Summer 1986, Vol. 38, pp. .

Charles Cummings:
      The Best Place to Live

Buddhist Jewish and Christian insights help us discover meaningful parts of God's eternal plan for creation in the difficult and dangerous events of life.

Fr. Charles Cummings, O.C.S.O., has been a Trappist monk at Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah, for twenty-four years. He holds a degree in formative spirituality from Duquesne University and has written several books.

RECENTLY a radio talk-show in San Francisco invited listeners to telephone and say which city they thought was the best place to live, and which the worst. Most of the callers had lived in several cities, and they gave personal reasons for their choices. For some it was cultural or economic opportunities that made the difference. For others it was the climate and environment, the ready access to mountain skiing or ocean swimming, the historical memories of the place, the degree of traffic congestion and pollution, or the friendliness of the people.

This poll was not meant to be a scientific sampling, and its results are not important for our purposes. What caught my attention was the fact that most callers were not then living in the city they considered the best. Some were obliged to live in what they thought was the worst place. Economic or other circumstances obliged them to settle for less than the best, and they seemed content enough where they were. Even in the worst of cities, "there's no place like home."

In many areas of life we find ourselves unable to make the move that seems ideal for us. We find ourselves blocked by circumstances such as lack of funds, prior commitments, the needs of other people, our age or infirmity, or a tangle of other circumstances beyond our control. Even if we were completely free to do as we pleased and go where we fancied, we would be likely to meet a different set of limits or drawbacks in our new situation. Even the best of cities has occasional potholes in the pavement.

The presence of limitations is one of the basic facts of human life. As I write this page, it happens that my telephone is out of order after a recent storm. If I wished to place a call, I would be unable to do so, even in an emergency. Until the repair crew restores service, there is nothing I can do but put up with the situation as it is. The inconvenience in this case will be minor and temporary. Limitations that chafe most harshly are those that are ongoing and totally frustrating. Where can one turn when forced to accept an unacceptable situation? How does one make the best of it when life deals out a bad hand?

Because questions which have to do with inevitable limitations have been around since the beginning of human history, we should be able to tap a large store of accumulated wisdom for the best answers. Within the limits of a short article, I will give only a few examples, with emphasis on the dimension of spirituality. I believe that the insights of spirituality are uniquely helpful in making sense out of the human experience of adversity. Psychologist Carl Jung noted that his patients in the second half of life were not really healed unless they regained their lost spiritual outlook on life.


Zen Buddhism transmits some of its deepest wisdom in the form of stories that are deceptively simple. Some of these stories deal with the universal human problem of suffering due to conditions over which we have little or no control. These range from the daily weather to our personal hereditary makeup. The problem is: where to go, what to do, how to cope.

According to one story, a disciple asked the Zen master Tung-shan: "When the heat of summer and the cold of winter arrive, how can we escape them?" Tung-shan answered, "Why don't you go where there is no heat or cold?" "Where is this place," asked the disciple, "where there is no heat or cold?" At this the master replied, "When it is hot, be completely hot; when it is cold, be completely cold."

The disciple's question had a symbolic meaning, and the answer was given on the same level. Heat and cold stand for circumstances that affect our daily existence but are out of our hands to regulate or rectify. Impersonal facts with far-reaching effects on us include: general economic conditions; situations of war, violence or peace; accidents; laws, policies and prejudices; possibilities and opportunities available in a particular community; mechanical and technological breakdowns (like my telephone), and so on. Whether we like it or not, these things condition the quality of our lives and limit our free options. The disciple wished to know how to escape such restraints. He wished to live in an ideal country where it is never too hot or too cold.

The Zen master's reply was also symbolic. Instead of offering an escape route, he invited the disciple to plunge directly into the current situation and become completely hot in summer, completely cold in winter. According to an interpretation by Francis Dojun Cook in his book How To Raise An Ox, the Zen master was suggesting a radical affirmation of one's very conditionedness in order to transcend it. By plunging directly into the current, one flows with it and on it. When resistance is futile, yielding to the flow of the current of events offers the promise of life.

In order to understand the reply of Tung-shan and test its value, we have to realize that he was speaking of a change in attitude. Rather than attempting to change the facts of the situation, or escape them by flight, we may change our attitude, accept things as they are, and thereby move beyond them to a point where we find peace of mind. That point or region of peace is the country where "there is no heat or cold." These conditions no longer exist as problems for us, although they continue to exist as facts. What has changed is our attitude toward them.

We may ask whether the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition invites us to sell out to the forces of destruction in the world. Does it mean giving up and lying down to die without a struggle? I think the Zen master's reply is more subtle and more realistic. If situations can be improved by making some adjustment, I will make the adjustment: when I can adjust the dial of the radio to get a clear station, why should I listen to static? Buddhist wisdom speaks to situations that cannot be helped, such as the inevitability of death (or even a dead telephone). The Buddhist answer might be faulted, however, to the extent that it remains on the psychological level of changing one's attitudes, without holding out the existential possibility of new life. Let us compare the wisdom of another tradition.


Hebrew wisdom is partly contained in the Hebrew Bible, usually called by Christians the Old Testament. Throughout their long history, the Jewish people have been subject to periodic peril, pressure, and misfortune. The Old Testament records how Yahweh permitted foreign kings to conquer the chosen people and lead them into exile until they repented and turned wholeheartedly to the saving God. The limitations imposed on the Hebrews often came from the hostility of neighboring people, beginning with the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus.

By the time of the prophet Jeremiah in the sixth century B.C.E., the Babylonians were the scourge of the Near East. Twice they sacked Jerusalem and drove her population into exile. In these crises, many looked to the prophet for a word from Yahweh. What should they do, where should they turn? The control of their nation and of their own lives was being taken from them by the Babylonians. They felt powerless and bewildered.

The Babylonian siegeworks had already arrived at the city of Jerusalem to breach its walls when the word of the Lord came to the prophet Jeremiah. God commanded him to carry out a symbolic act for the entire population to see. He was to buy a field in Anathoth, pay for it in hard cash, and make a permanent record of the transaction. When the Babylonians were at the gates, it should have been time to think of mounting a defense instead of acquiring real estate for farming and the grazing of cattle. Jeremiah's incongruous action symbolized a promise of the God of Israel: "Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land" (Jer. 32:17).

Jeremiah's purchase of farmland not only prefigured peacetime activities; it was a first bold step toward the time of peace, a gesture of peace cast in the teeth of war. The meaning of this example for our topic is that one must count on the future even in the midst of imminent peril. As holocaust-survivor Elie Wiesel says in his book Five Biblical Portraits: "One must not wait for the tragedy to end before building or re-building life; one must do it in the very face of tragedy."

Jeremiah's attitude was that life should go on, even in times of national tragedy or of personal affliction. Daily, life-affirming tasks -- like cooking, eating, cleaning, nursing, teaching -- should continue, not out of blindness to the present danger but out of hope in God's promise. When the situation looks hopeless from the human point of view, the attitude of hope stakes a claim on the power and promise of God. Hope gives God room in which to act. Jeremiah's hope was eventually vindicated when the Hebrews returned to their land from exile in Babylon.

An example from our own century shows how Jewish wisdom promoted a positive attitude toward life in spite of the Nazi holocaust. A Dutchwoman named Etty Hillesum left a diary of her last months and weeks before deportation to an extermination camp where she was killed. Called An Interrupted Life, her diary reveals a sense of inner freedom and safety that came from an immeasurable trust in God's fidelity. "I don't feel in anybody's clutches," she wrote. "I feel safe in God's arms, to put it rhetorically."

Etty Hillesum did not underestimate the threat under which she was living. She accepted the inevitable destruction: "I am only bowing to the inevitable and even as I do so I am sustained by the certain knowledge that ultimately they cannot rob us of anything that matters." Acceptance did not mean resigned indifference; she felt deep moral indignation towards the forces that were dehumanizing her. She savored life, especially the life of poets, writers, and artists. When events brought her to the drafty barracks of a detention center full of persecuted people, she was able to accept this form of life too: "Not for a moment was I cut off from the life I was said to have left behind. There was simply one great, meaningful whole."

The attitude that sustained Etty Hillesum was not simply a cheerful effort to make the best of a bad situation. She was able to see good as well as bad. Life was good. God was good. Her life was in God's hands, and therefore even death was meaningful as part of a great, mysterious whole. Although she did what she could to improve the situation for herself and others, she could say that "everything is fine just as it is." Her faith empowered her to affirm life and to discover the presence of God everywhere: "Every situation, however miserable, is complete in itself and contains the good as well as the bad." Etty Hillesum did not achieve such a positive, confident attitude without a long struggle and much suffering, but the forces of life were finally victorious in her against the forces of doom and gloom.


Christian tradition draws inspiration from the life, teaching, and death of Jesus Christ. His mission was to inaugurate the kingdom of God by carrying out the divine plan: "Doing the will of him who sent me and bringing his work to completion is my food" (John 4:34). What looked like the tragic failure of Christ's mission, under the hammer-blows that nailed him to a cross, proved to be the glorious fulfillment of the divine plan. "Did not the Messiah have to undergo all this so as to enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:26).

The strength of Jesus' commitment to the Father's will was tested throughout his life. Although he was never unfaithful to the Father, "he was tempted in every way that we are" (Heb. 4:15). His acceptance of God's mysterious plan was not a matter of automatic compliance but of struggle and trouble of soul (John 12:27). The testing by Satan in the desert at the beginning of his ministry was typical of the struggles that faced Jesus throughout the years of his ministry until he died on the cross amid the taunts of scoffers. When Satan left Jesus in the desert, Luke's gospel tells us that it was only "to await another opportunity" (Luke 4:13).

Christ's threefold temptation in the desert was basically the temptation to reject God's plan for his mission and substitute a more immediately effective plan of his own. Would he accept his role as obedient servant of God, or would he use his power to change the course of events and hasten the reign of God by other means? Using quotations from Deuteronomy, Jesus responded to the Tempter by reassuring his intention to live by God's word, God's methods. He emerged from the desert strengthened by the test he had faced.

Temptation presents opportunity as well as danger. Jesus met the crisis creatively by using the experience for a renewed expression of his sonship. By practice he was gaining skill in turning danger into opportunity. "Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). From repeated experience he learned that he must lose his life in order to save it, according to the Fathers will. The event on Calvary by which Jesus finally lost his life became the occasion for his final victory over death. His "lifting up" was both exaltation and crucifixion, according to the insight of the Fourth Gospel (John 12:32). To his followers Jesus passed on the heritage of finding within negative circumstances themselves the means to transcend them.

When we ask what Christian wisdom has to say about coping with negativity and human limitations, we have on the horizon this example of Christ who always did "the works the Father has given me to accomplish" (John 5:38). Christ freely chose to carry out the Father's will which was a mystery to him in his humanity. As history unfolded, some aspects of this mystery could be discerned. The Letter to the Ephesians reflected on "the mystery, the plan God was pleased to decree in Christ, to be carried out in the fullness of time: namely, to bring all things in the heavens and on earth into one under Christ's headship" (Eph. 1:9-10). God's master-plan is all-inclusive, extending to every event and taking into account creative human freedom. Christian wisdom tries to see all the events of life -- whether personal, political, favorable, or unfavorable -- as meaningful parts of God's eternal plan for creation.


Pope John XXIII is a notable modern example of patient, creative acceptance of God's mysterious plan. The personal reflections and retreat resolution of Angelo Roncalli, assembled over sixty-seven years, are available under the title Journal of A Soul (1965). His spirituality was completely traditional, based on imitating Christ and living a life of love. The motto "obedience and peace," which he borrowed from Cesare Baronius, was his constant rule. He found peace of heart in obedience to God's will as manifested by the course of events and by the decisions of his superiors. Pope John's appealing simplicity and humanity were acquired at the price of what he called "total detachment from everything, with absolute indifference to both praise and blame." A closer look at his career will explain this attitude.

As a Vatican diplomat, Roncalli spent ten years in Bulgaria, nine years in Turkey, and seven years in France. Each of these missions brought its own combination of joy and grief to a man whose vision for spiritual renewal often went beyond the possibilities of the concrete situation. His next appointment was to Venice as Cardinal Patriarch. Five years later, at the age of seventy-seven, he was elected to the papacy, where he took pleasure in being called "servant of the servants of God." About his election, he said: "I did nothing to obtain it, absolutely nothing." Roncalli seems to have been genuinely free of ambition; he called ecclesiastical honors "vanity of vanities," and even "stupidities."

One might think that as Pope John XXIII -- loved and esteemed throughout the world -- he was able to accomplish everything his heart desired. After all, he did convoke Vatican Council II. It is true, he accomplished phenomenal things in five short years, but not without opposition. The Council itself evoked opposition from the prophets of doom. Two months before publicly announcing the Council, Pope John noted in his diary that God tests his loved ones "with all sorts of trials such as bodily infirmities, bitterness of soul and sometimes opposition so powerful as to transform and wear out the life of the servant of God, the life of the servant of the servants of God, making it a real martyrdom."

After the Council had been announced, but before it had convened, Pope John alluded to "events that seem to be working against the good of the Church" and to "the audacity of those who, with unseeing minds led astray by secret pride, presume to do good without having been called to do so . . . ."

These circumstances caused him much grief. Still, he was able to preserve interior tranquillity because of his trust in God's plan and in Christ's own care for his church. "The Lord Jesus, the founder of Holy Church, directs all that happens with wisdom, power and indescribable goodness according to his own pleasure and for the greater good of his elect who form his Church, his beloved mystical Bride."

In the midst of events that made his heart suffer, Pope John recalled that he had been placed in this position of service by God's will, and that the future was in God's hands, not his. He reminded himself: "Recognize that I have been set here by God and therefore remain perfectly serene about all that happens, not only as regards myself but also with regard to the Church, continuing to work and suffer with Christ, for her good." Without being anxious about things to come, he went on working and suffering in union with Christ. The example of Christ's obedience unto death was frequently in his thoughts: "Of all the mysteries of the life of Jesus, this is the most suitable and most familiar thought for the Pope's constant meditation: 'To suffer and be despised for Christ and with Christ.'"

Angelo Roncalli's attitude of total surrender to God's will had been forged in a crucible of adversity during his years as apostolic delegate. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his episcopal consecration, he reflected on those early years, especially in Bulgaria. "In Bulgaria, the difficulties of my circumstances, even more than the difficulties caused by men, and the monotony of that life which was one long sequence of daily pricks and scratches, cost me much in mortification and silence." The men in question were not the Bulgarians but his superiors in "the central organs of administration" in Rome.

Year after year he was left in uncertainty about the scope of his mission. His outgoing, sociable temperament chafed under the semi-isolation he felt in Sofia. However, he refused to complain or .request a transfer. After five years there (with five more ahead), he wrote: "I am willing to live like this even if the present state of things were to remain unchanged for years and years. I will never even express the desire or the slightest inclination to change, however much this may cost me in my heart." Roncalli was not being bullheaded; he was making God's will his own. So totally did he surrender his own will that he could say, "in truth, were I to ask myself what I would desire or do, other than what I am doing now, I would not know how to answer."

For Roncalli, the best place to live was always the place where God's will had placed him. Going by the motto "obedience and peace," he learned to function creatively under restrictive conditions and to accept gracefully what he could not change. His attitude of patient waiting for God's plan to unfold must not be confused with a corpse-like passivity. God's mysterious plan of love is not a blueprint that stifles human freedom but one that expects our co-creational contribution. Roncalli took every creative initiative he could think of, but always with the idea that he was following the inspiration of grace within the limits of God's will. He himself identified this attitude as the mainspring of his existence: "This is the mystery of my life. Do not look for other explanations. I have always repeated St. Gregory Nazianzen's words: 'The will of God is our peace."'

If Angelo Roncalli projected an unshakable confidence in life, it was because of his trust in the wisdom of God's eternal plan which unfolds historically through natural events and free human choices. From day to day he embraced the divine plan without anxiety about the future. He believed in this maxim: "Absolute trust in God in all that concerns the present, and perfect tranquillity as regards the future." In this spirit he accepted his own death at the age of eighty-two, without seeing the outcome of the Council he had summoned. The guiding principles of Pope John's spirituality came from a long Christian tradition of dealing creatively with the inevitable difficulties of life.


Where, then, is the best place to live? Buddhist wisdom replies that if we affirm and accept the unavoidable facts of our situation, any place may prove to be the ideal place for us where it is neither too hot nor too cold. Hebrew wisdom, according to the examples we have seen, bases its response on a strong faith and hope in God's promises. God will lead us to the best place, the place of life, even if the path winds through the land of exile or a concentration camp. What is needed is to trust life and affirm life by every means in every situation. Learn to live anywhere, because God's love and care embrace his servants everywhere.

Both these traditions concur in saying not to flee the present situation in search of a better place. Both insist on the importance of having the right attitude toward the actual situation. Christian wisdom, with its eye on the life of Jesus Christ, would endorse these positions and add a further dimension to the discussion. "Do not go running about excitedly," said Jesus (Luke 17:23). Jesus understood his people's hopes for a place in the kingdom of God, but he insisted that "it is not a matter of reporting that [the kingdom] is 'here' or 'there.' The reign of God is already in your midst" (Luke 17:21). What is called for is not a change of place but patient, creative fidelity to the situation in which one has been placed by God's will. "The one who holds out till the end is the one who will come through safe" (Mark 13:1).

Christian wisdom, which in this respect has much in common with the Buddhist and Hebrew traditions, finds that place best where God has called each one. God has a master-plan for each individual and for all human history. God's plan, which is God's will, runs through all reality, including the inescapable limitations of human life, culminating in the certainty of death. To freely say yes to that plan is to live creatively here and now. It is not so much the place but the way we live that makes all the difference.