By Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
The past weeks have been disheartening. It is not only the meltdown of Wall Street that is of concern, but tragically, the hurt that hides beneath the radar of headlines – families with heartache, jobs lost, homes foreclosed, savings swept away. Inspaniduals, grandparents, college students – all are affected.
And who can estimate the impact on those who are poor – those of our own country and those of developing countries who cannot pay for bread! As the economic saying goes, “when the United States sneezes, the developing world catches pneumonia!”
In the next few paragraphs, I make an analogy that touches on Christian faith. It is done with deep respect for the rightful anxiety that many carry at this time.
Let me start with one sentence spoken about a man, an economist, an entrepreneur, a founder of a very successful mutual-fund firm – a firm which, thus far, seems to have avoided the lures and failures of other corporations.
The sentence is this: “In his view, he’s been lucky in his career, so there’s no reason to advertise his success, no reason to aggrandize himself.” (“Market Moralist,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 19, 2008)
It was the word “lucky” that leaped off the page. How gracious! But then the question came to me: What would be the opposite of “I was lucky?” Would it be words such as, “I worked hard,” or “I had a great vision,” or “I made good decisions?”
Something in Christian history came to me – an old heresy named after a fifth century man called Pelagius.
According to Pelagius, we humans achieve salvation on our own. There is no sense of grace, no original sin, no recognition that we are hemmed in on every side, truly limited human beings!
In our own time there are subtle variations of Pelagianism. Some of them are buried deep in our culture. “You can be whatever you wish.” “You can define yourself.” “Just make the right choices….” “If you choose such and such, you will be free of disease.” “You can get better, if only you will it.”
Of course, there can be a moment for such urgings. In the workplace as in the spiritual life, there is a place for initiative, choosing, working – even place for a holy competition.
But there is in our time and in our country, perhaps not the full-blown heresy as such, but an atmosphere, a cultural bias. It sees success and health and the good life as coming to me not because “I was lucky,” but because I “worked” for it, earned it, chose it.
In this narrowness of spirit, there is little room for “being lucky,” little room for grace, for having been “blessed.”
The attitude of “I worked hard” can slip subtly into a loss of compassion, a disdain for immigrant weakness, a hidden attitudinal tilt with racial or class overtones.
Today, in this moment of economic anxiety, the path is complex. No pious bromides are offered here. Yet not only for the world of finance, but for ourselves, simple understandings that we poor creatures of God are human, fallible, affected by history and community, limited in choices, hurt by others, helped by others.
Today in every way, in business, in finance, in life, in church, in our hearts, in our prayer – we all need to learn to say something like “I was lucky; I was blessed; I was graced.”
And in this most serious downturn, we must pray for one another, especially for those deeply affected: “O Loving God, deliver us! Impart wisdom to leaders; give caring hearts to all who can share the burdens of brothers and sisters.”
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Seminary.