What am I here for? What am I meant to do with my life? Of all the questions that religious believers ask, these may be the ones that baffle and irritate nonbelievers most of all.
No one is really “meant” for anything, they scoff — any more than, say, a drop of water is “meant” to be wet. Similarly, no one is put here on earth “for” anything, because — as the secularists might say — there is no “there” there to be “for” for. No one is watching our petty choices; no one follows our pathetic dramas; no one has transcendent expectations of us; no one is there, hence there’s no one to care.
The powerful, contrary sense of other individuals that they do indeed answer to some higher purpose is just a tale told by idiots, many modern people would say. The idea of divine providence may even turn out to have some kind of evolutionary utility, as the more sophisticated now sometimes opine; but it has no more reality to it than Voldemort’s wand, say, or a child’s dream of flying.
Such is the consensus among increasing numbers of educated Westerners. Yet like silent sentinels bestriding human history, the lives of men and women who have believed otherwise stand in powerful opposition to the idea that that’s really all there is. Time and again, personal history and capital-H History alike have been transformed visibly, even irrevocably, by the deeply felt conviction that one has finally ascertained what God is calling one to do — that there is in fact more to our brief, often sad, and always baffling lives than eating and drinking and suffering or the fleeting moments of pleasure upon passing on our genes.
This deep human belief in divine providence is far too ingrained and common to be disregarded as coincidental, and its results are far too powerful to be dismissed convincingly as the theological equivalent of the human appendix, say, or some other evolutionary adaptations that humanity just doesn’t need anymore. And although many figures across time, great and small, have believed themselves called by higher powers to do what they do, it is in Christian history specifically that the effect of discerning that larger purpose appears most powerfully — beginning with Paul, whose epiphany on a day otherwise much like any other goes on to transform the world.
Granted, not everyone’s moments of discernment are quite as unambiguous. But the power of the conviction that one is finally doing what one is meant to do runs through Christian history like an electric current, joining in one grand circuit the martyrs of the past and future as well as untold legions of ordinary and unknown souls similarly transformed by the shared experience of believing they have found their true vocations.
Andreas Widmer’s The Pope and the CEO is a singular and wonderfully contemporary contribution to just that tradition. Part autobiography, part advice tome both practical and spiritual, it is above all a compelling account of what happened in the life of one particular man once he set at the center of his own compass that eternal question, What am I here for?
The fact that the author began his adult life working for two years as a Swiss Guard for Pope John Paul II makes the book practically irresistible; after all, to have had Karol Wojtyla, of all people, as one’s personal instructor in the art of discerning one’s purpose in life is the metaphysical equivalent of having Yo-Yo Ma teach cello to your teenager. As George Weigel puts it in his introduction, “John Paul II was convinced that every human life is a drama, a vocational play in multiple acts, which is playing within the larger cosmic drama of God’s creative, redemptive, and sanctifying purposes.” These are convictions that Andreas Widmer took to heart, ultimately distilling them into the nine principles for life around which The Pope and the CEO is organized.
The result, as the author puts it, is “a guidebook for people trying to integrate faith into all aspects of their lives,” one “primarily intended to help the Christian executive, CEO, entrepreneur, or small-business owner learn some key principles of successful leadership, as I did, at the feet of John Paul II.” None of which is to say that this is a book for believers only. Like any other interesting life, Widmer’s is intrinsically appealing to any reader curious about how humans tick. Following his Swiss Guard service, the author next entered the business world in America and Europe, married and had a family, managed large numbers of people and lived lavishly, made and lost millions — and ultimately came to embrace the work he does now, running a nonprofit aimed at helping people out of poverty via free enterprise.
Along the way of telling this tale, Widmer has ample occasion to reflect on his experiences at the Vatican — his contacts with higher-ups, his training and itinerant brushes with history as a Guard, and of course his personal recollections of John Paul II. Throughout these pages, the former pope shines through like a gigantic human searchlight, illuminating those around him in unexpected ways — here, bringing Rome’s hated gypsies to dinner in the Vatican; there, opening his pool at Castel Gandolfo to staff, giving away presents to underlings, and comforting a homesick young Guard; everywhere, sacrificing his minutes and energy to give the people around him — well, apparently whatever he thought God wanted him to give. The unworldliness of this mentor, juxtaposed with the decidedly worldly realm that Widmer entered after leaving the Guards, certainly makes for an absorbing contrast. In general, The Pope and the CEO will appeal to anyone interested in what are, after all, some of the most interesting things in life: celebrity, success, failure, the Church; fame, family, money, power.
Even so, it is readers with a sense of the transcendent who will most appreciate Widmer’s autobiographical struggles between God and Mammon, the crucifix and the BlackBerry. The author sorts his way through these familiar conflicts clearly and with a light touch, at times drawing on the intellectual assets of the Christian tradition: from the New Testament to Augustine to the Rule of St. Benedict to Thomas Aquinas to more contemporary thinkers, among them Michael Novak and Benedict XVI.
Some of the overt advice in the book — know yourself, don’t compartmentalize, understand and exercise your free will, do all things in moderation, and other guidelines — may sound familiar to readers of the secular self-help genre. Even so, the passion with which these principles are delivered here gives them particular force. When Widmer writes of the high rates of marital breakup among CEOs, for example, he is not doing so as an armchair corporate critic, but as someone who knows perfectly well the reasons for that collateral damage, and who counts himself “among the lucky ones” for having an intact marriage and family.
Similarly, when he observes that only true humility leads to true greatness, and invokes the example of John Paul II by way of illustration, he speaks as someone who knew as few others could have just how physically robust Wojtyla was throughout most of his life (the Pope’s pace reportedly exhausted even his strapping young Guards, routinely). Widmer draws from this particular knowledge a deeper lesson — understanding precisely because of his former proximity to that pope just how meaningful it was to have John Paul II die before the cameras, in an effort to teach a lesson about human dignity. The author’s experiences in and out of the Vatican have certainly been one of a kind; but what he has taken from them to tell the world is a message universal.
In the end, it is hard to escape the coincidence that a book so steeped in the idea of providence comes at an eerily apt time — at the end of a long, hot summer dominated by financial news, all of it adverse and much of it frightening to an already anxious world. In sorting so earnestly and faithfully between good business and bad business, material success and real success, Andreas Widmer has produced something rare in this toxic economic time: a book that can profit not only real CEOs, but also those many more of us who are merely — in P. J. O’Rourke’s charming and apt phrase — “CEO’s of the sofa.” Fortunately for the rest of us, this former Swiss Guard turns out to have been watching his beloved Pope in more ways than one.
– Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism (Ignatius).