Holy Week always seems to sneak up on me. Just as Lent has pulled me to my core and shown me how meager my efforts at perfection have been to date and that my previous concepts of mercy by no means approach the divine leniency I really need, I’m supposed to start waving a palm and crying “Hosanna!” when all I really want to do is scream, “I’m not ready!” Then again, I suspect that this very sense of unreadiness, this strange existential suspension I’ve been experiencing these past few weeks, is exactly where God wants me.
I first noticed it in a post-communion experience a few weeks ago. I’ve felt so overwhelmed by petitions lately—prayers for the dead; sick friends; Ukraine; life and the world in general—that instead of turning my colloquy with Christ into a to-do list for a beleaguered divinity, I’ve tried to use my post-Eucharist reflection rather as the free space in Bingo: all value and no value in the tiny square I call my life, which could just as well be any other square on the board. And it was somewhere in the all-value-and-no value that Heidegger popped up in my eucharistic intimacy with Christ.
Existential angst—also known as existential dread or anxiety—is a concept initially coined by Kierkegaard, who identified it as the innate uneasiness in the human condition brought about by the prospect of freedom and its responsibilities. While we in the West generally consider freedom an inherent good, it is in fact neutral and what makes it good or bad are the choices that it enables. But that neutrality also renders human existence meaningless, inherently empty, and existential anxiety kicks in at the thought of how on earth we’re going to fill it.
About a hundred years later Heidegger took existential meaningless a giant step further with the concept of “thrown-ness” (“Geworfenheit”). As he saw it, the uneasy itch of human anxiety is grounded in the sense that we’ve been thrown into existence with no idea why and no sense of what exactly we’re supposed to do with it. All we can do is use our freedom to make choices that, once enough of them are made, will eventually constitute some manner of identity, neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad.
It’s this bleak mix of unhinged freedom, amorality, and meaninglessness, chiefly propounded by Heidegger and Sartre, that’s given existentialism its reputation as an atheistic philosophy. But at its roots it was profoundly—emphatically, actually—Christian. Kierkegaard’s solution for existential anxiety was his famous “leap of faith”: the assertion that, contrary to being “thrown”, we were called into existence by God’s love and that everyone had a task to accomplish within that God-given existence. The problem of human freedom was solved, most evidently in the life of Christ, by surrender to God’s will.
If one can talk about a favorite part of the Passion, mine would have to be the Agony in the Garden, and in that moment of thrown-ness I experienced in my post-communion reflection a few weeks ago, it suddenly came to mind. What I love about the Agony is that it’s Jesus at his most human, his most alone: his friends asleep, praying for his life to a Father gone silent. And in this most-human moment, I wonder if part of his agony wasn’t the sense of being “thrown” in the most profound existential sense: facing suffering and death with no assurance that it had any meaning at all. And at the heart of his thrown-ness, his utter desolation, he said, “Thy will be done.”
So what I’ve carried with me in these final weeks of Lent is the strange–and yes, existential–sense that there can be no meaninglessness when we worship a God of Pure Purpose, a purpose so inseparable from his love, so pure that he can turn the apparent meaninglessness of suffering into the promise of eternal joy. Among God’s infinite mysteries, his divine dichotomies, is that he leads us into his changelessness by ongoing conversion, by making the leap of faith over and over and over again. So this year, as every year, I’ll move into Holy Week confused and consoled, confident that the only thing I’ve been thrown into is salvation.