Water in the Desert 

Recently I have been reading some great articles written in response to the “Benedict option” one from Bishop Baron and another from R.R. Reno over at First Things.

In summary, the “Benedict Option” is the idea that Christian communities should withdrawal from mainstream culture and focus on strengthening both individual and faith community relationships with Jesus Christ. I am incredibly oversimplifying the matter for the purposes of this article because the links provided above do a nice job detailing more what it is and how it’s written in response to recent cultural trends if you’re curious.

On a personal and entertainingly ironic level, I have been reading “Evangelizing Catholics” for my young adult group where author Dr. Scott Hahn outlines a response of engaging with the culture through the New Evangelization by witnessing the gospel first in families (the “domestic Church”) and then throughout the world. 

Both call for a similar growth in faith and spirituality lived out through a relationship with Christ in prayer and sacraments, and also in the Christian community. Dr. Hahn particularly mentions the important (and countercultural)  witness of Christian hope and I couldn’t agree more heartily.

However, in reading Christian responses to cultural things I think there may be some confusion to the idea of what constitutes Christian hope. 

If you were to peruse articles discussing the grounds of Christian hope from outside of the faith, you might mistakenly glean that Christian hope is based on winning the cultural war, attracting more converts than other religions, or attaining influence in political and social spheres. You might think this because so many of these articles addressing Christian cultural relevance, evangelization, and public policy express a sense of foreboding and no-holds-barred panic as they sit over statistics and wring their hands about the future.

That’s more or less to be expected, people being people, but what gets under my skin are the dry rebuttals offered by the Christians who address this panic head on. Those authors who list isolated statistics in support of their point (like a decline in some measure of immoral behavior) or argue against demoralizing statistics that counter their point (polls that show millennial church membership is lower than ever).

This strikes me as a colossal waste of valuable time because I would argue, as I’m about to, that Christian hope has not ever nor should it ever be remotely based on anything temporal or related to temporal affairs.

This is because the Christian life is not based on the temporal sands of time with it’s ever changing socio-political structures, it is based on our firm belief of our eternal soul being saved by Jesus Christ who died for our sins and our anticipation of a life of union with the Trinitarian God (Father, Son & Holy Spirit) in Heaven.

St. Peter states this succinctly and eloquently in his first epistle:

Blessed be God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to living hope throught the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith… Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your soul. (1 Pet 3-9)

The ultimate goal of the Christian life is the salvation of your soul. This is something that cannot be taken away by losing the culture war, by a decline in religious affiliation (millennial or other demographic), by unfavorable public policy or by persecution of any kind.

Do these things deserve attention? Sure, but to focus on these second things at the expense of the first thing (eternal salvation) would be a tragedy.  Conversely, by focusing on salvation as your goal you gain not only the satisfaction of every desire (eternal union with God) but you might knock out a few of those worrisome second things by your witness to and pursuit of the perfect love you experience in God beginning in time and lasting down through eternity.

Now, there may be those who find themselves wondering how on earth this belief sustains me. In this culture of instant gratification, how can I stand to detach from things that are good in the here and now (whether that good be an indulgence like chocolate or a greater good like political support for a worthy cause) for the promise of eternal life that “may or may not” make me happy one day in a very distant future after I’m dead?

The answer to that question could probably be an article of its own, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll say it is because for me there is no uncertainty surrounding the idea of eternal life with God. I am fully convinced from a combination of Catholic Church teaching and my own life experience that God is the only person who can fully satisfy the desires of my heart. There is absolutely no temporal thing that could fill the void in my soul that was intentionally made to receive the love of God. I know this to be true quite profoundly because in a very foolish pride I once tried to go out on my own and fill that void with temporal things rather than have a relationship with God which, as I’m sure my wiser readers can imagine, aside from being a bad idea in general made said void so much worse.

Yes, much like St. Augustine my heart was very restless until it rested in God but learning how to rest in God was a journey in and of itself (a journey that was aided by/if not entirely the result of Marian consecration via book #9 of my “Top Ten Life Changing Reads“). It was from this weakness and from this seeking that I stumbled onto the merciful love of God and from being absolutely immersed in that love I knew with perfect clarity that the love I had spent so long searching for could be found only in God and nowhere else. Much like a thirsty person traveling through the desert, once I stumbled upon the water of life everything else hailed by the world as so material and so satisfying felt like a mirage because I had experienced the true oasis. After that, it was easier to say no to the world because I knew it’s (once very convincing) promise of satisfaction to be an empty promise, a promise that had instead been perfectly satisfied in God and I felt like I was home at last.

Needless to say, this flies in the face of the prevalent cultural and moral relativism which (falsely) states that there is no truth, no one thing is better or worse than the other, and that the only things we humans can do is pursue what makes us individually happy with occasional consensus over things that are seen as “bad” but which are predictably inconsistent and constantly changing. In this view, our mirage from the previous metaphor would be presented as equally satisfying as the oasis and what you wanted to choose was up to you and was really none of my business. If I like the water I drink the water, if you like the mirage you sit comfortably in the mirage. No one way is hailed as right, no one way is hailed as wrong.

It doesn’t sound problematic at first and perhaps even comes across as open minded. The issue only arises is if you truly believe in your heart that one way is better than the other. That one way leads to life in Christ and the other to spiritual death. That one way leads to joy the other only to a pain and emptiness. In other words, the water of life is the only thing that can truly satisfy whereas the mirage leads to death. The truth in this instance is not relative but inescapable, that each and every person needs water to live and every mirage inevitably comes to end leaving you with nothing but a barren desert. This holds true for the spiritual life as well.

My Christian hope is my hope of eternal salvation won for me by Christ Jesus, the fruits of which flower even now while I’m still an earthly pilgrim. However, to ignore the eternal salvation of my neighbor, to transform the monastic idea of St. Benedict into a “Benedict option” that says in effect “let the heathens perish in their desert” while Christians shift their focus to strengthing their own oasis feels not only uncharitable but a grossly irresponsible response to the truth and the love which God has so charitably shared with an insignificant sinner like me as well as my fellow Christians.

You are not obligated to agree with anything I ever write on this blog or be moved by any of the corny metaphors I employ to illustrate my point better. You have a free will that is a gift of God, inseparable from the human existence, and which I would in no way violate through coercion or fear tactics. However I cannot sit comfortably in my own little oasis, be content with just my own relationship with God, because love by its nature is meant to be shared and I have been blessed with such a profound experience of the ever faithful and merciful love of God that I will not cease to invite you to share in it and experience it for yourself for as long as I live because not only do I hope to live forever with God in heaven, I’d like to see you there too.

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Hamilton

So a few months ago I made the mistake of taking my brother’s advice and listening to the soundtrack for Hamilton, a broadway show about the life of Alexander Hamilton in case there’s anyone left on this earth that hasn’t heard of it by now.

It’s extremely catchy and I’ve had it stuck in my head ever since. I was listening to it at work so I’ve absorbed more of the tunes than the plot points, but as someone who’s all too nerdy and loves musicals I really should have known this would happen and forfeit the opportunity to complain any further.

That said, I saw an interesting piece of news back in November regarding the Hamilton “controversy” with Vice President-elect Mike Pence attending a Broadway performance, getting booed and being told by one of the actors to remember minorities when he heads to Washington.

In the days that followed the news was all over it, Trump was tweeting, there were #boycottHamilton hastags everywhere. Yet all I could think of is how I live in an age of manufactured drama. It was really not a newsworthy issue but it was written of repetitively, commented on endlessly, used as an example of the deep divides plaguing this country and no one wanted to be left out of the know so that they could provide an opinion when called upon.

The haste and sensationalism of the 24-hour news cycle combined with the interconnectivity to news sites and social media from Smartphones (which go everywhere with you) has done an interesting thing to our society, it has blurred the line between news and gossip and created a colossal venue to manufacture meaningless drama as it churns crisis after crisis.  It turns molehills into mountains, it favors speed over accuracy, and perhaps most importantly it decides what gets talked about and what does not.

I point this out not to discuss the trend, which you have more than likely noticed, I point it out to discuss the far more interesting question that I got to wondering about this morning as I stumbled across yet another Hamilton article which is: why?

Why manufacture drama?

Well for one because it’s intensely profitable and people buy it. But why is it so especially lucrative in the United States? The answer that strikes me as closest to the truth is the decline of organized religion and I’m happy to make my case because I’m sure there are many of you who think that’s a serious stretch.

There are many secular “peace” lovers in this world who critique religion because in their minds it leads to nothing but violence and vehement disagreements between people of different religions. However, there is a huge gap in worldview between those who are purely secular and those who are religious that goes even beyond their belief/disbelief in God, and that is their view of the afterlife. In other words, whether or not you believe in God and the type of God you believe in shapes how you view what happens to you after you die. For example, one of the best things about being a Catholic is not my hazy belief in some vague paradise but my eager anticipation of being perfectly united with God Who is Love and this anticipation frames the way I view the world, the purpose of my existence, and plays a huge role in determining my actions (or at least how I desire to act!)

In the past different religions would differ on some of these questions (in no particular order):

  1. Who is the true God?
  2. What is the nature of the true God?
  3. What happens after death?
  4. What is the purpose of life?
  5. What should humans do with their lives/how should they act?

These questions matter and that is why disagreements on these questions were passionate because they carried with them eternal consequences. There is a lot of great theology from the eras of which I am speaking about.

The modern phenomenon is interesting because I don’t meet terribly many true atheists but I meet a lot of people who simply never ask themselves the above questions because they have been taught from an early age that the above questions don’t matter. They don’t matter either because they are explicitly told there is no afterlife or told that because nothing about the afterlife can be concretely proven using the scientific method it should not be believed in at all. It’s a clever component of the new atheism, the argument that avoids saying that God does not exist but instead purports that it does not matter whether God exists or not because the things in life that matter most are the concrete; what you can see, feel, touch, smell, and hear, what can be analyzed and proven “impartially” etc. In short, it confines existence to the purely material and since God is not purely material He is rendered inconsequential.

And while John Lennon may have dreamed of the day this would come I find I would rather die the death of a martyr to be with God than live in the prison of the material such a world creates. While you probably find that sentence more than a little dramatic (especially knowing as you do now of my penchant for musical theater) I am completely sincere. The world with no more religion is the world I was raised to live in. A world where you prepare as a child not to be a morally good person but for college in order to have a lucrative career to buy material goods, a world where your legacy and worth is tied to achievement alone rather than the inherent gift of existence granted by God, and a world especially of manufactured drama. A dull and idle existence that is rootless and tied to nothing and feels the need to create problems where there are none in order to foster the sense of purpose it lacks. A life of empty distractions, gossip and scandal, entertainment and material luxuries, lust over love, all designed to keep you from ever asking yourself the above questions or even wondering about them at all, because those questions are designed to lead you from the material to the eternal, to everlasting joy, true peace, and a love that satisfies beyond anything your material senses could ever comprehend.

And I confess that sometimes in this world of sleepy and comfortable materialism I find myself wanting to shout “wake up!” because these are the questions you were born to pursue, not the passing and idle gossip of the “news,” not the merely scientific and material. We each will only get so much time, why waste it on what does not last?

Knowledge is Power?

So as a former educator I am very familiar with the slogan “knowledge is power.”

It’s certainly a popular notion. If you’re going to vote and be part of a democratic society then you should be informed and educated. However, there is less consensus recently on what people should be informed and educated about. But to me knowledge is a tricky thing. Important? Certainly. But I have met many knowledgeable people in my day, and a great many of them still lack wisdom. And without wisdom what is the point of knowledge? You just know a lot of isolated facts that have no larger meaning, that reveal nothing to you about the mystery of life.

Because to me there are two ways to walk the path of understanding. The first is with humility, where you start seeking knowledge and discover things that result in you gaining wisdom. The second is with pride, where you start seeking knowledge that results in you gaining a superiority complex from what you discovered.

I like to write because it helps me walk the path to understanding, and I hope you know which way I’m striving after, because if you don’t then not only have I failed you, I’ve failed myself.