A few months ago, I told my spiritual director I couldn’t see any clear purpose to my life. He responded with “Who says life has to have a purpose?”
Ever since my writing took a weird turn two years ago—for no apparent reason—I’ve wrestled with this lack of defined purpose. In a blog post from January 2019, my question was, “What the hell is going on?” Now I wonder if the question is even relevant.
That doesn’t sit well with me right now, in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. When my business was full steam ahead, I’d use this time to formulate my plan for the next year, complete with income and recruitment goals, strategies, and ways to fulfill them. I loved planning for the future and adopted it as a healthy habit. So have many, many others: The Purpose Driven Life sold like hotcakes for a reason.
There’s so much to say in favor of plans and goals. But for me, and perhaps for people like me—people of contemplative faith and spirit, monks and hermits et al.—the dynamic is different.
For one thing, our lives are not our own. On the deepest level we have given our hearts to someone or something Larger than ourselves: God in my faith tradition, but also known as the One, the Universe, Reality, or the emptiness that Buddhism observes. In some ways, therefore, we don’t plan so much as respond to where that Larger draws us.
For another thing: the monastery where I’m an associate—true to its Benedictine spirit—is less focused on plans for the future and more on the rhythms of the daily. The principle of stability, according to the Associates Rule, calls us to “be steady and regular in our prayer life and in the obligations of family, work and community.” The monks do plan, to be sure (they couldn’t have run a recent capital campaign without planning), but it’s not the primary focus for them. The commitment to daily stability, I’ve found, acts like an anchor amid change and a framework for living into that change.
One last thing I learned from our newest cat. In the midst of morning prayer I got up for a second, and when I returned she was waiting in the hallway, looking for scratches. She’s new here, so I figured I’d scratch her, and as I did so something struck me: there is a difference between meaning and sanctity (the quality of being sacred). Even scratching a cat, when done with a consciousness of God’s presence, can be sacred in itself, even if it has no significance beyond the moment.
In the same way, perhaps we move through life in response to God, which makes our lives sacred even if there is no grand purpose for us (or it’s eternally hidden).
I find this liberating. Instead of striving to chart a course, I can simply live as directed, bearing fruit in the world as God desires. It is not for everyone, to be sure. But if you read this and it tugs at your heart, maybe it’s for you.