by Peter Kreeft
Professor Peter Kreeft joined the Boston College philosophy faculty in 1965 and is the author of more than seventy books. He is a widely sought-after speaker on Catholic apologetics, and he specializes in the philosophy of religion as well as the thought of C.S. Lewis.
The secret of life is not known to most people.
Some think there is no secret. Some think they have found it in power, or cleverness, or money, or pleasure. But most people know, deep down, that there is some secret, some “more,” that the great saints and sages and mystics (and the many, many little ones too) have discovered and others have not. They know this not because they have figured it out but because they have met one of these people.
You must have met some of them. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Some Buddhist monks. Some ordinary people who just always seem to smile and be happy to be there for you, to be givers instead of takers. Why are they so happy? What is their secret?
For them, life is like a treasure house, a magnificent country, a palace. It is not that for most of us. It is as if there is a door in the wall of life and behind it is Paradise. How have these people found their way through the door?
There is a padlock on the door for most of us, and we don’t know the combination. But these people know it. What is it? What is the secret combination to the padlock?
It is no secret at all. It is the most widely proclaimed truth in the world. Every religion in the world teaches it. It does not take immense cleverness to find it, but it takes immense cleverness to ignore it. Unfortunately, most of us are immensely clever.
Babies are not clever, and they know it. They smile more than adults. Down’s Syndrome people are not clever and they know it. Their lives are usually richer and more satisfying to them than ours are to us. Even dogs know it. Dogs wag their tails more than we do. Africans laugh and smile the most, even though their continent is the poorest in the world.
Jesus showed us the combination of the padlock when he picked out a little child and said to the clever adults, “There is your answer. You cannot get into the Kingdom of Heaven, you cannot get through the padlock and the door on the wall, unless you become like little children.” How can we become childlike without becoming childish? The saints and sages and mystics do it. How?
The padlock as a hour letter combination. The letters are L… O… V… E.
Buddhists call it karuna, or compassion. It is the key to their other great value, wisdom, or pranja. If you love, you will see, you will become wise. It’s a cause-effect relationship.
If you love life, if you love the unfathomable God, the Creator and Designer of all life, and therefore of your own life and your own very self; if you love That Which Is; then you will see.
You love with your heart, not your head. The heart is the educator of the head. But the head has to listen, humbly. The proud ego has to abdicate the throne of your soul. That is the task every religion in the world sets for us in some form. Their concepts of God are very diverse, and sometimes (as in Buddhism) totally anonymous and apparently agnostic. But what’s in a name? A God by any other name can smell as sweet, even when it does not look as clear.
If you love God, you will love all of His creation. And then you will see its beauty and experience its joy, everywhere, even in a Jersey mosquito, or a clump of dirt in your shirt, or a hemorrhoid. (That doesn’t mean you don’t swat the mosquito, clean the dirt, or shrink the hemorrhoid.) Just look at a single blade of grass for a few minutes without love. Then look at it with love. See the difference. If you love it, you will see it. This is a scientific experiment you can perform for yourself. You can prove it to yourself. It’s not a matter of faith. What is a matter of faith is the humility and trust that it takes to get that big ego off the throne so that you will actually do this embarrassingly simple thing. The ego is creating the wall, or the illusion that there is a wall when there isn’t at all.
If you love God the Creator, you will love His creation. And then you will see its beauty.
If you love His creation, you will love yourself, because you are His creation. And then you will see your beauty as He does.
If you love God, you will love others because they’re His kids. And then you will see their beauty.
It can also work the other way, it can move from the love of His creatures to the love of God. Even atheists can do that. But if they do, they will not remain atheists for long.
And then, one you actually do it, once actually love, not just dream about it, once you not only know the combination of the padlock but use it and open the door and enter the paradise of this world, which is the beginning of the paradise to come, then you discover that there never was any padlock. The door was always open. In fact, there never was a wall. Paradise is not on the other side of the wall because there is no wall. We are already in paradise, we just don’t see it. And we don’t see it because we don’t love it.
In Buddhism there is a parable of crossing the river from the world of Samsara (birth-and-death) and Nirvana (the “extinction” of birth-and-death), which is also called “bliss” or paradise. There are three stages to the journey. First, you are in Samsara, on the near bank of the river, and Nirvana looks very far away on the other bank. On the near bank, “mountains are just mountains and rivers are just rivers.” Then, you are on a raft (either the Little Raft, for one person at a time, or the Big Raft, for everybody together—both work), and everything is questionable an unreal or uncertain. “Mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers.” Finally, when you cross the river and attain Nirvana, you look back and see that there never was a river separating the two banks. You always were in Nirvana, you just didn’t see it. “Nirvana is Samsara and Samsara is Nirvana.” “Mountains are mountains again and rivers are rivers again.” But they are seen truly (pranja) because they are loved (karuna), and they are loved because they are seen truly.
When we die we do not die, we are born. Then if we go to Heaven we see that we had always been in Heaven. This world is Heaven’s womb. The baby in the womb is already in the world because he is in the mob and the womb is in the mother and the mother is in the world. But you don’t see it until you’re born.
We can be born before we die. We can be “born again.” We can get divine eyes. God keeps offering them to us. We don’t get them, and we don’t see with them, and we don’t see Paradise, and refuse to die. Augustine says, “Die before you die; there is no chance afterwards.” We try every other possible combination to open the padlock, even though the true one is written plainly for all to see.
This is in the Lord of the Rings. (Everything is in the Lord of the Rings!) The “good guys,” the Fellowship, have to crack a code to open a magic gate. The writing on the gate says, “Speak, friend, and enter.” But apparently it does not tell them what to speak. They try everything and nothing works. Finally, they see it: If they only speak the word “friend,” the gate will open and they can enter.
That is the secret of life. Every entity and event in the world is our friend, because it is designed by God, who loves us. If we call things our friends, we will see that they are, because He is. To speak the word “friend” to someone is to say “You are my friend,” and that is to say “I love you.” That was the secret of the joy of St. Francis. He called even death his friend, “Sister Death.”
Of course that involves faith, that is, trust as well as love. You can’t love if you don’t trust. Trust is part of love. Hope is part of love, too. Everything good is part of love.
The secret of love is hard only because it’s so easy.
St. John, in his old age, saw this simplicity, and spoke only of this one thing. His disciples complained, “All you talk about is love.” He replied, “That’s because that’s all there is.”
Wise old, dying Fr. Zosima in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, tries to teach it to a lady who has lost her faith and hope in God and immortality of the soul. He says the only way to prove it is to do it, to live it. If you love, you will certainly see. If you do not love, you will certainly not see. It’s as simple and absolute as that. He said, “This has been tried. This is certain.” Everyone who has performed this has succeeded. And nobody else has.
Try it, you’ll like it.