Reflections from St. Benedict’s Prep: Existence, Morality, and the Good Life

Samuel Pineda and Kamily Flores are students of Scala alumnus Stephen Adubato, a teacher at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, NJ.

Mr. Adubato’s classroom is a living embodiment of Scala’s vision of liberal education as a shared adventure in learning: open to all, practiced in friendship, and steered towards transcendent truth. Through the courses he teaches, including World Religions and Introduction to Philosophy, Mr. Adubato cultivates his students’ love for learning, and these essays by Pineda and Flores exemplify how that love bears fruit.

The Ridiculousness of Existence

By Samuel Pineda

            Life is in a nutshell, absurd. The philosopher Albert Camus claims that one’s ultimate goals and/or expectations are met with a lack of meaning. We are stuck in a loop similar to the myth of Sisyphus, where no action we take can have a meaningful metaphysical impact. I have questioned many times throughout my own life whether through a broader point of view my actions or decisions might be futile. This especially holds true in the continuous action of furthering my education.

When it comes to any action that I can physically do, the power it entails affects only this world. What I can do with my own two hands might never amount to anything more than the consequences I face in this life. “I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.” (Camus, The Stranger, 41). The protagonist, Meursault, here claims that since the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective, no one’s actions can truly make them wholly good or bad. This challenges the moral idea of always wanting to do good in order to be a good person. If what defines the character of our actions are consequences (that are in themselves man-made, therefore subjective) then our actions have no definitive value in themselves.

This leads me to contemplate the importance of my actions, specifically the decision to go to school everyday and submit myself to more challenging classes. “When I was a student I had lots of ambitions like that. But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered,” says Meursault (Camus 41). This spoke directly to me and made apparent that so much can happen in life that would render any opportunity to a future I would have thanks to an education completely pointless. The protagonist here has to give up his ambitions due to necessity. The same might happen to me and then trying so hard in school, late nights studying, and early morning rises, would all be in vain. Do I really want to attend college or is this something I ‘have’ to do to be seen as successful in society? This makes me think that the only value of the decision to stay in school is one of appearances. If one truly did not care about how he or she may appear to others, why push oneself in school? Especially when considering that ‘tomorrow is never promised,’ why waste your time on something that can prove to be so futile? It is absurd.

I tend to over analyze my reactions and think a lot about the effect they have on others, leading me to often feel I could have handled a situation better. “Nevertheless I answered that I had pretty much lost the habit of analyzing myself and that it was hard for me to tell him what he wanted to know. I probably did love Maman, but that didn’t mean anything.” (Camus, The Stranger, 65). The protagonist here would go as far as to claim that human emotions or feelings do not matter–even his love for his own mother. If one were to live life this way it would be self-contradictory. This is because a human being will always search to feel happy while they are alive and on this earth. It is almost instinct to want to have a good time regardless of what may be going on, but happiness is an emotion and, according to the protagonist, does not mean anything. This is one of Camus’ points that I disagree with. Human emotion can be rooted in the physical, but I’d say it transcends that as it goes to the metaphysical.

Our endeavors on this planet are useless unless there exists something more than the physical realm. My religion gives me the faith that there is more than what this life has to offer. Camus would say that there is nothing more to look forward to, and in doing so might promote the mindset of living according to a relativistic notion of freedom in this life…freedom without having an ultimate expectation or goal that would limit us. After Sisyphus gives up on pushing the boulder up the hill and embraces the absurdity of his existence, ought we really imagine Sisyphus happy, as Camus suggests? I would imagine Sisyphus much happier should he remain open to the possibility of discovering an objective Truth that gives meaning to the “absurdity” of his task and of his existence.

Finding Rest in His Timing

By Kamily Flores

            Since the dawn of Modernity, we have been offered a variety of existential worldviews to ascribe to. In our class, we focused on three: the “YOLO” or “Carpe Diem” ideal, which tells us to live in the moment since there is nothing at the end of our lives. Why not live it up? The bourgeois ideal, which prioritizes comfort and complacency, living according to what is deemed “normal” or expected by society. This ideal upholds being a “good person,” and discourages veering toward the “extreme” poles of decadence and asceticism. Lastly, there’s the”Memento Mori” ideal, whose point of departure is the reality of death and the afterlife. A lot of people choose to take this path, including my parents. And as much as it has played a role in my upbringing, I still question its veracity. But reading St. Augustine’s Confessions made me feel as though it was ok to ask questions. In fact, he clarified that it is through questioning that we can begin to perceive God working in our personal experience. 

            Both of my parents grew up Catholic, as do the vast majority of people in Latin America. My parents had rough childhoods and in a way felt resentment towards God, but decided to remain Catholic.  In a way, my parents lived a very bourgeois lifestyle for many years. It wasn’t until marriage problems arose that my parents started seeking something more, very much like Augustine did. It’s disarming to see how similar their experiences were. Throughout these rough times, my grandmother prayed for them every single day hoping God would have mercy on their marriage, just like Saint Monica did for Augustine. Luckily my parents were able to find what they were looking for through God and decided to involve themselves more in the church.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been going to church and praying consistently, and I actually really enjoyed it. For some reason I thought everyone was Catholic and believed the same things I did. My mom taught me that the Catholic faith was the one and only true faith, and that prayer and God are the answers to everything. At one point, I started to drift away from everything that had to do with the Church–not physically, I would still pray and believe there is a God, but emotionally I wasn’t present. That’s where the questioning started for me. “I sinned, O Lord my God, in acting against the precepts of my parents and of those teachers” (Augustine, The Confessions, Book 2). I never thought of questioning as a sin, because I hated being forced to pray and participate in religious things. I don’t think it was the religious aspect but more so the fact that I didn’t get much of a choice.  Why did my parents impose their faith on me?  Why aren’t we open to other forms of beliefs/religions? As even more questions emerged, I decided to ask them. Sometimes I would just get vague answers, but I remember my mom saying “in the hardest moments of my life, he was there, he healed me and gave me peace.” Talking to her, in addition to reading Augustine’s Confessions, I began to understand that people’s faith and devotion come from personal experience. 

I shared this discovery with my mother. She admitted that her hope was that by just encouraging me and constantly mentioning God, I would have faith and wouldn’t have to wait until something bad happened in order to look for him. I understand and do appreciate my mom’s intentions, but Augustine’s experiences show that everyone has their time and everyone learns in their own way. However he chooses to reveal the answers to my questions, I trust that will eventually find God because, as Augustine said, my “heart is restless until it rests in Thee.”