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The Meaning of Life

Fr. Joseph K. Horn
St Thomas More Parish
Irvine, California

Hang on to your seat, because I’m going to answer the most frequently-asked question of all time. It’s the one question that every human being since Adam and Eve has wondered about; it’s the one question that every single religion and philosophy struggles to answer. What that question is, I’ll get to in a minute. But first, let me set this up.

One of my high school students stole my CD player. He had no idea what it was that he stole. He thought it was just a CD player. He didn’t know what it really was. I suspect if he had known, he wouldn’t have stolen it.

You see, in 1981, my grandfather wanted to attend my ordination to the priesthood, but he didn’t want to fly, so he got in his Volkswagen Bug and drove all the way from New Jersey where he lived to California, and after the ordination drove all the way back. Four years later, I heard that he was dying of cancer and only had a month or two left to live. So I got in my car and drove 3000 miles to visit him. We had a great time for a couple of days, and just before I began my drive back home, he asked me who my favorite singer was. I said that I have a lot of favorites. He said, “Pick one.” I said, “Well, I could listen to John Denver all day.” He took me to a music store, and bought me a John Denver CD. I thanked him, and said that this would encourage me to buy a CD player. He said, “What? You don’t have a CD player?” And he bought me a Sony Diskman. They had just come on the market, and I was totally stoked. It was one of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received.

For 3000 miles back across America, I listened to that CD. Not long afterwards, I got the news that my grandfather had died. For years, whenever I’d listen to that CD player, and especially when I’d listen to that John Denver CD, I’d think of my grandfather, who could be the world’s biggest curmudgeon, and yet he was also the kindliest old man I’d ever known. That CD player was more than a CD player; it had meaning for me because it was a gift. For me, it was a connection to my grandfather; it evoked memories of him, of those fun days we spent together, memories of his wicked grin that always melted into a warm and loving smile. Because that CD player was a gift from him, it held a meaning for me that nobody would be able to detect by just looking at it. After I used it for a long time, its lid started getting loose, and I had to keep tightening the tiny screws all over it just to keep it together, but I never thought about buying a new one. This one was a gift from my grandfather, and so I just kept tightening the screws and it didn’t bother me at all.

So one day, one of my own high school students walked into the room and saw the CD player on the desk, and since there was nobody else in the room, he probably said to himself, “Look at that old CD player. Sony doesn’t even make that model any more. What an old piece of junk. Nobody will miss it.” And he stole it. As luck would have it, the CD that happened to be in it at the time was the old John Denver CD that my grandfather bought for me. I’ll bet you a million dollars that as soon as my student got the CD home, and opened it up, and found the John Denver CD in there, I’ll bet he snorted and said, “What is this junk?” and threw the CD in the trash. He had no idea whatsoever what he had just done. There is no way he could know what that CD or the CD player meant to me. He couldn’t see the meaning, because for him, it wasn’t a gift.

Now, what has all this got to do with anything? Listen closely, because I’m building up to the answer to the most-asked question of all time, a question that everybody asks but nobody ever answers.

Here’s a practice question to get you ready: suppose you’d asked that teenage thief what it was that he stole. He’d say he stole a CD player, nothing more. Suppose further that you were to ask him what that CD means. What would he reply? He’d say, “Whaddya mean, what does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a CD player, it’s just a cold mechanical device made of metal and plastic, it doesn’t have any deep meaning.” Suppose further that you were to say to him, “No, you’re wrong, that CD player appears to be just a machine, but it actually has a deep meaning due to where it came from.” What would he say? He’d say, “How should I know where it came from? I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t care. What is the meaning of this CD? There isn’t any. It’s mine now, and I can do whatever I want with it, and that’s the only meaning it has.”

Do you recognize the tragedy here? The inability of that teenager to grasp the true meaning of the reality that’s right in front of his face? His blindness to the beautiful meaning of that CD player, all caused by the fact that he does not recognize the fact that it was a gift.

Ok, now here’s what I’ve been leading up to, the most-asked question of all time. The question that everybody asks at some point in their life, the question that every philosophy and religion strives to answer is this: What is the meaning of life? I hope you see the parallel here.

Some people say that life has no meaning; they say that life is just a biological process, the chance result of primordial ooze getting hit by lightning; they say that we’re nothing more than sentient animals. Like my student, they don’t see the meaning because they don’t know that it’s a gift.

The meaning of life is that it’s a gift. That CD player meant a lot to me because it was a gift from my grandfather. Life has meaning for me because it is a gift from God. Every time I enjoyed that CD player it made me smile and think of my grandfather who gave that CD player to me. Every time I enjoy life it makes me smile and think of God who gave that life to me.

And ponder this: that student must have run into the same problem that I ran into: the screws coming loose. After a couple of weeks of using it, he probably watched as it fell completely apart, and easy come easy go, probably said, “What a piece of junk” and threw the whole machine in the trash. He didn’t want to be bothered with the nuisance of taking care of it, because to him it wasn’t a gift. Likewise, people who fail to recognize life as a gift, and who run into a stretch of bad health or bad luck, do the same thing: they don’t want to be bothered, and they begin to ask, “Why don’t I just kill myself? What’s the point of living such a rotten life? What’s the meaning of life, anyhow?” If they recognized life to be a gift, which just like any other gift requires some care and occasional adjustment but is treasured and enjoyed because it is a gift, then such questions would never even cross their minds.

If you remember only one thing from this homily, please remember this: the next time somebody asks you, “What is the meaning of life?” tell them, “The meaning of life is that it’s a gift.” If they are honestly seeking the truth, they’ll understand.

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