The stillness of the night clearly indicated it to be a night for wandering and for unscrambling crisscross thought; a quiet valley in the jagged range of helter-skelter living; a time to be spent evaluating and categorizing the impressions and experiences of the recent overcrowded weeks.
These busy weeks had also left a residue of personal problems which could be resolved only in unhurried solitude. But in a society of togetherness, solitude is a plague to be avoided at any cost against the telephone, door to door commerce, and well-intentioned friends. It is available, however, to one who pursues the maligned practice of strolling through darkened city streets during the small hours of the night. For then each person is an island in the encompassing sea of night – free to ponder without distractions.
As this particular night came on, the city huddled under its raven wing and thick clouds held back the moon’s second-rate light. The birds had long ago stilled their impromptu concerts. Each tree was a collection of friends nodding in the most gentle sort of conversations and only briefly were any urged into more agitated exchange by scampering, short-lived breezes.
The slow pace I find most conducive to nocturnal wanderings brought the first real relaxation I had experienced for some time and set the mood for solving the four problems which had been clamoring for their solution with increasing vigor during the past few days.
The first of these problems concerned an article I had been asked to write for a church paper; the second was a pending history exam; the third, my draft status in the relation to increased international tensions; and the fourth, that nagging reoccurring problem of most young people: “What am I here for?”
The last question, being the most general, I decided to schedule last. The relation of my draft status quickly cancelled itself, since short of switching to a pre-seminary course there was little I could hope to accomplish by pondering the matter.
With these two problems committed to a sort of procrastinator’s limbo, there remained only the pending history exam and the article for the church paper. Although both were to be completed on the same day, when viewed together, the deadline gained in flexibility while the pressure of the exam remained rock solid.
The exam, then, would receive first attention, to be followed by planning the article. Any remaining time could be spent on the sometimes stimulating, sometimes frustrating question, “What am I here for?”
By the times my schedule was completed, most of the window-diamonds had been plucked from neighboring homes and buildings by unseen hands. The soft, all-enveloping darkness had arrived and brought with it the isolation I was seeking. The times for the solving of problems had arrived.
After I had spent considerable time reviewing the material presented in the history courses, I became aware of several interrelated trends upon which specific information hung like pearls on a string. These trends had eluded me diring the semester, yet suddenly they appeared, as if generated out of the stillness of the night, and pointed to the material which needed additional study: which lists should be memorized and which terms the class would most likely be asked to define in the exam.
At the next streetlight I scribbled a few notes to preserve this newly discovered illumination. I checked my watch. It was already after midnight, but the time had been well invested.
I stopped for coffee at an all-night restaurant. The yawning waitress obviously hated her work and even more, the night hours. How could it be otherwise? The charm and soothing isolation of the night was denied her by the glare of the cold fluorescent lights and the wailing juke box. I too hurried from the place, afraid that the tyranny of the blare and glare might have struck again and robbed me of the detached mood so necessary in solving the remaining problems.
But it hadn’t. The matters to be acted upon came quickly into mind as I turned in the direction of home; thankful that the night was still dark, the wind still a whisper, and I still awake to enjoy it.
The second problem to be handled involved the assigned article for the church paper. It was to be a warning against the growth of a particular ecclesiastical ideology, and although several possible outlines suggested themselves, they lacked the spontaneity I felt the subject deserved. Then, as if from the darkness itself, a most satisfying outline appeared: open the article with a shocking, specific incident close to the experience of the most probably audience. Keep the opening brief, punchy, with short words, short sentences. Identify the subject quickly, stun the ready with several valid projections, then move quickly to the conclusion, omitting insignificant details and excess verbiage.
There was my answer! Suddenly the assigned article changed from a chore to be completed with toil and frustration into an entity demanding expression in words and phrases that its message might be shared with others of the faith.
As I stopped again under a convenient streetlight to scribble a few notes regarding the matter, the bell in the downtown cathedral struck two a.m.
Elated over the satisfying solutions my lone wolf style of meditation had produced, I resumed walking but now at a quick buoyant pace. The increased exercise generated a warm glow that matched the inward comfort of having solved troublesome matters. In quick succession I walked through the blocks which led home and for the first time that night allowed a threatening yawn its rightful but brief existence. I had my answers – it was time to relax.
Or was it?
My elation slipped off in to the darkness when the thought came to mind that I had left the real problem, the most basic of all, completely unsolved.
The matter of the exam and the article would soon be accomplished and forgotten. But the question that outweighed the others I had left unanswered. “Who am I, what is the purpose of my sometimes satisfying, sometimes pointless existence?”
Just what AM I here for? To stomp and stumble around town all night planning soon to be forgotten history exams and feeble articles in church papers with microscopic circulations? To consume my share of bread and wine and then stand in line for the next open grave? Was this the grand total of my existence? Is this what I have been so “wondrously made” for? What a waste of effort on God’s part?
Why couldn’t I have been denied existence itself rather than to experience this senseless, pointless one? Or if I must be, why couldn’t I have an obvious mandate, a clear insight into my identity and purpose? Why couldn’t I also see the letters “P C” formed by the clouds of heaven and go forth preaching Christ till the day of my death believing in my simple, uninitiated min that I had performed my calling as a faithful servant? Why couldn’t my life be molded into some definite shape by some external forces, yes even by tyranny or persecution? Why must I endure the curse of limitless opportunities shackles to such a lack of understanding that not one of theme stands out as the purpose of my life?
Deep in the quagmire of despair I neared my home and then deliberately walked on past. And why not?
Almost an entire night of meditation had produced nothing but quick answers to transient problems and a fake, fleeting sense of accomplishment. And now even that was gone. Impulsively I continued on into the night as if somehow physical exercise would produce a blueprint for my life.
Groping for any shred of comfort, I recalled the sense of accomplishment I had experienced earlier. Was It really as fake and temporary as it appears now? T had seemed real enough at the time, and even quite satisfying. This feeling of accomplishment had generated a cozy sense of pride in my ability to supply the answers to my own problems.
Then in an indefinite sort of way I began to sense, rather than recognize, the answer I was seeking. This satisfaction had been focused upon my individual accomplishments. Since both they, that is the accomplishments, and I are rather transient sort of things, any satisfaction resulting from my accomplishments are doomed to be hollow and of no lasting value.
But what then was worth pursuing? What sort of activity or life or goal would produce a more durable satisfaction?
In the stillness of that dark night a multitude of half-understood sermons evolved with endless catechism classes and family devotional periods to burn into my mind the world and life view that produced both self-identity and the purpose of existence.
It was this: I was part of an eternal system and not an end unto myself. I was a student attempting to develop whatever talents I had for use in this Christian system we call The Church. That is why the solution to the exam problem gave no satisfaction but only for a moment. Outside of being part of God’s plan it meant nothing. But now it took on a small, but eternal value.
Not only was I a member of a church, a college, but also an occasional contributor to one of the church papers; which again was of no real consequence except when viewed as part of an eternal chain of events which irresistibly were being used to develop the church.
Here was both my identity and purpose: to function as part of this eternally preordained system call The Church in whatever capacity I would be led. I could not effectively fit anyone else’s identity, not could anyone usurp min. In a word, I belonged – I fit. And the purpose of my existence, although still hazy as to the details, pointed clearly in one direction, towards my Creator.
I felt elated, almost transported as my despair and lack of direction were swept away by this long know, but only recently understood truth!
Let the secular philosophers continue their fruitless questionings about the identity and purpose of the human race. As long as they refused to admit the existence of God, Who tailors every existence to fit His purpose, they would never find their own identity as I had found mine. True, I would join them in their discourses, but for exercise; the answers they sought in blind vanity were everlastingly mine!
Out of the still of the night.
The cathedral bells rang four a.m. as I turned home for the second time. A milk truck swung into view, stopping, starting, twisting, and turning like a clumsy giant bird courting the dawn.