Choose the Better Story

I admit, I wasn’t an instant fan of Life of Pi (the book) when it first came out, because I’m not a big fiction-reader. But then I attended an event where Yann Martel spoke. His novel Life of Pi was soaring on the popularity charts (and was later made into a movie). Martel began his presentation by quoting the most frequent question asked by his readers: is Life of Pi true? He spent the rest of his talk sharing a brilliant multi-faceted explanation of truth. I went home and read the book, almost in one sitting. I was literally blown away; Martel’s/Pi’s insights have stuck like gems that keep instructing me as I continue to explore that all-time favourite question, “What is truth?”

Of course the story is true, replied Martel. All good stories are true. Good art is always true. There are truths that go beyond factual or scientific truth, such as moral truth, literary truth, emotional truth, historical truth. Religion does it, art, music and literature do it, fairy tales do it. They don’t contradict facts; they simply go beyond facts, further and deeper.

For all its touting of sophistication and modern living, it often seems as if  our western culture is losing the heart’s ability to live an awareness of truth that exceeds hard data and one-dimensional knowing. With the diminishment of religious adherence and practice, along with a flattened version of reality and a trivialization of the arts in various quarters, we risk becoming an impoverished species. How very sad and boring that would be.

Fortunately for us all, the likes of Yann Martel arise periodically to give us a jolt of what is really real and rich and deep and meaningful and goes far beyond what we can measure in facts and touch with our hands: Mystical writings in all traditions acknowledge the mystery of life and suggest ways of engaging with that mystery, even though it remains impossible to comprehend intellectually. You can view the world in different ways – historical, scientific, social, political – but there are limits to what you can do with a calculator or a hammer. You must make a leap of faith to get the full flavour of life. (Yann Martel Interview)

It is probably for this reason that Martel’s introduction to Life of Pi includes  an enigmatic line: Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in God.

Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Early on in the novel, Pi notes that religion is off-putting to many people because they believe it constrains  our freedom. He criticizes such positions for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of ritual and order, whether religious or secular, can be extremely frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher. In the absence of taken-for-granted order he faces life and death situations every day. It is his religious faith that gets him through — an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

Martel asserts a strong relationship between religious faith and storytelling. Pi pities agnostics who are so paralyzed they cannot believe in anything. He admires atheists for having the courage to claim God’s non-existence and for working hard to justify their non-belief.

Pi’s fascination with stories leads him to embrace no less than three religions — Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. He cannot understand how gods can be represented in such radically different ways, and wonders how to love the human Jesus. Until Father Martin suggests to the young Pi that we tell the same story in multiple ways to come to the same conclusion.

Pi’s beliefs mature throughout the novel. His first brushes with religion lead him to find several mentors and experiment with various forms of prayer, whether it be in  a church, mosque or the temple. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does he realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not before when life seemed orderly and predictable.

So enjoy here some of Martel’s/Pi’s nuggets of truth:

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

“You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

“People fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity—it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud.”

“I was giving up. I would have given up — if a voice hadn’t made itself heard in my heart. The voice said ‘I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen everyday. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.’ ”

In short, repeating Martel’s own words from the interview quoted earlier, Life of Pi sums up as follows:

1) Life is a story.
2) You can choose your story.
3) A story with God is the better story.

Prairie Encounters

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To die for?

Recently I lead a retreat on the question “What is Truth?” Echoing Pilate’s perennial question to an accused Jesus, we began by exploring the layers of truth in the award-winning, and made into a movie, novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

life-of-pi-poster2Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Throughout the novel, Pi’s beliefs mature. His introduction to religion comes through befriending his mentors who are a Catholic priest, a Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim Imam. He willingly joins each religion through their various initiation rituals and catechetical instructions. Pi is equally comfortable praying in a church, a mosque or a synagogue. One of the most amusing scenes in the story is the chance encounter on the street between Pi and his three mentors, each “claiming” Pi as their own. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does Pi realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not tested earlier in his life.

Earlier in the novel, Pi notes that religion puts many people off today because they believe it constrains their freedom. He criticizes such people for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of safety and comfort, status and order can be incredibly frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher, when there is less order and no comforts of any kind; every day he faces life or death situations. It is his religious faith that gets him through, which is an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

It is often said that faith grows our best and most enduring qualities in times of trial and hardship. Pi seems to experience exactly that on the open seas; many will resonate with this insight. Faith can deepen in times of suffering. It doesn’t justify the suffering, however — never. And the potential to grow through suffering is only that — a potential. God honours our human freedom like none other. We have to choose the growing. There is good reason why Jesus asked regularly, ‘do you want to be well?’ I am reminded of an especially painful experience when a close friend gently said: “I’m not denying your pain — it is real, it is justified and deserves to be honoured. Take all the time you need to grieve. Just remember that God is eagerly waiting to teach you many things through this hardship.” And so, when I was ready to slow down my weeping and wailing, I asked God to teach me — I willed it. And God did, in ways that far surpassed my expectations and hopes.

Pi’s insights into freedom and his faith development really got me thinking about today’s so-called “secular” culture and Christian faith, including my own. His discovery of false and true freedom helped me understand why our western culture seems so much less inclined to embrace a religious faith, whether traditional or even contemporary. So many of us live comfortable lives cushioned  by material goods and job security (although that’s eroding more and more), by a long-established social order and a taken-for-granted freedom of expression. Who needs religion?

While not necessarily so, such a question could arise from an adolescent-type arrogance. Our so-called post-modern culture not only questions the need for traditional religion, but looks bolstered by a sense of freedom that seems more centered on self than on others and the common good. Interestingly, Pope Francis’ instructions for this year’s Lenten season echo a similar concern: ““Usually when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others; we are unconcerned with their problems, their suffering, and the injustices they endure. Our heart grows cold.” Before we dismiss the need and value of religion, humility and caution would be well-advised lest we risk falling into an outright denial of our origin and daily sustenance of life: if God would ever stop loving us we would cease to exist.

My own parents embraced this idea that religion was obsolete, but for slightly different reasons. Having grown up themselves in a rather restrictive form of Catholicism as well as in poverty and hardship, they wanted nothing more than to “free” themselves from both these yokes — understandably so. As a result, both of them opted for a non-religious funeral. When I began to immerse myself more deeply into a traditional Catholicism, all they could see was a going “backwards” (their word, not mine) into a thing of the past. Sad, really, as their example of love, service and sacrifice laid strong spiritual foundations for me, but they could not see that.

Have our spiritual needs really changed that much from our ancestors? Is our freedom to “do what we want when we want and with whom we want” an authentic freedom? Or are we suffering a massive dose of collective delusion, lulled asleep by affluence, blissfully sinking into amnesia about the fact that our deepest needs and hungers remain spiritual in nature? Who is really free — those who have everything but still feel empty, or those who have nothing yet burst with joy, generosity and hospitality and those who can sing even as they meet death? Just asking.

A lot of horrific things continue to happen in the world in the name of religion. No rationalization can ever justify that. However, sometimes true inner freedom is on full global display as a fruit of religion. That is what I saw and heard when the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya last month. Martyred for their faith in Jesus, their witness was immediately elevated to sainthood (incidentally, more Christians have been killed for their faith in the past century than in all previous centuries combined).

The icon above, currently circulating in cyberspace, was written within weeks of their brutal murder by the artist Tony Rezk (Read the artist’s own blog entry here and an interview with him here). It depicts the new martyrs receiving the crown of glory in heaven. Some will consider this image incomprehensible and even outrageous; others see in these 21 Christians a powerful illustration of authentic freedom. I have not watched the beheading-video, and I will not, but I have heard that the sound on the video was praying: “Ya yesua irhammi — Jesus, have mercy on me.”

No matter our feelings about religion, we can honour these 21 new martyrs by showing a personal interest in their stories, by letting our hearts be moved by the unspeakable sorrow of their families. And while we’re at it, may their brutal, innocent death bear fruit in our stopping to reflect: in what or whom is my sense of freedom and faith grounded? Is my freedom a freedom from or a freedom for, born of God and serving my neighbour in need? Is my own faith strong enough to hold me steady in the trials and storms of life, encouraging me to choose life and growth in the midst of the painful seasons of my existence? What or who am I willing, freely, to die for?life of pi4

“If you stumble over believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” (Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001)

“Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud…”  (Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001)

For a Lenten reflection related to the above content, read Margery Eagan’s column here.

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

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