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In Praise of Mortality: the Beauty of Limitation

Taking a Look at the Small Canvas of Our Life

As any artist or craftsman will tell you, the restrictions of a given medium are an essential part of what draws out their creativity. The sense of awe which many works of art inspire is partly due to this contrast between the nature of the medium and the nature of what is depicted. It is a miniature miracle that marble can look like cloth, or oil-paint like flesh. It requires a more than ordinary imagination to see Michelangeo’s David in a block of stone, while a gothic nave is the contradictory crafting of heavy stone into something spacious and full of light. Our lives have a similar set of limitations and contradictions built into them—and therefore a similar opportunity for creativity, wonder, and joy.

This element of limitation I have come to see as very much a blessing. I call it “the small canvas of our life.” It is an integral part of our humanity. It is what gives romance, heroism, self-sacrifice, and adventure not only meaning but poignancy. Even more, it sets the stage for sanctity in every state of life. Embracing it is required for holiness, essential for happy marriages, and a mainstay of true friendships.

Limits are required for being human

An essential aspect of our human nature is all the limitations bound up with it. God is infinite in every way. He is Being. Not a being, but Being. Not creation, but Creator. Not a lover, but a Trinity which is Love, Lover, and Beloved. He is Life.

However, when He brought us into existence, He gave each of us being as finite human beings. We can create, love, and live. But as humans. Yet there is a funny thing about being human (at least after the Fall): not all of our faculties and powers match each other. In fact, we have immortal souls but mortal bodies. Because of this, a lot of strange things happen. We sometimes act like animals, intent on pleasure at the expense of reason. At other times, our desires for personal communion seem much larger than that which we can ever express. Then we start thinking. We discover that we can comprehend realities beyond our senses, while our senses sometimes teach us the most important spiritual lessons. We can imagine eternity and immortality but still die. We can imagine endless youth, but age whether we want to or not. We imagine that our intellect would be tireless if released from our body. We realize that our body couldn’t enjoy much of anything if separated from spirit. Most importantly, we come to recognize that time is the great shackle which binds every man, regardless of rank or intelligence.

All of this is part of what it means to be human. And that is good, not bad, because we see that God created us to be fulfilled and happy (partially now, fully hereafter) as humans, not as anything else! All of this is the fertile ground of life, sown with limitations; some of which are good and others bad. Morally culpable limitations could include ignorance, malice, and sloth due to vice and sin. Many of our natural limitations (such as poor health) are due to Original Sin. However, even existence in a particular place and moment, as well as every choice we make, is limiting by the fact that it excludes all other possibilities of existence or action at that given moment. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes,

Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else. That objection, which men of this school used to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act. Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses.

Yet, once our lives have been transformed by grace, they can become opportunities for growth rather than a catalog of debilitating injuries. This is what I call the limited canvas of life; and, as for Vermeer, Rembrandt, or any other painter, it is within the four edges of our limited existence that we have the ability to make something beautiful, meaningful, and even exciting. How is this so?

Invincibility kills Heroes

Both fictional and real-life heroes would not be what they are without limitations. When facing fear, weakness, or danger, a hero can be born. Heroism requires that the odds be against you. Heroism means that you are doing something difficult, something that not everyone could do. It is often in response to someone else’s bondage—or limitation. The dragon has captured a princess. You, knight in shining armor, must get past the barrier of his fiery breath to rescue her from the prison of his lair.

Paradoxically, part of heroism is overcoming some limitations while working within the framework of others. Destroying vices and developing virtues are both different ways of approaching limitations. Eradicating vices means destroying the limitations imposed on us by concupiscence, making us free to follow our reason and God’s law, rather than our passions. Virtue, on the other hand, could be seen as the cultivation of acting within certain parameters—limitation again.

Heroes have to contend with both. An excellent and simple example of this can be found in the characters of the Chronicles of Narnia: the Pevensie children who, despite fear, weakness, and danger, become heroes through doing difficult things. If they had been strong, smart, and fearless, able to take on every challenge, where would their virtue be? Edmund overcomes his cowardice, trading the limitation of pusillanimous selfishness for the dignity of knighthood which places him within the parameters of Chivalry. Next door to Lewis, Tolkien’s Bilbo and Frodo characters are the embodiment of provincials who – with courage, advice from their elders and betters, some virtues, and a bit of luck – conquer evil in themselves and others, as well as non-moral obstacles like the Misty Mountains. We are all called to heroism at one time or another, even if on a small scale. The greatness of heroes would not be possible without limitations—let’s not try to escape all of them, then.

Infinity is no place for Adventure

Can you have an adventure without a destination? Without good or evil creatures? Like heroism, which is closely linked to it, adventure would be impossible with endless time and money, and especially infinite knowledge. If Odysseus had had a massive line of credit to purchase a new fleet of ships, a cell phone for texting Telemachus, and a GPS to navigate home with, would the ensuing adventure of the Odyssey become an epic? The uncertainty which results from not knowing a needed piece of information is a special sort of limitation. It sets the stage for the adventure of discovering the unknown.

Strangely, in the search for adventure, modernity has made rejection and reduction of limitations a top priority. With technological and medical advances, the goal seems to be the maximum reduction of sickness, ignorance, and pain. That this unreasonable search for mastery and control over the unknown quickly backfires was thoroughly evidenced in the COVID restrictions.

The search to break down all personal, moral, and cultural limitations, however, is more pernicious than the technological quest which is its sibling. That this is no recipe for happiness is clear from the fact that the trajectory of philosophical and moral decadence since World War I has now landed us in a place where people are no longer willing to submit to the most fundamental limitation of all—that of being a man or a woman.

Even in the Church, the 1960s misunderstanding of the good limitations contained in traditional doctrine, ethics, and liturgy engendered a crisis which touches the very foundation of the meaning of priesthood, Papacy, marriage, Eucharist, and Mass, to name a few. Despite the secular desire for constant stimulation and the ecclesial echo its din produces, meaningful adventure seems to be at an all-time low. Re-embracing the limitations of reality is a must if we want to be happy, healthy humans. And if we want adventures, we need to acknowledge the way limitation, weakness, and the unknown make them possible.

Without limitations, Romance would be impossible

Imagine a world where every man and woman were immortal, eternally young, and where free love reigned supreme. Every man would have the time and freedom to find and enjoy every beautiful woman ever created. Would there be any romance in such a world? I think not. Writes Chesterton,

To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I could only be born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it.

One of the things that makes romance what it is is that it must exist between this man and that woman. Strangely, part of the mystery of what makes human love so poignant is that it is not perfectly free and lasting. One of the fundamental things that makes anything precious is its scarcity. In any sphere, but especially the romantic, desirability is linked to the difficulty involved in obtaining the beloved.

Again, the qualities which ennoble love—patience, self-sacrifice, faithfulness, for example—could not be exercised outside of time and mortality. When a couple marry they agree to numberless limitations; the same partner, every day, for the rest of their lives. They must accept that their beauty and vigor is limited to at most a few decades. They agree to bear with the other’s flaws, ignorance, physical and mental weaknesses, come what may. In fact, they agree to a potentially infinite number of unknown limitations, from infertility to dementia and everything in between. Even entering a dating relationship is agreeing to risk using precious time and emotional energy on something that might not work. Many devout Catholics find this daunting and difficult, often for reasons which Rachel Hoover recently pinpointed with humor and insight. Yet, embracing these costly limitations, potential and real, is ultimately worthwhile.

This should not discourage us. It should make us pause and remark the uniquely beautiful offering which romance asks of men and women; namely, that they receive through giving up, become fruitful through loss, and remain faithful by self-denial. “What a gift and joy that he made an exclusive commitment to me,” she says. “How wonderful that I am the sole recipient of her love,” he says. Exclusivity opens the possibility of exclusive love. The fact that marriage binds gives love a new expression of permanence. The limiting “I love you” is a string of limitations. “I—only me—love—in this particular way—you—and no one else” is what it means. Ten children later, look what a beautiful new freedom, fruitfulness, and flourishing such “limiting” sentiments have made possible.

My vocation to limitation

Without limitations, there would be no Christ. The Eternal and Unlimited Word became flesh, uniting himself to our human nature, embracing the limitations of time and space which thirty-three years in Palestine afforded Him. Jesus Christ, true God and true man; the unique limitation of the limitless.

We are caught up into that mystery in Baptism, in the life of grace. As we have seen above, limitation is part of our “natural vocation to being human.” Yet it is also part of our supernatural vocation as “sons in the Son” to embrace the fact that we are not the source of existence, not masters of space and time, not masters of other people—sometimes, indeed, not even entirely our own masters.

In his essay “A Remaining Christmas,” Hilaire Belloc describes the traditions with which Christmas is kept in “a certain house in England.” Despite narrating the customs of this house in the third person, it is clear that this “certain house” is none other than “King’s Land,” Belloc’s own beloved home in Sussex, which he purchased in 1906. It was at King’s Land that Belloc and his wife Elodie raised their five children; here Elodie died of cancer at the age of forty-five; here he spent more than forty years of his widowhood until his own death in 1953. His essay climaxes with a poignant statement of how the repeated celebration of Christmas challenges and restrains the principle of change and mortality in immortal man’s life, making “explicable, tolerable and normal what is otherwise a shocking and intolerable and, even in the fullest sense, abnormal thing,” namely death. Listing a multitude of bereavements which plague the life of man, Belloc suddenly allows a glimmer of hope to enter the disappointments and limitations with which “all the bitterness of living” had filled his life. These things, he says, can become “part of a large business which may lead to Beatitude.”

Despite so many limitations, life is “a large business.” Most wonderfully, it has the potential to lead to beatitude. We cannot arrive there, nor be reasonably content on this side of heaven without embracing life’s limitations as part of the medium with which we are crafting our eternity. The “small canvas of our life” should be precious to us like a home; like the plot of land (whether literal or real) wherein we can live out the Universal Call to Hobbitness.

Recognizing that our influence, time, and energy is limited is not defeatist. No one asks us to convert the whole world. No one expects us to save every damsel in distress. No one thinks we can work every job. But we can convert ourselves, and perhaps one or two around us. And hopefully we will have an opportunity to save a particular princess from at least one particular dragon. Certainly, we all have one or two jobs we can do. We want to do all these things with a sense of being comfortable with God and man. We can only do that as particular men and women—you, me. Here, right now, in this city, in this country, with these relatives, and these talents, and these, our very own and unique life experiences.

All of these are the pigments we have to paint our lives with. Where are they going to go? Only one place: onto the canvas of our life. Our canvas has four edges. Let’s be thankful for those edges, thankful that our life has any canvas at all. Without it, how could there be any love, adventure, or beatitude?


Photo by Lucas Clara on Unsplash

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