spray-can-wielding denizens of the public transport system than Banksy.
Yet it is their occasional foray into the realm of philosophy that interests us here.
I am told that, one morning, there appeared upon the paint-spattered walls of the metro tunnels the statement: “Jesus is the answer”.
Before the afternoon was out, someone had added a second phrase underneath the first: “But what was the question?”
A rather good riposte, we would have to admit.
And it ties in with the rather poignant point of the philosopher Eric Voegelin – the biggest problems with Christians today is not that we don’t have the right answers.
The problem is that we have forgotten the questions to which those answers correspond.
Our contemporaries, in their more introspective moments, continue to gaze at the stars – or into a bowl of Mie-Goreng – and pose the perennial questions of our existence:
“Who am I?”
“Why am I here?”
“What is the meaning of life?”
A story is told of a man who wrote to a famous Rabbi, explaining that he was deeply unhappy. The letter went like this:
“I would like your help. I wake up each day sad and apprehensive. I can’t concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I keep the commandments, but I find no spiritual satisfaction. I go to the synagogue, but I feel alone. I begin to wonder about what life is about. I need help.”
The Rabbi simply sent the letter back.
He had made only one amendment before re-posting the missive.
He had underlined the first word of each sentence.
It was always the same one – “I”.
As Dominican father Timothy Radcliffe has explained it is precisely this that comprises, “the unhappiness of the lonely, modern Western self.”
Our contemporaries ask the same questions that men and women have always asked, but they struggle to break out of the cycle of narcissistic introspection that they are encouraged to pursue by our secularised society.
It seems to me that this is a field ripe for the harvest; a world desperate for the paradoxically truthful Christian answers to their perennial questions.
The truth that we gain our lives by giving them up. (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24)
That we are set free by obedience. (Romans 6:17-19)
That the death of a single man holds the key to life. (1 Peter 2:21-25)
The general malaise of our contemporaries, their general dissatisfaction with life is – perhaps surprisingly – the perfect seed-bed for the faith.
Consider this – most people, at some point in their lives, have undergone the universal human experience of having a tremendous desire for something or someone.
They expend a prodigious amount of effort and energy in attaining that particular, greatly-desired goal and, once it is acquired – they are dissatisfied and disappointed with the end result.
The “thing” – the object of the desire – turned out to be less fulfilling than expected.
So they move on to the next “thing’”. The next desire.
And they are left asking the perennial question: “Why am I perpetually dissatisfied?”
To which we, as Christians, can readily respond: because we were created for perfection and we live in an imperfect world.
They ask again: “Why do I seem to have this itch I cannot scratch? Why am I endlessly searching for ‘more’?”
More is the one-word motto of the human race – it does not matter what the object in question is, we simply want more of it.
More money. More food. More power. More time. More people. More control.
That longing for ‘more’ that we have within us will never be completely fulfilled this side of the grave.
Nothing on this earth will ever be enough to satisfy our desire for ‘more’.
“‘Why not?” cry our contemporaries.
Respondeo: because that feeling, that drive, that sense arises from the depth of your being, from your very soul.
We were created by God for God – and only God will satisfy that desire.
That longing, that itch; that is the indication that our soul is yearning for the fullness of the beatific vision; for complete, perfect knowledge and love of God.
St John of the Cross describes this state of humanity very beautifully.
He writes that we have infinite caverns within us, and that we often try to place makeshift coverings over these vast, immeasurable voids.
Somewhat like attempting to cover an infinite abyss with a piece of Glad-Wrap.
It is not terribly effective.
An infinite cavern can only be filled with the infinite – with God.
Consider the endless hours that people spend gazing into their screens; scrolling through apparently endless pages of photos, videos, movies, songs.
The internet is so engaging and addictive precisely because it seems infinite.
The seemingly endless quantity of its content mimics infinitude; that is the essential reason for its success.
It appeals to the very depths of our being – our longing for the infinite; our longing for the God who created us.
Yet, as we and our contemporaries well know, the internet does not actually satisfy our limitless longing.
Attempting to fill our infinite cavern with the internet – or anything else – is like pouring water into a sieve: you always need to return to the well.
“Then what should do we do?”ask our friends, family and neighbours.
“How do we quench this unquenchable thirst?”
You seek the one who gives living water. (John 4:10)
For belief in Him is the source of the infinite that fills the cavern: “a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
Our perennial quest for more – for fulfillment – reminds me of another Jules Verne character: Captain Nemo.
Constantly seeking, forever questing, never resting, perpetually dissatisfied.
In Latin, “nemo” means “no one”.
If our pilgrimage in life amounts to no more than an unrelenting quest for the next opportunity to momentarily assuage our driving urge for “more”, then our lives will truly be nothing greater than another installment of Finding Nemo.
We will find nothing and no one.
We must instead seek the one who has a Name.
The name which is above every other name. (Philippians 2:9)
The spray-painted wall of the Prague metro spoke the truth – Jesus Christ is still the answer.