The line “Lead Lives of Significance,” is the integral part of the Mount’s undergraduate mission statement. Every student has heard the words or some derivation thereof repeated ad nauseam, from the first time they hear of the school to the end of freshman orientation. It appears in speeches, on stickers, and in promotional flyers. It’s even the background image of virtually every monitor across campus. One would be forgiven for coming to think of it as merely an empty cliche, indistinguishable from all the others that institutions like our school use to advertise themselves, but what has been lost in this understanding is the full, sacramental meaning that the line really suggests. Though it is all too infrequently explained in this way, the idea of “leading a life of significance” is not a suggestion to simply be a productive and responsible member of society, whether or not you are actually moored to the principles that impart actual meaning to life, rather it is the reaffirmation of our original purpose, to be the image and likeness of God.
The word ‘significant,’ while frequently used interchangeably with ‘meaningful,’ ‘notable,’ or even, simply ‘large,’ is perhaps best understood as meaning something signifying something else. In fact, it comes from the Latin signum, which is most literally translated as ‘sign.’ In this light it appears to be the case that to say, “lead a life of significance” is to say, “be sign.” How then are we to understand signs and human life in order for this exhortation to make sense?
In his work on catechesis, De Doctrina Christiana, St. Augustine explains that the interpretation of Scripture relies on examining its use of signs. The doctor of the Church sets up a dichotomy between signs and things, substances in the ordinary sense which are “never employed as a sign of anything else: for example, wood,”; however, real things can also point to things beyond themselves, such as “the wood which we read Moses cast into the bitter waters to make them sweet,” is literally a piece of wood but is also an allegory for Christ’s atoning death on the Cross. It is cases such as these that plain things become signs, “those things, to wit, which are used to indicate something else,” by engaging in the work of representation.
Writing much later in the same tradition as Augustine, Pope Benedict (then still Cardinal Ratzinger) gives us ‘In the Beginning. . .’ a series of his Lenten homilies, going through the account of Creation. In the second homily Benedict covers the creation of man, devoting no small part of it to unpacking the idea of the Imago Dei, the image of God. “Its nature as an image,” he tells us, “has to do with the fact that it goes beyond itself and manifests something that it itself is not. . .to be the image of God implies relationality.” Like Augustine’s signs as Augustine has defined them, images are things, which when recognized reveal something beyond themselves. To be human then is to reveal part of the nature of God, and, as Benedict continues, human beings “are most profoundly themselves when they discover their relation to their Creator.” That is to say that growth in holiness is synonymous with growth in humanity, our purpose is to be ourselves perfectly.
Augustine observes also that things, such as words, “are never employed except as signs.” When someone sees a word on a page it is not mere ink and paper, but the sign of something which exists beside itself, a kind of image. In this understanding we can find, perhaps, a more subtle parallel between the opening of John’s Gospel, and Genesis, aside from the first line. When the Evangelist calls Jesus “the Word,” he is saying nothing less than that, He is the perfect image of the Father, and thus the archetype of humanity.
Then to “live significantly” is to respond to the purpose of your creation as a son or daughter of God, by way of imitating Christ. If we are seeking this end then we really must be “in service to God and others” because as Pope Benedict says the human nature is “oriented to giving themselves to the Other and only truly receiving themselves back in real self-giving.” The idea of a significant life may seem deliberately opaque because of our modern inability to agree on what truly matters. Yet this idea is not meant to be a confusing secular bromide that suggests we get busy creating our own meaning but rather a profoundly Christian imperative informed by the realization that we are most free to be ourselves when we are grounded in the love of He who is beyond us.