Our First and Earlier Vision

You have only to see things once more in the light of your first and earlier vision, and life begins anew.—Marcus Aurelius

Last night I came across this wonderful line in the Meditations. It sums up a recurring theme in my life, ever since grappling with major spiritual issues a quarter century ago. It is easy for certitude to lapse into tedium or for us to rely too much on systems and rhetoric to supply a lack of real commitment. We may also define our beliefs more for what we are “against” than what we are “for.” A hankering for spiritual wonder has, of course, its own pitfalls. Some people seek the experience itself, the emotional novelty, rather than the transcendent ideas that gave birth to the original epiphany.

Marcus Aurelius urges us to get back to the pure sources and motives which led us to the path of truth. “How can our principles become dead,” he notes, “unless the impressions which correspond to them are extinguished? But it is in your power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame.” Fortunately, it is possible to maintain, and even increase that sense of awe through a habit of humility and gratitude, according to the late German Thomist Josef Pieper. Another helpful mentor is Jacques Maritain who provides a marvelous discussion of religious discovery.

Revelation, even in small things, is ultimately possible only because others reveal to us those mysteries that we can barely guess at on our own, or that we are just beginning to understand. It should be a cause of reassurance to know that for thousands of years great minds have experienced that same enlightenment about “the good, the true and the beautiful,” and that they can help us along the way.

So when does the need for renewed enthusiasm arise? It happens when we peel off the long accumulated layers of imperfection that follow our initial conversion experience. No system can escape that necessity, and jumping from one guru to another simply puts it off indefinitely. Our initial exhilaration at being “born again” is a period of innocence but also of immaturity. It is easy to be loud and excited like a child who has no responsibilities. But our beliefs must be tested in the crucible of activity. It means growing up. The key, however, is not to trade the naivety of youth for the jadedness of experience.

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