Why we can’t settle for less

Because God himself made us for more!  As we start a new work week, you might find these words from St. John Paul the Great helpful:

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness.  He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.  It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more man and more fraternal.”

Holy Father, we still love you and we miss you.  Pray for us!

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?

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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

Where do I fit in the “City On the Hill”

The Cathedral of St. Matthew in the heart of DC
The Cathedral of St. Matthew in the heart of DC

People beginning to look on our city with eyes of faith face a challenge: where do I fit in to this picture.  It’s not just a matter of taste-based preferences, “I’m a vegetarian.  You eat meat.”  “I like jazz others prefer rock.”  Reading the world through eyes of faith can sometimes lead to marginalization, even outright rejection.  One of our teens shared this on retreat.  He had been touched by a parish youth group experience and began to pray at different points in the day… including grace before lunch at school; a act that one the strange looks and even jeers of his classmates.    It’s not just in public schools either.  Students at Catholic schools will often face an uphill climb to speak openly among more secular peers about how they see the world.  As we approach Independence Day, such situations beg the question, “In the American City on a Hill where does a person fit who sees with eyes of faith?”

St. Joan of Arc in Meridian Hill Park - She rejoiced to see her country free, but even more to serve Christ
St. Joan of Arc in Meridian Hill Park – She rejoiced to see her country free, but even more to serve Christ

Turning to the Sunday readings, we hear “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her.” God’s people had been released from exile in Babylon, sent home to rebuild the holy city and live in renewed freedom and right relationship with God.  It was a time of excitement and hope.  It was the same hope-filled anticipation that the first european settlers of this land experienced when they heard the cry, “LAND!”  Whether it was the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the party of Lord Baltimore arriving at St. Clement’s Island just down river from DC, or the first settlers of Jamestown… this land promised a chance to live in right relationship with God by living in right relationship with each other.  Thus did John Winthrop (Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630) appropriate Biblical language to define this new land as the city on the hill.  President Kennedy would later recall that language (1961):

I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required”

As Catholics the new Jerusalem is not primarily an earthly conception, but a vision of the heaven that awaits us.  For us the gates of the new Jerusalem are opened by the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross and perpetuated through our own sacrifices offered in union with his here in the mass.  We are called to that sacrifice to get ourselves to heaven… to free souls waiting in purgatory to enter heaven… and to let our neighbors on earth taste of the goodness of heaven in the hopes that they too may join their efforts to Christ’s and find heaven’s fulfillment after death.  “I boast only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ… for neither does circumcision matter nor does uncircumcision by only new creation.” (cf. Gal. 6:14-18)  Our focus is heaven.

I was excited to see that focus clearly at work in the high school students with whom I spent this last week.  They discerned how Jesus has touched their lives… and how they can spread each of their stories through different evangelization tools.  They learned about different opportunities to serve their neighbor… they learned how to put together and give a witness talk… and, particularly exciting: they learned to transfer that whole experience to social media using the net to spread the joy of being on their way to the new Jerusalem.

The Catholic vision of the new Jerusalem, and the historic American vision of the city on the hill are complimentary.  Under Gospel inspiration we desire to serve the common good of our nation – our neighbors – peacefully, prayerfully, through work and civil discourse.  The students on retreat modeled this desire so beautifully for me.  Under Christ’s inspiration we are invited to serve all even when our hard work is rejected by those same neighbors… even if – as was the case for Jesus – those same neighbors nail us to the cross.  This too, our high school students have experienced.  They persevere joining Christ on the cross… trying to give a taste of the new Jerusalem on earth… but aiming ultimately to reach it in heaven.  It reminds me of something Cardinal Ratzinger said in his homily for the opening of the conclave that would eventually elect him Pope:

“Our ministry is a gift of Christ to humankind, to build up his body – the new world. We live out our ministry in this way, as a gift of Christ to humanity!”

I would like to be like these students each day of my own life.

As we offer up our sacrifices this Independence Day Weekend, the words of President Lincoln beautifully capture our mission as Catholic citizens of these United States:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

God save our blessed Republic.  Amen.