The growing artificiality of existence only compounds the dissipation of modern man. Bombarded by disconnected, contradictory and disturbing impressions, people gradually lose touch with reality itself and become detached from all moral and spiritual mooring. Cast about and disquieted, even a moment of silence leaves a person feeling lost or unbearably vulnerable.
This can be seen in the bearing of men and women at Mass. Guardini describes it vividly: "They are not really present; they do not vitally fill the room and hour: they are not composed."
Only the composed person is fully alive - fully human - "really someone." This means " true awareness: that inner knowledge of the essential; that ability to make responsible decisions; sensitivity, readiness, and joie de vivre."
Again composure, like stillness and silence, arises not spontaneously but through preparation, the humble acknowledgement of the disorder within us and the ascetic efforts to reign in our thoughts and transform our passions. Composure is to be desired because it is a reflection of something far greater - of the eternity deep within us. It is the very ground of our soul and peak of the spirit.
IN THE spiritual life silence is seldom discussed alone. Sooner or later its companion, composure, demands our attention. Silence overcomes noise and talk; composure is the victory over distractions and unrest. Silence is the quiet of a person who could be talking; composure is the vital, dynamic unity of an individual who could be divided by his surroundings, tossed to and fro by the myriad happenings of every day.
What then do we mean by composure? As a rule, a man’s attention is broken into a thousand fragments by the variety of things and persons about him. His mind is restless; his feelings seek objects that are constantly changing; his desires reach out for one thing after another; his will is captured by a thousand intentions, often conflicting. He is harried, torn, self-contradictory. Composure works in the opposite direction, rescuing man’s attention from the sundry objects holding it captive and restoring unity to his spirit. It frees his mind from its many tempting claims and focuses it on one, the all-important. It calls the soul that is dispersed over myriad thoughts and desires, plans and intentions back to itself, re-establishing its depth.
All things seem to disquiet man. The phenomena of nature intrigue him; they attract and bind. But because they are natural they have a calming, collecting influence as well. It is much the same with those realities that make up human existence: encounter and destiny, work and pleasure, sickness and accident, life and death. All make their demands on man, crowding him in and overwhelming him; but they also give him earnestness and weight. What is genuinely disastrous is the disorder and artificiality of present-day existence. We are constantly stormed by violent and chaotic impressions. At once powerful and superficial, they are soon exhausted, only to be replaced by others. They are immoderate and disconnected, the one contradicting, disturbing, and obstructing the other. At every step we find ourselves in the claws of purposes and cross-purposes that inveigle and trick us. Everywhere we are confronted by advertising that attempts to force upon us things we neither want nor really need. We are constantly lured from the important and profound to the distracting, “interesting,” piquant. This state of affairs exists not only around but within us. To a large extent man lives without depth, without a center, in superficiality and chance. No longer finding the essential within himself, he grabs at all sorts of stimulants and sensations; he enjoys them briefly, tires of them, recalls his own emptiness and demands new distractions. He touches everything brought within easy reach of his mind by the constantly increasing means of transportation, information, education, and amusement; but he doesn’t really absorb anything. He contents himself with having “heard about it”; he labels it with some current catchword, and shoves it aside for the next. He is a hollow man and tries to fill his emptiness with constant, restless activity. He is happiest when in the thick of things, in the rush and noise and stimulus of quick results and successes. The moment quiet surrounds him, he is lost.
This state makes itself felt generally, in the spiritual life, in church services, in Holy Mass. Constant unrest is one of its earmarks. Then there is much gazing about, uncalled for kneeling down and standing up, reaching for this and that, fingering of apparel, coughing, and throat-clearing. Even when behavior remains outwardly controlled, an inner restlessness is clearly evident in the way people sing, listen, respond in their whole bearing. They are not really present; they do not vitally fill the room and hour: they are not composed.
Composure is more than freedom from scattered impressions and occupations. It is something positive; it is life in its full depth and power. Left to itself, life will always turn outward toward the multiplicity of things and events, and this natural inclination must be counter-balanced. Consider, for a moment, the nature of respiration. It has two directions: outward and inward. Both are vital; each is part of this elementary function of life; neither is all of it. The living organism that only exhaled, or inhaled, would soon suffocate. Composure is the spiritual man’s “inhalation,” by which, from deep within, he collects his scattered self and returns to his center.
Only the composed person is really someone. Only he can be seriously addressed as one capable of replying. Only he is genuinely affected by what life brings him, for he alone is awake, aware. And not only is he wide awake in the superficial sense of being quick to see and grab his advantage this is a watchfulness shared also by birds and ants. What we mean is true awareness: that inner knowledge of the essential; that ability to make responsible decisions; sensitivity, readiness, and joie de vivre.
Once composure has been established, the liturgy is possible. Not before. It is not much use to discuss Holy Scripture, the deep significance of symbols, and the vitality of the liturgical renewal if the prerequisite of earnestness is lacking. Without it, even the liturgy deteriorates to something “interesting,” a passing vogue. To participate in the liturgy seriously we must be mentally composed. But, like silence, composure does not create itself; it must be willed and practiced.
Above all, we must get to church early in order to “tidy up” inwardly. We must have no illusions about our condition when we enter the church; we must frankly face our restlessness, confusion, disorder. To be exact, we do not yet really exist as persons at least not as persons God can address, expecting a fitting response. We are bundles of feelings, fancies, thoughts, and plans all at cross-purposes with each other. The first thing to do, then, is to quiet and collect ourselves. We must be able to say honestly: “Now I am here. I have only one thing to do participate with my whole being in the only thing that counts, the sacred celebration. I am entirely ready.”
Once we attempt this, we realize how terribly distraught we are. Our thoughts drag us in all directions: to the people we deal with, family, friends, adversaries; to our work; to our worries; to public events; to private engagements. We must pull our thoughts back again and again and again, repeatedly calling ourselves to order. And when we see how difficult it is, we must not give up, but realize only the more clearly that it is high time we returned to ourselves.
But is it possible at all? Isn’t man hopelessly given over to outward impressions, to the press of his desires and his own unrest? The question brushes the ultimate: the difference between man and animal. An animal is really bound by these things, unfree though, we must hasten to add, protected by the orderly disposition of its instincts. An animal is never truly distracted. In the exact sense we were using, it can be neither distracted nor composed; it has not yet been confronted with this either/or. Its own nature determines its existence and requires it to be in order. Only man can be distracted, because something in his spirit reaches beyond mere nature. The spirit can turn to the things of the world and lose itself there; the same spirit can also overcome distraction and fight its way through to composure. There is something mysterious about the spirit, something relevant to eternity. Absolute rest and composure is eternity. Time is unrest and dispersion; eternity is rest and unity, not inactivity or boredom only fools connect these with it. Eternity is the brimming fullness of life in the form of repose. Something of eternity is deep within us. Let’s call it by the beautiful name the spiritual masters use, the “ground of the soul” or the “peak of the spirit.” In the first it appears as the repose of the intrinsic, of depth; in the second as the tranquility of remoteness and the heights. This seed of eternity is within me, and I can count on its support. With its aid I can step out of the endless chase; I can dismiss everything that does not belong here in God’s house; I can grow still and whole so that I can honestly reply to His summons: “Here I am, Lord.”
Meditations Before Mass