“Life and death are at war within us. As soon as we are born, we begin at the same time to live and die.
Even though we may not be even slightly aware of it, this battle of life and death goes on in us inexorably and without mercy. If by chance we become fully conscious of it, not only in our flesh and in our emotions but above all in our spirit, we find ourselves involved in a terrable wrestling, an agonia not of questions and answers, but of being and nothingness, spirit and void. In this most terrible of all wars, fought on the brink of infinite despair, we come gradually to realize that life is more than the reward for him who correctly guesses a secret and spiritual ‘answer’ to which he smilingly remains committed. This is more than a matter of ‘finding peace of mind,’ or ‘settling religious problems.’
Indeed, for the man who enters into the black depths of the agonia, religious problems become an unthinkable luxury. He has no time for such indulgences. He is fighting for his life. His being itself is a foundering ship, ready with each breath to plunge into nothingness and yet inexplicably remaining afloat on the void. Questions that have answers seem, at such a time, to be a cruel mockery of the helpless mind. Existence itself becomes an absurd question, like a Zen koan: and to find an answer to such a question is to be irrevocably lost. An absurd question can have only an absurd answer.
Religions do not, in fact, simply supply answers to questions. Or at least they do not confine themselves to this until they become degenerate. Salvation is more than the answer to a question. To emerge alive from a disaster is not just the answer to the question, ‘Shall I escape?’
Everything hangs on the final issue, in the battle of life and death. Nothing is assured beforehand. Nothing is definitely certain. The issue is left to our own choice. But that is what constitutes the dark terror of the agonia: we cannot be sure of our own choice. Arew we strong enough to continue choosing life when to live means to go on and on with this absurd battle of entity and nonentity in our own inmost self?
The roots of life remain immortal and invulnerable in us if we will continue to keep morally alive by hope. Yet hope in its full supernatural dimension is beyond our power. And when we try to keep ourselves in hope by sheer violent persistence in willing to live, we end if not in despair in what is worse–delusion. (For in reality such delusion is a despair that refuses to take cognizance of itself. It is the merciful form which cowards give to their despair.)
Hope then is a gift. Like life, it is a gift from God, total, unexpected, incomprehensible, undeserved. It springs out of nothingness, completely free. But to meet it, we have to descend into nothingness. And there we meet hope most perfectly, when we are stripped of our own confidence, our own strength, when we almost no longer exist. ‘A hope that is seen,’ says St. Paul, ‘is no hope.’ No hope. Therefore despair. To see your hope is to abandon hope.
The Christian hope that is ‘not seen’ is a comunion in the agony of Christ. It is the identification of our own agonia with the agonia of the God Who has emptied Himself and become obedient unto death. It is the acceptance of life in the midst of death, not because we have courage, or light, or wisdom to accept, but because by some miracle the God of Life Himself accepts to live, in us, at the very moment when we descend into death.
All truly religious thought claims to arm man for his struggle with death with weapons that will ensure the victory of life over death.
The most paradoxical and at the same time the most unique and characteristic claim made by Christianity is that in the Resurrection of Christ the Lord from the dead, man has completely conquered death, and that ‘in Christ’ the dead will rise again to enjoy eternal life, in spiritualized and transformed bodies and in a totally new creation. This new life in the Kingdom of God is to be not merely a passively received inheritance but in some sense the fruit of our agony and labor, love and prayers in union with the Holy Spirit. Such a fantastic and humanly impossible belief has generally been left in the background by the liberal Christianity of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but anyone who reads the New Testament objectively must admit that this is the Doctrine of the first Christians. Indeed, Christianity without this fabulous eschatoalogical claim is only a moral system without too much spiritual consistency. Unless all Christianity is centered in the victorious, living, and ever present reality of Jesus Christ, the Man-God and conqueror of death, it loses its distinctive character and there is no longer any justification for a Christian missionary apostolate. In point of fact, such an apostolate without the resurrection of the dead, has tended to be purely and simply an apostolate for western cultural and economic ‘progress,’ and not a true preaching of the Gospel.” — Thomas Merton, The New Man, pp3-6.