By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published May 29, 2014
There are songs that touch upon an awareness that sits, waiting in the wings of human consciousness. With the enticement of the words and the music, these songs bring the awareness to center stage. One song is Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” and the other is Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today.”
Lee’s song takes a good look at the strangeness of life and simply asks if there is anything more, any kind of redemptive plus. And Newman’s song invites the dismal to a lingering spot in the parade of the mundane and the desperate. The world is a dead-end street, and it is raining.
If you ever listen to the songs, you might think of them as pieces that Samuel Beckett might have written, had he wanted to be in the top 40.
But apparently he did not have the kind of optimism that enjoys a parade or hopes for a sunnier day. His experience of life did not offer him any of the comforts afforded by wishful thinking. He pondered the truth of the rain, of this life being all there is, and wrote from it—for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Something in Lee, Newman and Beckett found a deep resonance in the lives of a lot of people. Their music and words invited those who heard them to recognize a certain and real desperation that waits in the corners of our minds. Most of the time, we comfort ourselves with more entertaining thoughts. We are very adept at taking to heart all the myths that our culture provides, myths that assure us that the rain will pass and that greener pastures are always within our reach.
But the truth of the matter is quite different. What we need the most, we cannot provide for ourselves. We are born into a life in need of salvation, a salvation that cannot come from us, for we are not the sources of what we most need. We have a big problem, and we do not have it within ourselves to fix it. We may pride ourselves with our successes, but failure will always have the last word. We tend to forget that nothing lasts, including ourselves, and we can bring nothing back.
In a recent Gospel we heard at Mass, a question raised to Jesus by Peter is worth repeating in light of the above. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
These are words spoken by a man who would taste deeply the bitterness of failure, the horror of seeing everything he ever hoped for die a terrible and merciless death. He would know a time when life would take on the appearance of a void in which there was no light, no hope and no escape, save that of death.
Yet at one point in his life, he uttered words out of a realization that lasting goodness was standing before him, inviting him to risk everything and follow him. And so he did—and still knew the failure and blindness of being human, things that no longer had a claim on the direction of his life.
We are asked to trust in that which we can never provide for ourselves.
Life is really a maze of dead-end streets. It is a place of letdowns, disappointments, broken hearts and broken promises. And so we take a good and long look, and wonder, and listen. There is only one place to go, one man to whom we can turn, a man who will open a way when our own roads lead nowhere and our designs for the good life turn to ash.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at www.abbeystore.com.