Saturday, July 29, 2017

The war I must wage: destroying a piece of my own heart

The way I live, think, and write it would be a fool's errand for me to try to keep up with with all the political ups and downs of our present moment. Over time, I hope I am becoming less political. This is not a way of obliquely insisting that politics don't matter, they do, but not as much as I formerly thought. Because politics are provisional, seeking to be less political is my attempt at keeping politics in perspective. I am not a Republican, neither am I a Democrat. Given how these are understood in the United States, I can say that I am neither a liberal nor a conservative because, depending on the matter at hand, I am both a liberal and a conservative. Above all, I resist being in the thrall of any ideology.

I readily admit to finding the White House events from the Friday before last through yesterday to be both amusing and alarming. Maybe my interest is simply morbid curiosity, or is perhaps attributal to the ever-present sights and sounds of infotainment. In times like these there are a few working journalists whose writing helps me keep these provisional, even ephemeral, things in perspective. One such journalist is Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi. His article "The Anthony Scaramucci Era Will Be Freakish, Embarrassing and All Too Short" did not let me down in this regard. While it should go without saying (in the age of internet basic logic seems to fly out the window and some people insist on making invalid inferences, the popular name for which is jumping to conclusions), I have some pretty fundamental disagreements with Taibbi even as I find much of his work on what ails our republic politically and economically very insightful. In other words, as with many writers, philosophers, theologians, and economists, I find his diagnosis largely accurate, but part ways with him when it comes to many, by no means all, prescriptions.

It is way too easy to just provide a list of things that are wrong and walk away in disgust. It seems to me that this is just what many Christians content themselves with doing. It isn't much more difficult to follow one's list of ills with a plea to turn back the clock, which amounts to trying to reverse the world like Superman. The idea is to somehow restore what is deemed as a better time in the Church and in the world. Neither does the answer lie in Christians abandoning the world. A priest named Jonathan Morris summed this up nicely on Facebook recently: "Engaging the world, in all its messiness, has always been the Gospel way. Isolating ourselves in a cocoon of likemindedness is the easy way out."

In his speech to open the Second Vatican Council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia ("Mother Church Rejoices"), the eminent historian, Angelo Roncalli, more popularly known as Pope St John XXIII, directly addressed those who see nothing but evil and who prefer trying to live in the past:
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.

In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God's superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church
A Christian is not one who stands looking wistfully behind the plow, but is someone who not only looks ahead to the full realization of God's glory, which is yet to be fully revealed, and who actively seeks to usher in God's reign by living it as a present reality. A Christian, to paraphrase the liturgy, is one who waits in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. I think the two words in that statement that require emphasis are "joyful" and "waits" in that order. Either Jesus is Lord of the present moment (i.e., he is Lord right here and right now), or he is not Lord at all.

This brings me to the point I want to make. Being a Christian is not to participate in some fantasy role-playing game, killing time 'til the parousia. Being a Christian is to be one who engages reality as it is and not as s/he might want it to be and to do so according to all the factors that together make reality what it is and not something else.

When it comes to those so-called "hot-button" social issues that challenge our humanity on a fundamental level, about which many Christians in the U.S. are rightly concerned, issues such as sexuality, marriage, parenting, life and death, we need to grasp the reality so we can engage as salt and light. Let me take two issues: marriage and abortion. In the United States these matters are now constitutional matters. In other words, they cannot be changed by the collective acts of Congress and the president, let alone by state legislatures and governors. The longer the decisions that made them constitutional issues endure, the more they become settled law and the less likely it is the Supreme Court will overrule them no matter who is appointed to the court. Like it or not, this is the reality we must face full on. Is it possible to amend our constitution? Sure. It's fine to advocate for such amendments. However, there is nowhere near the consensus to make such changes to our fundamental law. In fact, when it comes to consensus-building, the momentum currently goes against such efforts. This, too, is part of the reality we must engage.

Politics cannot save us, but I am convinced politics can damn us. For Christians how we engage our society and culture matter as much, if not more, than those matters that prompt us to engage. It seems to me that when we quote Jesus from Matthew's Gospel (10:16) to the effect that, as sheep sent among wolves, we are to be "shrewd as serpents and simple as doves," we usually, if implicitly, elevate shrewdness over simplicity, or gentleness. The effect of acting according to this implicit understanding is that it usually leads to something like becoming wolves in sheep's clothing: saying all the right "Christian" things while acting contrary to the Gospel.

"God Carrying Us," by Soichi Watanabe, based on Isaiah 46:4

I am tempted to pose the question here, "Given our acknowledgement of reality, do we surrender?" The problem I have with posing that question is it assumes that the Church's and, hence, the individual Christian's, relationship to the world and to other people is one of incessant combat. In other words, it assumes life is a war and the Church is an army. If we take that stance, we are forced to decide if someone is an ally or an enemy. If an enemy, then someone not only to be resisted, but to be vanquished, routed, beaten. In my view, this is no way to follow Christ. I say that being well-aware that martial imagery for the Church is not foreign to the Christian tradition. It is foreign, it seems to me, to the New Testament. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, gave us to two complementary images for the Church on earth, which, during the Counter-Reformation era, an era ended by the Second Vatican Council, was called the Church Militant: "the People of God" and "the pilgrim Church."

As a Christian the only battle I really need to fight is the one within myself. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in his book The Gulag Archipelago:
the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
In what is still the road map for evangelization in the modern world, Evangelii Nuntiandi, promulgated by Bl Pope Paul VI more than 40 years ago, he observed:
for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one's neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word.[1 Pet 3:1] It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity (par 41)
I think anything less what Pope Paul called for will prove futile. Besides, isn't it so much easier to reduce faith by conforming it to a secular political ideology and then engaging in political activism than to give humble, joyful witness to goodness, truth, and beauty for love of God and neighbor, by how I live day-to-day?

Practicing the fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, the latter of which primarily consists of selfless service to others, along with our participation in the sacramental life of the Church, are the means God gives us both to fight our interior battle and to engage the world in love as it is and not as we wish it was.
For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith (1 John 5:3-4)
Again, I had the best of intentions with regard to posting a traditio yesterday, but I did not do so. This only serves to prove, as I so often do, that intentions in and of themselves get you nowhere. So, our late traditio for this week is two Camaldolese monks who belong to the Hermitage of the Immaculate Heart in Big Sur, California- Fr. Cyprian and Brother James- with a simple and lovely rendition of one of my favorite hymns, Tantum Ergo:

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