When we think about life’s meaning, it comes to us in (at least) two different ways.
First, like the philosophers, we consider the general meaning of existence—why things exist, what the shape and nature of reality reveals about meaning, and so on. We also consider, more urgently, the reason for our own personal existence instead of non- existence. Why did that random sperm and egg meet at that particular moment to create me? What if it hadn’t? The fact that even the very beginnings of our existence seem so contingent on so many variables—on whether or not our parents ever met, or whether or not they were feeling romantic at that moment—can stop us in our tracks. If the difference between my existence and non-existence was an extra glass of wine or an argument finally resolved, what meaning can that existence actually have?
Mixed up with that type of meaning is the question of purpose. I’m here (however that happened) . . . so now what? Happiness, pleasure, satisfaction, sacrifice, accomplishment, contentment . . . is it about that? Or is it about completely forgetting my own needs and pouring out every gram of my soul for others? Is suffering a sure sign that my life is meaningless—or most meaningful? The world gives plenty of answers.
During his pontificate, Pope Benedict has alluded to these answers many times. Some might assume that a man in his eighties who worked within the confines of the Roman Curia for decades would have little insight into the shape of the contemporary search for meaning, but that is not true. Pope Benedict is a close observer and a careful listener, profoundly interested in how human beings encounter God, not just in general, but in this particular cultural circumstance in which we find ourselves, because curia or not, those are the circumstances in which he lives and ministers as well. Pope Benedict has, indeed, listened to modern men and women. He was a parish priest and a bishop; he hears confessions; as prefect of the CDF, he read the files of troubled clergy for decades; and throughout his whole career, he has interacted generously and open-mindedly with non-believers. He knows the obstacles, the temptations, and the barriers this world throws up, not only to God, but to the possibility of ultimate meaning and transcendence in general.
He also seems, in a personal way, very familiar with doubt—the question of doubt reappears often in his writings and comprises a large section of the first part of his Introduction to Christianity. But he also knows that this world is not so different than it always has been, despite our tendency to think so. The wheels may spin faster, on cleaner streets, but human beings still yearn, life still confounds, and Jesus still waits for us, ready for us at the moment we decide that we are ready for him.