Exercising our independence from cultural grief

Marc Chagall - Abraham Mourning the Death of Sarah
Marc Chagall – Abraham Mourning the Death of Sarah
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I remember you
From the land of the Jordan and Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.  (Ps. 42:7)

This excerpt comes from today’s Morning Prayer.  At first glance, it might seem an odd verse to consider on Independence Day, but as I look with eyes of faith over [what seems to be] our national consciousness Psalm 42:7 might be more useful than you’d think.

A lot of people feel like the American experience is, at the moment, a big hole in the ground.  We hear about divisions everywhere: 50/50 elections and referenda, 4/4 Supreme Court Decisions, Partisan rhetoric (polemics, really)… racial divides, divides over gender identity issues… Everywhere there is talk of division.  Talking heads speak about the large number of Americans who believe the country is headed in the “wrong direction;” likewise the sense that for the first time, the next generation will not live as well as the last.  Neither a pollster nor a statistician, I won’t endorse any of these views in their specifics, but I will say – anecdotally – I’ve heard enough people talking like this (family, friends, parishioners) to conclude that people aren’t necessarily feeling great about America on Independence Day.  Many seem to be staring into a great big hole of sadness.  Indeed, the most commonly diagnosed clinical psychological conditions in the US are depression and anxiety.  What’s a country to do?

IMG_0149

Our souls are downcast within us.

A brief lesson in metaphysics: God created all things and made them good.  Goodness has substantial nature.  Think of goodness as a pile or a mountain.  What about evil?  Evil has no substance of its own.  God did not create it.  So what is evil?  It’s a “privation,” a lack of goodness.  Think of evil as a hole in the ground where a mountain ought to be.  Because evil has no substance of its own, it only has the power we substantial beings give it.

History would seem to prove that as weak concupiscent human beings we have a tendency to become fascinated, even obsessed, with the hole in the ground.  From the beginning, Adam and Eve were distracted from all the good God had created around them.  They became fixated on their perceived lack.  The devil plays on this in Genesis: “God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” (Gn. 3:5)

Marc Chagall - Expulsion from Paradise
Marc Chagall – Expulsion from Paradise

In the beginning, focusing on privation, focusing on lack brought about our fall.  Today, it seems to be responsible, at the very least, for a national bad mood.

Both sides in the current Western debate have fallen for the same trap.  The left (exemplified in T.S. Eliot’s Christianity and Culture) has spent three centuries running from the pain for Europe’s 17th century religious wars. Call it secular politics, call it rejection of patriarchal structures, call is sexual revolution it all goes back to the same flight from pain that began at the Peace of Westphalia.  But running from something painful is not the same as positively building up something better.  The current response of the right is eloquently exemplified in David Brooks’ recent column, Revolt of the Masses (June 28, 2016 – The New York Times): it’s not so much economic downturns that have angered the right, it is the death of the culture that sustained their souls.  Both left and right have become fixated on a metaphysical hole in the ground… both are grieving for a lack of life-giving culture.  What is the West to do?

…therefore I remember you
From the land of the Jordan and Hermon,
from Mount Mizar

It’s time to get up off the mat… not with a facile optimism but with a substantial hope!  God is author of all good.  He’s given us so much… not only material resources, but each other… souls capable of loving each other and building each other up for the good.  More than this, he’s given us his very self so that we might be re-created in Christ over and over again.  G.K. Chesterton put it this way, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried”  Pope Francis has counseled “encounter” over and over again… an encounter where we exercise our God-given potential to make a decision to build up our neighbors in love.  The only thing stopping us from building up that mountain of good with our God is our own fascination with our grief.  We could remain fascinated… but what good has that done us?

Domenico Veneziano - St. John in the Desert - Nat. Gallery of Art
Domenico Veneziano – St. John in the Desert – Nat. Gallery of Art

Looking on this 4th of July with eyes of faith, perhaps we might exercise our independence from grief our independence from sadness by striving to build up something positive and new… a more perfect union of neighbors celebrating the goods they freely share.

Bronze of Liberty outside the Kennedy Center
Bronze of Liberty outside the Kennedy Center