Is it just me, or is everyone just exhausted right now?
These days every year bring the depressing loss of sunlight and introduction of chilly days. Certainly, that can throw off a circadian rhythm or two. But I think there is something more fundamental going on around us.
Here in the United States, our political and cultural situation has frazzled many otherwise calm and sensible people. The presidential Twitter account. Custody battles over whether a 7-year-old should be treated as a boy or a girl. A hysterical media. “Experts” savaging each other on Twitter.
Of course, none of this should be surprising. James Madison in the Federalist Papers warned us that without a virtuous citizenry, American society could devolve into chaos and stark divisions. Where, after all, do politicians, media pundits and celebrities come from, except the homes and neighborhoods of this county?
And if the American family has undergone dramatic changes in the last 50 years — and every serious social scientist will say that it has — then while the external structures of culture and society may remain, the internal attitudes of the people who make up those structures may be very different.
This is not to say that everyone is corrupt or evil. Yet we must admit that even many well-intentioned people hold fundamentally divergent understandings of human flourishing than, say, the one found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. So then the all-important question in such a society becomes: who gets to decide?
The post-war era of compromise has definitively given way to stark polarities in American society. Some think this divide is still about Democrats and Republicans, but that is not really the case. Those two parties, of course, are legacies of that post-war “American consensus.”
Here in the United States, there were certainly political disagreements during the Cold War, but in Washington, a spirit of moderation and compromise prevailed. How else could Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill collaborate on so many important pieces of legislation? How else could Dwight Eisenhower appoint William Brennan as a Supreme Court justice?
And yet — for all of its merits and problems — that consensus has given way to bitter partisanship, conspiracy theories, and — worst of all — failure to address so many pressing issues of concern to Americans.
Catholics are stuck in the middle, caught between an ascendant cultural left which resents so many of the church’s basic teachings, a foreign policy establishment that involves our country in many unnecessary conflicts, and an economic system that rewards profit maximization above all else.
Because of all these factors, we live in a divided, anxious, and, yes, exhausted world. We are exhausted by the sheer speed of societal changes, by the fast-paced rhythm of life, and by social problems that affect us all in one way or another. Our response as Catholics must be to radiate a sense of calm, joy, and hope amid these times.
In the period known as the “dark ages,” the Roman Empire collapsed from internal chaos and Barbarian invasions. Many thought the world was ending, and indeed many people had to get used to a different way of life.
Yet through this darkness, it was the church that reflected the light of Christ the way the moon reflects the light of the sun. St. Augustine remained in his diocese of Hippo as the Vandals invaded during his final days on earth. St. Benedict of Nursia gathered a small community of men dedicated to prayer and work. That movement spread throughout Europe, and Benedict’s monasteries become centers of worship, education, and charity for the poor.
In our own day, amid unimaginable suffering in Calcutta, it was a small Albanian nun named Mother Teresa who brought warmth and light, not by fixing everyone’s problems, but by pointing to Christ in the Eucharist, and by seeing him in the poorest of the poor.
Indeed, it seems the darker it gets, the more clearly the church shows the face of Christ to the world.
We must try our best not to be beaten down and exhausted by the world’s chaos or even by the church’s internal strife. (We have always had both with us, and for proof, just take a glance at Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.) The way to do this is by embracing prayer and silence, and by being faithful to the mission entrusted to each of us, whether we are parents, spouses, politicians, or priests.
We do this by renewing our trust in God, who responds to darkness and decay with new life: the lives of the saints, who witness most excellently to the providence of God.
One of the church’s newest saints — St. John Henry Newman — did this amid his own challenging times. And so he gets the last word:
God has created me to do him some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling.
Therefore I will trust him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends, he may throw me among strangers, he may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still he knows what he is about.
Father Eric J. Banecker is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish, Broomall.
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