You cannot build a better life


At no time of year is there a greater divergence between what is happening inside and outside of the Church than at Advent. Outside, it’s red and green with jingle bells and Christmas lights. Inside, we are draped in penitent purple. Outside, every radio station has gone full tilt into the Fa la las. Inside, we are singing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel if you are lucky (and a bunch of dreary hymns you have never heard of before if you are not). Everything happening outside is about getting ready for twenty minutes of fun opening over-priced packages on Christmas morning, while inside we are preparing for the end of the world.

Love or hate the sixteenth century reformer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, it is hard to deny that the man could turn a phrase. Whether weaving together bits of ancient liturgies or composing his own prayers, Cranmer’s skill at crafting liturgical English remains unparalleled. His Advent collects are a prime example, especially the first one which the Book of Common Prayer required to be prayed not only on the first Sunday in Advent but also on all the subsequent Sundays as a second collect. Today this prayer is offered not only in Anglican churches but in all the parishes and communities of the Catholic Ordinariates as well:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

It is a stark, direct prayer that draws a line between whatever is happening out there and what most needs to happen inside of us. The real preparation that needs to take place this time of year has nothing to do with trimming the tree, organizing dinner and travel plans, or ordering a whole bunch of knick knacks online. Christmas, as great as it is, is almost an afterthought. The real action comes not in remembering the Lord’s first coming but in being ready for His second coming. At any moment, Jesus will return, and the world will be flipped upside down when He does. All that’s wrong will be set right. Good will be blessed and evil will be expelled. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. He is coming. It is immanent. We need to be ready.

This attitude sharply contrasts with the dominant motif of our age: the soundbyte, the snap, the tik tok, the life lived in bite size bits, the only purpose of which is to make us happy for as long as we can distract ourselves from the silence of death. Despite the best efforts of materialist atheism, we do still believe in the transcendent, but we no longer believe that it comes to us from the outside, through the actions of a Divine Other who enters the world by choice to pull us out of the mire. Now we think that all transcendence bubbles up from within ourselves, producing an awe at the majesty of our own capacity to make meaning. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion from the landmark 1992 Supreme Court case Casey vs. Planned Parenthood. He could not have realized how prescient he was being, considering the smorgasbord of options now available for us to express our personal, inner truth. We mesh our preferences together into a pastiche of ourselves that we then present to the world for validation through social media. Somewhere in the midst of the memes and the re-tweets, we assume a deeper sense of meaning will emerge.

Meanwhile, modern Christianity has bought into a different kind of navel-gazing transcendence, pointing us outward but only as a means of escape. This tends to take one of two forms. The kind that gets labeled “Fundamentalist”–regardless of whether it meets the historical definition of fundamentalism or not– which awaits a fictitious event called “the Rapture” in which true believers will get taken up out of this mean, old world before any of the real effects of the damage we have done to it can touch us. There are lesser forms of this ideology, but it all pivots upon the same false premise, that we can avoid facing ourselves.

The second form this takes in modern Christianity is that of the social transformation warrior. Not social justice, which is a venerable concept and one that has roots in the Bible and Catholic teaching, but social transformation, in which we pin our hopes on our ability to remake the world in our own righteous image. It is neither a liberal nor conservative thing, but rather takes on whatever cause seems closest to the aims of our particular political tribe. Social transformation theology also allows us to avoid looking squarely at our own sin, brokenness, and weakness, keeping out attention always on the Utopian dream of the perfect Christian society which the other kind of Christians do not want us to achieve.

Cranmer’s collect lets the air out of all of these falsehoods. As we pray it, we are forced to accept at face value that Jesus will return and that we must be ready. There is a judgment coming. There is a great renewal that will take place. Good will defeat evil. It is not theoretical. It is a known fact. Jesus will be returning to reclaim the world. The only question is whether or not we will be aligned with good or saturated with evil when He arrives.

Advent is good news, but it is good news that befuddles the secularist and the modern Christian alike. It means letting go of the notion that we can build better lives for ourselves. Transcendence will not come from some unexplored corner of our inner selves, nor will it be built out of the raw material of the world. The transcendence we seek comes only from union with Jesus, offered by Him in mercy and forgiveness when we repent of our sins and seek the good that flows from His Sacred Heart. It is good news that we will be judged because the judgement of Jesus is like a fire that lights up our hearts even as it burns away the idols to which we attach ourselves. Advent is the sure hope that the current state of this world and the current state of our lives is not final. We are preparing for something greater.

This post is part of a series on English Catholic Spirituality. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To see all the posts in this series, click here.

The useless mystery

Chaplin_-_Modern_Times

Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times is still biting, even eighty-three years after its release. It displays, through effects that were cutting edge at the time along with Chaplin’s inimitable brand of physical comedy, the way in which industrialization, automation, and consumerism had sucked the soul out of the modern worker. What makes Modern Times so enduring is that it is not a political film, despite many accusations to the contrary, which is why Chaplin was willing to poke a little fun at the Communists at the same time. What Chaplin was trying to point out was that the drive to be more efficient was itself the problem. It really did not matter who was holding the reigns.

A contemporary version of Modern Times would likely focus on the accoutrements of the post-information age, social media and smartphones instead of gears and levers, but it would be just as relevant a criticism. Both in the post-industrial age and in the age we live in now, the worth of everything is measured by its usefulness, as defined by an evolving secularist ideology. Science is only good if it helps us to gain some advantage or pleasure previously out of reach. News is only good if it gives us fodder for defeating our political rivals. Education is only good if it enables us to have better careers and make more money. People are themselves only good if they are able to live independently and obtain a certain “quality of life.”

For this reason, religion has become more and more irrelevant in the west over the last hundred years, not because it is not true but because it is not useful. So long as religion makes us happy, or makes us good, or offers us a sense of community, it is acceptable. Sometimes people think that secularism is an attempt to eliminate religion, but this is to misunderstand secularism. If religion does not interfere with its goals, secularism does not care about it one way or the other. In fact, religion can even be good for secularism, if it proves itself useful to its ends. Fr. Alexander Schmemann captured it exactly:

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:-not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it.

The Christian mystery has many facets, but none of them are useful in the way the secularist demands. The mystery of the cross comes the closest to being useful because it justifies us and cleanses us from sin, which the secularized believer can make use of as a kind of fire insurance. Yet, when pressed, the final end of the cross is not useful. The cross frees us from the fear of death and hell, but what does it free us for? To be united with Christ. That is the purpose of the cross, to unite us with Christ now and to have that union grow deeper and more solid when we pass through the veil of death. This does not appeal to the secularist mind, which sees the whole thing at that point as kind of boring. If heaven is a non-stop pleasure palace, filled with ever-increasing delights that cater to our own whims, then perhaps there is something to it. But if all we are going to get out of it is the vague, hard-to-understand notion of union with Jesus, how are we supposed to buy into that?

While the cross ends up useless, the Trinity is absolutely useless. In addition to being abstract, it is also impossible to commodify. Simply put, what do you do with it? God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet one God. Whoopee. Is that supposed to make me sad? Happy? Angry? Does knowing it make me any more likely to be nice? Successful? Fulfilled? What is its cash value? How does it help me promote my brand? Where is my individuality maximized by it? What does it do for my earning potential?

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The doctrine of the Trinity does not do anything. Not only is it useless to the secularist, it is also useless to the modern Church which has largely taken on a secularist mindset. It neither increases the number of butts in pews nor inspires people to “give more sacrificially.” It will not help the capital campaign, or the clergy pension fund, or the messaging around cultural and political “prophetic” stands. At best, it will not hurt these other pursuits if it is mentioned quietly, in passing. At worst, if focused upon too much, it could drive people away who prefer something simpler for the meeting of their spiritual needs.

Finally, as Schmemann points out, there is the useless mystery of worship itself. The world is sacramental. It was created for worship. We are the heart of that worship. As human beings, our primary identity is as priests, entering constantly into the beautiful mystery of the worship of God. That mystery has been obscured by many modern “forms of worship” that focus on the self. Worship can be sold only if it is self-improvement. Go to church to get recharged and become more productive in the week ahead! Yet that sort of “worship” is not actually worship at all. It may be a service. It may very well be religious. In some distant way, we might even be able to call it Christian, to the extent that it continues to be at least not directly heretical in its outward teachings about God. Yet it is not worship. It does not glorify God, focusing the whole of our being on Him in an endless act of praise. Worship, offered only for its own sake, has no place in the secular world. For the secularist, true worship is a crass vulgarity. If it does nothing useful, it can and must be tossed aside.

It is no wonder that vague spiritual practices continue to capture the minds of many in the secularized world who have given up on religion. Yoga and transcendental meditation may be quite diminished by being excised from their natural places within Hinduism and Buddhism, but at least they make the practitioner feel good. They have a purpose. They are useful. Christian prayer is not. The Mass is not. Even Confession is not, in that it does not provide the therapeutic insights more readily available on the analyst’s couch. 

The Christian mystery is useless. But this is precisely why the Christian mystery will ultimately prevail. The world of useful secularism is eventually going to pass away. It will take a long time and do a lot of damage before it disappears, but secularism will eventually fade, as have all the false worldviews that have risen and fallen before it. Because no matter how useful the things we value are today, tomorrow we will come to realize that they have not gained us nearly as much as we had hoped. “Everything is a chasing after wind” says Ecclesiasticus. In the end, when all else falls apart, only the mystery of God will remain: quiet, unassuming, all-encompassing, and ready to embrace us with love.

God in the noise

Photo of Ukranian orchestra, circa 1920. From Wikimedia Commons.

I am not the first and I will not be the last to observe just how noisy the world has become. There is very little silence in contemporary life and the spiritual effects of this are deleterious.

I have been reading Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent this year. This book came out in 1969, yet the problem of noise was already apparent to Schmemann. He writes:

Everyone will no doubt agree that the whole style of family existence has been radically altered by radio and television. These media of “mass communication” permeate today our whole life. One does not have to “go out” in order to “be out.” The whole world is permanently here within my reach. And, little by little, the elementary experience of living in an inner world, of the beauty of that “interiority,” simply disappears from our modern culture… If the Christian of the past lived in great measure in a silent world, giving him ample opportunity for concentration and inner life, today’s Christian has to make a special effort to recover that essential dimension of silence which alone can put us in contact with higher realities.

The fact that Schmemann wrote this before the advent of the VCR, let alone the rise of social media, is instructive. In our own day, this deceptive sense that we are interacting with the world when we have not even left our couches has amplified to a proportion that Schmemann could never have imagined. Walk into a room filled with family and friends today and you will see four or five people staring at their phones, each in a separate virtual world, entirely disconnected from what or who is immediately around them. We imagine that “liking” someone’s post on Facebook is the same thing as maintaining a real relationship with them. In such a world, where everything we experience is constructed, curated, and constantly on, there is little space for an authentic encounter with the living God.

Schmemann’s solution is “that the use of TV and radio be drastically reduced during Lent.” It is likely that Schmemann would have approved of the practice of fasting from social media that many modern Christians adopt as a Lenten observance. Undoubtedly, there is some spiritual good to this. Reducing our dependance on anything is good if it is accompanied by prayer and greater devotion to God. I know that my own life of prayer improves when I reduce my interaction with the virtual world. The Lord speaks to us all the time, but we only hear Him if we are listening. The biblical analog would perhaps be 1 Kings 19 when Elijah encounters the Lord not in fire or earthquake but in a “still small voice” speaking out of the silence.

All of that said, I wonder if there is something overly romantic about Schmemann’s vision of a tranquil past in which Christians spent their silences contemplating the presence of God. Perhaps in monasteries it was so, but the average Christian still had to contend with quite a bit of noise. As any parent of young children will attest, there is a constant noise that accompanies the endless busyness of parenting. So too, the mindless work of maintaining a home or working for our daily bread is rarely if ever silent. Life has always been noisy.

What these electronic media offer us that our ancestors did not have is a way of distracting ourselves from the noise of the rest of life with a different kind of noise. For those of us who tend to be a bit introverted and therefore easily overwhelmed by the world, having our own personal electronic culture that we can dip into at the touch of a button is a way of restoring ourselves. For the mother or father who just needs a moment’s vacation from unending parental responsibility, scrolling mindlessly for a few moments through a Facebook feed can be a real relief.

When I was in seminary, the SSJE brothers would regularly visit with us. During Mass one time, one of the brothers preached — I no longer remember which one — and he observed that even in the monastery, it was often easy to lose track of God amidst the busyness of the daily routine. He likened the Christian life to learning to hear a single instrument even when a whole orchestra is playing. “If you listen carefully,” he said, “you can learn to pick out the oboe. And if you learn to know God’s voice, you can also hear Him, even in the middle of a flurry of activity.”

This, it seems to me, is the great challenge for Christians today. God speaks at the same patient, constant level He always has—entreating us, inviting us, calling us into His presence. If we have the opportunity to shut out all the noise and just listen to Him, we should take it. But many of us do not have that opportunity. Yet still, if we attune our ears properly, we can hear Him just as clearly. Accompanying our busyness and noise with prayer, fasting, the reading of Scripture, and the Sacraments orients us towards God. These things give us a feel for Him so that we know His voice anywhere, even when it seems faint.

So perhaps the biblical analog we need is not so much 1 Kings 19 as it is 1 Samuel 3. God calls to Samuel but Samuel does not realize that is what he is hearing. It is only after Eli coaches him and tells him what to say that Samuel is really able to listen to the voice of the Lord. God calls each of us, but most of us are frightfully bad at hearing Him. Even if we had silence, as Samuel did, it is not altogether certain we would notice God’s voice in the midst of it. We need more than silence. We need Elis in our lives to help us. We need to be taught what God sounds like so that we can tune in to hear Him, whether we are in a place of silence or a place of great noise. Even in silence, there is a noise in the rattling of thoughts through our brains that can be deafening. We need to learn the difference between God’s calling and the churning of our own minds.

What we need is not total silence, as ideal and desirable as that may be. What we need is to learn how to listen.