Sobering Spiritual Truths According to St. John of the Cross

In today’s post I would like to ponder some hard and sobering spiritual truths, but ones that will set us free.

In calling them “hard truths”, I mean that they are not the usual cozy bromides that many seek. They speak bluntly about the more irksome and difficult realities we face. If we come to accept them, though, they have a strange way of bringing serenity by getting us to focus us on the right things rather than spending our time chasing after false dreams.

A person can spend his whole life being resentful that life isn’t perfect, forgetting all the while that we are all in exile. We are making a difficult journey to a life in which, one day, every sorrow and difficultly will be removed and death and sorrow will be no more—but not now.

There is a kind of unexpected serenity in living in the world as it is rather than resenting it for not being the way we want it to be. For now, the journey is hard and we have to be sober about our obtuse desires and destructive tendencies. That is why there is value in calling these insights “hard truths that will set us free.”

In the very opening section of his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross lays out a presumed worldview that the spiritually mature ought to have attained (because he presumes it of his reader, he states it only briefly).

We who live in times not known for spiritual maturity ought to slow down for a moment and ponder these truths, which are not only poorly understood but even actively resisted by many, including some who call themselves wise and spiritually mature.

Remember, now, these are hard truths. Many wish to bypass the harder teachings of God. Thus we do well to pay special attention to St. John, a spiritual master deeply immersed in Scripture, as a remedy for the soft excesses of our times.

Let’s first look at the quote from St. John and then examine his points. With the following preamble of sorts, St. John begins his Spiritual Canticle:

The soul … has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short (Job 14:5), the path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14), the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18), the things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2), that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14), and that the time is uncertain, the accounting strict, perdition very easy, and salvation very difficult. She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished, that she must render an account of everything—of the beginning of her life as well as the later part—unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12), and that it is already late—and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29)—to remedy so much evil and harm. She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures. Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved …

Let’s examine these hard but freeing spiritual insights one by one. My commentary is in red.

The soul has grown aware of her obligations and observed  that life is short (Job 14:5)

More than in any other age, we today entertain the illusion that death can easily be postponed; it cannot. We are not guaranteed the next beat of our heart, let alone tomorrow! It is true that with advances in medical science sudden death is not as common today, but too easily this leads us to entertain the notion that we can cheat death; we cannot.

Life is short and we do not get to choose when we will die. Both my mother and sister died suddenly, swept away in an instant. They never got to say goodbye. You do not know if you will even finish reading this sentence before death summons you.

This is wisdom. It is a hard truth that gives us an important perspective. Life is short and we don’t have any way of knowing how short.

What are you doing to get ready to meet God? What do you get worked up about? What are you not concerned about? Are your priorities rooted in the truth that life is short? Or are you waging bets in a foolish game in which the house (death and this world) always wins on its terms and not yours?

There is a strange serenity and freedom in realizing that life is short. We do not get as worked up about passing things and we become more invested in lasting things and in the things to come.

[that] the path leading to eternal life [is] constricted ( 7:14)

Another illusion we entertain today is that salvation is a cinch, a done deal. The heresy of our time is a belief in almost-universal salvation, which denies the consistently repeated biblical teaching that declares, Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13-14 inter al).

In parable after parable, warning after warning, Jesus speaks with sober admonition about the reality of Hell and the finality of judgment. No one loves you more than Jesus does, and no one warned you more about Hell and Judgment than He did.

Salvation is not easy; it is hard. Jesus said this; I did not. He did not say this because God is mean but because we are stubborn, obtuse, and prefer darkness to light. We need to sober up about our stubbornness and our tendency to prefer “other arrangements” to what God offers and teaches. In the end, God will respect our choice. The day will come when our choice for or against the Kingdom and its values will be sealed forever.

This is a hard saying, but it sets us free from the awful sin of presumption, a sin against hope. It instills in us a proper focus on the work that is necessary to root us in God. Accepting this hard truth will make you more serious about your spiritual life and aware of the need for prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. It will help you to have more well-ordered priorities, ones that are less obsessed with the passing and more rooted in the eternal. It will make you more evangelical and urgent to save souls. It will turn you toward Jesus and away from Belial.

[that] the just one [is] scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18)

This is a further truth that sets aside modern errors about an almost-universal salvation. The fuller context of the quote is this: For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)

Despite this and many other quotes and teachings like it, we go one presuming that almost everyone will go to Heaven. We set aside God’s Word in favor of human error and wishful thinking. We substitute human assurances for God’s warnings. We elevate ourselves over St. Paul, who said that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and spoke of disciplining himself, lest after preaching to others he himself should be lost (1 Cor 9:27). Are we really better and more enlightened than Jesus? Than Paul? Than Peter?

Salvation is hard. This is not meant to panic us, but it is meant to sober us to the need for prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. Without these medicines we don’t stand a chance; we must persevere to the end.

This hard truth sets us free from illusion and sends us running to the Lord, who alone can save us. Smug presumption roots us in the world. Godly fear and sober awareness of our stubborn and unrepentant hearts send us to Jesus, freeing us.

[that] the things of the world [are] vain and deceitful ( 1:2)

Such a freeing truth! First, that the things of this world are vain. That is to say, they are empty, passing, and vapid. We so highly value power, popularity, and worldly glories, but those are gone in a moment. Who was Miss America in 1974? Who won the Heisman Trophy in that same year? If you by chance you do know, do you really care? Does it really matter? It’s empty show, glitter, fool’s gold; yet we spend billions on it and watch this stuff forever.

Although we should fight for justice, for the sake of the kingdom, even here the Scriptures counsel some perspective: I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. (Ps 37:35-36).

And how deceitful is this passing world! The main deceit of this world is to say, “I am what you exist for. I am what matters. I am what satisfies.” These are lies and deceptions on all fronts. The form of this world is passing away; it cannot fulfill our infinite desires. Our hearts were made for God and only being with Him one day will satisfy us.

Yet so easily do we listen to the world’s seduction and lies! Too often we want to be lied to. We prefer to chase illusions and indulge vanity and deceit.

How freeing this truth is! We learn to make use of what we need and begin to lose our obsession with vain and passing things and with our insatiable desire for more. Yes, perhaps you can survive without that granite countertop.

This is a very freeing truth if we can accept its hard reality. Becoming more free, a deeper serenity finds us.

that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14)

The world is passing away. It can’t secure your future. The world’s cruel lie that it can fulfill you is on display in every graveyard. So much for the world’s empty promise: “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die.

Meditate on death frequently. Indeed, the Church bids us to rehearse our death every night in prayer by reciting the Nunc Dimittis.

Scripture says, For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). Do you have your sights fixed where true joys are? Or are you like Lot’s wife?

Let this truth free you to have the proper perspective. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).

that the time is uncertain

You have plans for tomorrow? Great, so do I. The only problem is that tomorrow is not promised or certain. Neither is the next beat of your heart. This is another hard but freeing truth.

[that] the accounting [is] strict

Jesus warns, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). St. Paul says, He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart (1 Cor 4:5). He adds, So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-10). James says, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12-13). What James says is particularly chilling because so many today are without mercy.

If God judges us with the same strict justice we often dish out to others, we don’t stand a chance. The accounting will be strict anyway, so don’t pile on unnecessary severity and wrath toward others. This is another freeing truth that helps us take heed of the coming judgment.

[that] perdition [is] very easy

I wonder why he might have repeated this; I just wonder!

[that] salvation [is] very difficult

And look, he repeated this, too! I wonder why. Maybe repetition is the mother of studies.

[that we are often and strangely ungrateful and unmoved] She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished

This is a sober truth that calls us to remember. What does it mean to remember? It means to have present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful and different.

We live so many years and so many hours of each day in ingratitude. We get all worked up and resentful about the smallest setbacks while almost completely ignoring the incredible number of blessings we receive each day.

Our ingratitude is obnoxiously massive because of the easy manner in which we mindlessly receive and discount our numerous blessings while magnifying every suffering, setback, and trial. We spend so much of our life in the “Complaint Department.” We are often stingy, never even thinking to say, “Thank you, Lord, for all your obvious and hidden blessings. Thank you, Lord, for creating, sustaining, and loving me to the end, and for inviting me to know, love, and serve you.”

that she must render an account of everythingof the beginning of her life as well as the later partunto the last penny ( 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12)

Did he repeat himself again? Now why do you suppose he does that? You don’t think he considers us stubborn, do you?

[that] it is already lateand the day far spent ( 24:29)to remedy so much evil and harm [and that the unrepentant will experience the wrath to come] She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures

The wrath of God is really in us, not in Him. His wrath is really our experience of discomfort before the holiness of God. It is like being accustomed to a dark room and suddenly being brought into the bright afternoon sunlight. We protest and claim that the light is harsh, but the light is not harsh. We are incapable of tolerating the light due to our preference for and acclimation to the darkness. In the same way, God is not “angry.” He is not moody or harsh. He is God and God does not change.

St. John teaches here the hard but freeing truth that God is holy; no one is going to walk into His presence unprepared. If we prefer the world and its creatures to the Creator, we thereby prefer the darkness and cannot tolerate the light. Heaven is simply not possible for those who prefer the darkness. Thus Jesus says, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). That’s right; this occurs just three verses after the famous and oft-quoted John 3:16.

While the sinful soul may “feel” that God is angry and is hiding Himself, the problem is in the sinful soul, not God.

The freedom of this hard saying comes in reminding us and urging us to get ready to meet God. God is not going to change; He can’t change. So we must change, and by His grace, become the light of His holiness.

[that we need to call on the Savior] Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved.

Here is the real point of all of these hard truths: to make us love our Savior more, to learn to depend on Him and run to Him as fast as we can. Only when we know the hard truths are we really going to get serious.

After all, who is it that goes to the doctor? Is it the one who thinks he doesn’t have cancer (even though he does)? Or is it the one who knows he’s got it bad and that ain’t good?

Sadly, the answer is not clear enough to us in modern times, times in which—even within the Church—there are so many who don’t want to discuss any of the hard truths we need to lay hold of before we can really get serious.

A steady diet of “God loves you and all is well no matter what” has emptied our pews. Why? Well, who goes to the spiritual hospital if all he hears is that nothing is wrong and that his salvation is secure, almost no matter what?

The good news of the Gospel has little impact when the bad news is no longer understood. What does salvation mean if there is no sin and nothing to be saved from? Now of course the bad news should not be preached without pointing to the good news. The point is that both are needed.

St. John’s hard truths are not meant to discourage. They are meant to sober us and send us running to the doctor.

Now look, you’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But the good news is, there’s a doctor in the house. Run to Him now; He’s calling you!

What Does It Mean to Trust in God?

We are often told to trust in God, and many of us have counseled others who are anxious or downcast to do so. But what does that mean?

In some cases, when people give this counsel they mean this: Don’t worry, God will eventually give you what want. God will come around to your way of thinking at some point. Hang in there and wait for God to answer (your way). He’ll take care of things (in a way that pleases you).

This is not trust.

To trust is to move to the stable conviction that whatever God decides to do is the right thing. It means being at peace with what He does, what He decides. It is to accept that God often acts in paradoxical ways, in ways that are different from, or even contrary to, our notions of what is best. God often permits evils for some greater good, even if this greater good is hidden from us.

At the foot of the cross, we realize that even a total disaster can produce immense good. We call that terrible day “Good Friday” for a reason. The apparent “total loss” of that day ushered in the New Covenant and made more than enough grace and mercy available to save the entire human race—if we but ask.

Many of us have experienced difficulties that were quite devastating to us at the time. In some cases, we have subsequently come to understand why God permitted them. We can see how we grew from the experience or how new opportunities were opened to us that, while not our preference at the time, were in fact best. In other cases, however, what went through still make little sense to us. But if we have learned to trust God, we can be at peace with His apparent “No” to our desired outcome. Trust says, “It is well with my soul.”

An old hymn with that title says,

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul
.

That is trust: the ability to say, “Whatever my lot, it is well with my soul.” It is not wrong to present our wants and wishes to God, but trusting Him means being at peace with His answer, not resenting it.

We are forever asking God to bless what we are doing, but when do we ever seek what God is blessing and then do that?

Trusting God doesn’t mean thinking that He’ll eventually give me what I want. Trusting God means being at peace with whatever He wants; knowing that He wants it is enough for me; there is peace and it is well with my soul.

An Insight on Hope from St. Augustine

The word “hope” in modern English has lost much of the vigor assigned to what we call the theological virtue of Hope. In English hope often means merely a vague wish, as in, “I hope it doesn’t rain.” But the theological virtue of Hope (which I capitalize to distinguish it from worldly hope) is more vigorously defined as the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal salvation. Notice therefore it is no mere wish, it is a confident expectation based on God’s promises and love for us.

A reading from St. Augustine in the Breviary this week is rather well known and summons us to humility about our sins. But I want to briefly consider a subtlety in the text regarding hope. St. Augustine writes:

Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others. This was not the way that David showed us how to pray and make amends to God, when he said: I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. He did not concentrate on others’ sins; he turned his thoughts on himself. He did not merely stroke the surface, but he plunged inside and went deep down within himself. He did not spare himself, and therefore was not impudent (rude) in asking to be spared. (Serm. 19,2-3: CCL 41, 252-254)

Notice how he says, “But men are hopeless creatures…” Clearly, he speaks in a general sort of way, for not all people are hopeless. But consider his insight here in terms of how we defined Hope above. Too many people do not have a confident expectation of God’s help in attaining unto salvation and the holiness that precedes it. And hence, we tend to settle into a mediocrity at best and despair at worst. Thus, having little sense we can be free from our sins, especially our more serious ones, we seek to avoid thinking of them. This of course leads to the other behaviors St. Augustine describes above such as being more interested in the sins of others than our own, becoming the critic and so forth. We belittle others as a strange way of feeling better about ourselves.  We think, “At least I’m not as bad as so-and-so!” But we forget that being better than so-and-so is not the standard, being like Jesus is the standard. And this is why we need a lot of humility and Hope.

Consider then the role of Hope. If I have a vigorous and confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation then I can humbly admit that I am a sinner and turn to him for help; I can confidently engage the battle against sin. And this Hope prevails even if one perceives that the battle to overcome some very habitual sins may be a lengthy battle marked with setbacks, for Hope summons us to engage the battle with confidence of God’s help and love. In this way Hope interacts with fortitude. Fortitude is more than courage, it is the virtue whereby one is persevering despite obstacles, opposition and setbacks.

Therefore, note the subtlety in St. Augustine’s description of the gossipy and hypercritical world of hopeless people.  He teaches us of the great need for the vigorous and confident expectation of God’s help that we call Hope.   Hope (and humility) help us to stay in our own lane and work our own stuff and will not disappoint if we persevere in the battle for holiness.

Stop Yoking Around – A Homily for the 14th Sunday of the Year

We in the West live in a place and at a time in which almost every burden of manual labor has been eliminated. Not only that, but creature comforts abound. Everything from air conditioning to hair conditioning, from fast food to high speed internet, from to indoor plumbing to outdoor grilling, from instant computer downloads to instant coffee machines. You don’t even have write letters anymore, just press send and a text or email is delivered nearly instantaneously. Yet despite all this it would seem that we still keenly experience life’s burdens, demonstrated by the widespread recourse to psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs.

It is increasingly clear that serenity is “an inside job.” Merely improving the outside and amassing creature comforts is not enough. A large fluffy pillow may cushion the body, but apparently not the soul.

Jesus wants us to work on the inside and presents us a teaching in today’s Gospel on being increasingly freed of our burdens. He doesn’t promise a trouble free life, but that if we will let Him go to work we can grow in freedom and serenity. Jesus gives a threefold teaching on how to do this: by filiation, imitation, and simplification.

I.  FiliationAt that time Jesus exclaimed, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

Note how Jesus contrasts the “wise and learned” from the “little ones.” In so doing, Jesus commends to us a childlike simplicity before our heavenly Father, our Abba, our “Daddy-God.” This is the experience of divine filiation, of being a child of God, of being one of God’s “little ones.” The wise, learned, and clever often miss what God is trying to do and say, and because of this, they feel anxious and stressed.

It is possible for a person to study a great deal, but if he doesn’t pray he isn’t going to get very far. The Greek word translated here as “revealed” is ἀπεκάλυψας (apekalupsas), which more literally means “to unveil.” Only God can take away the veil and He does so for the humble and simple. Thus Jesus commends to our understanding the need for childlike simplicity and prayerful humility.

Half of our problem in life, and the overwhelming cause of our stress, is that we think too much and pray too little. We have big brains but small hearts, and so we struggle to understand God instead of just trusting Him. Though our reason is our crowning glory, we must never forget how to be little children in the presence of God our Father. No matter how much we think we know, it isn’t really very much. Jesus’ first teaching is filiation, of embracing a childlike simplicity before our Daddy-God.

What does it mean to be childlike? Consider how little children are humble. They are always asking “Why?” and are unashamed to admit that they do not know. Children are also filled with wonder and awe; they are fascinated by the littlest and biggest of things. They know they depend on their parents and run to them instinctively when they’ve been hurt or at any sign of trouble. They trust their parents completely. Children are always asking, seeking, and knocking.

Thus Jesus teaches us that the first step to lessening our burdens is to have a childlike simplicity with the Father, wherein we are humble before him, acknowledging our need for Him and complete dependence upon Him. He teaches us to have a simplicity that is humble enough to admit that we don’t know much and want to learn from Him, a wonder and awe at all that God has done, and an instinct to run to God when we are hurt or in trouble. Above all, Jesus teaches us by this image to grow each day in our trust of Abba, and in our confidence to ask Him for everything we need. Scripture says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2). An old spiritual says, “I love the Lord; he heard my cry; and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise; I’ll hasten to his throne.”

Yes, run, with childlike simplicity and trust.

So here is the first teaching of Jesus on letting go of our burdens: grow in childlike simplicity and trust before God, your loving Father and Abba.

II.  Imitation “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest … for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.” Jesus commends to us two characteristics of Himself that (if we embrace them) will give us rest and relief from our burdens. He says that He is meek and humble of heart.

What does it mean to be meek? The Greek word used is πραΰς (praus), but there is some debate as to how it is best interpreted. Aristotle defined “praotes” (meekness) as the middle ground between too much anger and not enough. Hence, the meek are those who have authority over their anger.

However, many biblical scholars contend that Jesus used this word most often as a synonym for being “poor in spirit.” What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It means to be humble and dependent upon God. By extension, it means that our treasure is not here. We are poor to this world; our treasure is with God and the things waiting for us in Heaven. This is a source of serenity for us, for when we become poor to this world, when we become less obsessed with success, power, and possessions, many of our anxieties go away. To the poor in spirit, the wealth of this world is as nothing. You can’t steal from a man who has nothing. A poor man is less anxious because he has less to lose, less at stake. He is free from this world’s obsessions and the fears and burdens they generate. Jesus calls us to accept his example and to grow in our experience of being poor in spirit.

Jesus also says that He is humble of heart. The Greek word use is ταπεινός (tapeinos), meaning lowly or humble, and referring to one who depends upon the Lord rather than himself. We have already discussed this at length above, but simply note here that the Lord Jesus is inviting us to learn this from Him and to receive it as a gift. The Lord can do this for us. If we will learn it from Him and receive it, so many of our burdens and so much of our anxiety will be lifted.

Here, then, is the second teaching Jesus offers us so that we will see life’s burdens lessened. He teaches us to learn from Him and to receive from Him the gifts of being poor in spirit and humble of heart. The serenity that comes from embracing these grows with each day, for we are no longer bound by the shackles of this world. It cannot intimidate us because its wealth and power do not entice us; we do not fear their loss. We learn to trust that God will see us through and provide us with what we need.

III.  SimplificationTake my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. The most important word in this sentence is this one: “my.” Jesus says, my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

What is a yoke? Essentially “yoke” is used here as a symbol for the cross. A yoke is a wooden truss that makes it easier to carry a heavy load by distributing the weight along a wider part of the body, or by allowing the weight to be shared by two or more people or animals. In the picture at left, the woman is able to carry the water more easily with the weight across her shoulders rather than in the narrow section of her hands. This eases the load by involving the whole body more evenly. Yokes are also used to join two animals and help them work together in pulling a load.

What is Jesus saying? First, He is saying that He has a yoke for us, that is, He has a cross for us. He is not saying that there is no burden in following Him. There is a cross that He allows, for a reason and for a season.

Easy? Jesus says that the cross He has for us is “easy.” The Greek word χρηστὸς (chrestos) is better translated as “well-fitting,” “suitable,” or even “useful.” The Lord is saying that the yoke He has for us is suited to us; it is well-fitting; it has been carefully chosen so as to be useful for us. God knows that we need some crosses in order to grow and He knows what they are. He also knows what we can bear and what we are ready for. Yes, His yoke for us is well-fitting.

Note again that little word: “my.” The cross or yoke Jesus has for us is well-suited and useful for us. The problem comes when we start adding things of our own doing to the weight. We put weight upon our shoulders that God never put there and did not intend for us. We make decisions without asking God. We undertake projects, launch careers, accept promotions, and even enter marriages without ever discerning if God wants this for us. Sure enough, before long our life is complicated and burdensome; we feel pulled in many different directions. But this is not the “my yoke” to which Jesus referred; this is largely the yoke of our own making. Of course it is not easy or well-fitting; Jesus didn’t make it.

Don’t blame God, simplify. Be very careful before accepting commitments and making big decisions. Ask God. It may be a good thing, but not good for you. It may help others, but destroy you. Seek the Lord’s will. Ask advice from a spiritually mature person if necessary. Consider your state in life; consider the tradeoffs. Balance the call to be generous with the call to proper stewardship of your time, talent, and treasure. Have proper priorities. It is amazing how many people put their career before their vocation. They accept promotions and special assignments, thinking more about money and advancement than their spouse and children. Sure enough, the burdens increase and the load gets heavy. This is what happens when we don’t ask God or even consider how a proposed course of action might affect the most precious and important things in our lives.

So stop “yoking around.” Jesus’ final advice to us is to “take my yoke,” but only that. Forsake all others. Simplify. Take only His yoke. If you do that, your burdens will be lighter. Jesus tells us to come and learn from Him. He will not put heavy burdens on us. He will set our heart on fire with love. And then, whatever yoke He does have for us will be a pleasure for us to bear. What makes the difference is love. Love lightens every load.

A Warning From The Prophet Amos Explains a Lot of Our Current Decline

Continuing this small series on the decline of culture, a word from the Prophet Amos in today’s reading (Thursday of the 13th week of the year) paints a brief picture of what happens when we a nation demand that the Word of God be banished from it hearing. The picture is not complete and may need a bit of adjustment to fit our times but the basic parameters are clear. Let’s look at an excerpt from the reading and seek to apply it. 

Amos has been ordered by the Amaziah, priest at Bethel to be silent and go away. This may seem astonishing coming from the High Priest at shrine of Bethel, but many of the religious leaders were corrupted and tied to political leaders more than to the Lord. Hence, Amaziah silences Amos with the authority of Jeroboam, King of Israel. Amos replies: 

You say: prophesy not against Israel,
preach not against the house of Isaac.
Now thus says the LORD:
Your wife shall be made a harlot in the city,
and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword;
Your land shall be divided by measuring line,
and you yourself shall die in an unclean land;
Israel shall be exiled far from its land.  (Amos 7:15-17)

In effect Amos says, “Fine, you will soon discover the cost of banishing the Word of God from your midst; great disasters will befall you.” All these things and more befell Israel when the Assyrians conquered them in 721 BC. Banishing God’s word left Israel without the warnings and the strength that comes from knowledge of and respect for God’s Words. As such they grew weak, for when the faith is not strong neither is the family and close-knit kinships that make for a strong and united nation. When human relationships are beset with injustice and sin, divisions increase and become bitter. 

In our own time the Word of God and religious influence have also, in increasing stages been banished. Prayer is banished from schools and many public events. Nativity sets and other reminders of the faith such as crosses are more difficult to display. In many newer towns it is difficult to get zoning that permits the building of churches in prominent locations. And, in large numbers most Americans seldom if ever go to church any more. There is a bland secularism where God and the faith are seldom on many peoples’ minds. There is also a militant secularism that strongly opposes any religious influence. This too is having many negative effects, some of which have been detailed in my previous columns from this week. But for today, Let’s take Amos’ list and adapt it to our own times. 

Your wife shall be made a harlot in the city – It was common in ancient warfare to kill at great number of men but allow the women and girls to live. What Amos likely meant was that many women, destitute and without husbands, fathers or sons, would be reduced to the cruel of fate of prostitution to survive or be used as sex slaves. In our own time we do of course observe that sex trafficking (another name for sexual slavery) has very sadly resurfaced to serve the sex industry: pornographers and pimps, all those who sexually exploit vulnerable women and children. It is a grave sin! But in a wider sense in our culture we also observe that many people “play the harlot” through widespread sexual promiscuity. As the word of God is increasingly banished from our culture, men and women engage in many forms of illicit sexual activity from pornography, fornication, adultery, homosexual acts and cohabitation. While these things were not unknown in more religious times, they were considered shameful and sinful. But in these times of a secular and non-biblical worldview, these sins are widely approved of and even celebrated. Hence vast numbers in our culture play the harlot and even vaster numbers approve and celebrate this.

and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword – As always it is children who most pay the price for adult misbehavior. Since 1973 in the US alone, more than 50 million children were aborted. They literally fell by the sword and other deadly means. 85% of abortions are performed on single women which causally links most abortions to fornication and unchastity. A vast number of other children fall by a more figurative swords as they are subject to the seemingly endless suffering wrought on them by adult sexual confusion and misbehavior: single-motherhood, absent fathers, higher poverty rates, divorce and all the frustration and confusion it causes them (with daddy this weekend, mom next weekend) and dubious experiments of “gay” adoption. Every child deserves to have a married father and mother stably present in their lives manifesting the masculine and feminine genius of being human. Today, less than half of children experience this, and it becomes like a sword that cuts them to the heart. Add to this, early exposure to pornography many of them face and the heavy promotion of contraception, homosexual acts and transgenderism foisted on them even in very early years of the government school system. It is no wonder so many of them fall by swords of sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, sexual objectification, sexual abuse, loneliness and an ever-deepening sexual confusion that could not even be imagined just ten years ago. God’s Word provides clarity on the selfishness and sinfulness of sexual misbehavior. But we have collectively banished this Word from our culture and some even call Scripture hateful and outdated. Having sown the wind, we are now reaping the whirlwind.  

Your land shall be divided by measuring line – A “measuring line” is a biblical expression that usually refers to a just judgment that comes upon a person or nation; good results for just behavior, bad results for sinful behavior. The people of Amos time came up short; and so have we. Our land today is a crisis of division that threatens our very existence as a country. Not since 1861 have our political divisions been so deep. It is not at all a remote idea that certain regions and states in the U.S. will begin a secessionist movement. In an earlier column this week I traced the tyranny of relativism and how it has intensified our divisions and made reasoned discussions nearly impossible. In this climate, the “winner” of a debate is the one who yells the loudest, or has the greater power, or publicity. Our culture has become fierce and contentious and both social and regular media help to further overheat it. Many of the very ones who speak of tolerance end up being the very one who use raw judicial power to get their way and demand that we will either comply with their agenda or face increasingly punitive measures. Our divisions are very deep in this country now, so deep as to reach the boiling point. As we discussed in a previous column this week, the biblical worldview used to provide a general framework for consensus. But having jettisoned that, deep tyrannical divisions are now emerging. Our land has been measured and found wanting, yes we are lacking the Word of God. 

and you yourself shall die in an unclean land; Israel shall be exiled far from its landWhile actual exile for most of us is unlikely just now, we do increasingly experience an alienation from this Land. Most of us who are older, barely recognize the America we once knew, especially as regards family life and free speech. That America was flawed, to be sure, but still functional and with a central vision and dream, the “American dream.” That America was confident, perhaps to a fault, and we admired our founding principles even if we lived them imperfectly. We were also a very religious country and the land of the free and the home of the brave, and the biblical framework helped us to mend or worst flaws. The abolitionists and the Civil Rights leaders emerged from the churches. That America is hard to find now and it is hard not to feel like an exile in a foreign land at times. But God has left the building and collectively we showed him the door. 

Yes, life gets pretty miserable without God and when we banish his Word from our midst. Amos says it plain.  

Right Fear, Wrong Fear

The readings from Tuesday (13th week of the year speak about the right and wrong kinds of fear. The wrong kind of fear is illustrated in the Gospel reading:

As Jesus got into a boat, his disciples followed him. Suddenly a violent storm came up on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by waves; but he was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” He said to them, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm. The men were amazed and said, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” (Mathew 8:23-27)

The world in which we live is filled with dangers. Some come from nature: floods, famines, earthquakes, plagues, and so forth. There are also dangers in terms of our finances, our reputation, and our physical safety from attack. Of such things we are often afraid, but Jesus said, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?”

Yes, the world is dangerous, but at some point, we have to put on our “big-boy pants” and go out there and live our lives anyway. The worst thing this world can do is to kill you. If you die faithful, you will be promoted out of this crazy world into a place of joys unspeakable and glories untold.

Yet still we hunker down and worry about so many things. COVID-19 has not just tested our bodies; it has also tried our souls. The death toll has been high, but not as high as with other plagues or even with common causes of death such as heart disease and cancer. And it certainly hasn’t been as high as the toll from abortion. Of those who catch the virus less than one percent will die and somewhat more will become seriously ill; most, however, will only get moderately sick and will not need hospitalization. The nearly worldwide panic over this admittedly serious virus appears to be out of proportion to the actual threat it poses. It seems we have lost our nerve; many want to wait for a world that does not exist: one in which all threats are gone. Even if a satisfactory treatment for COVID-19 were to be developed, there are still myriad other viruses and bacteria around us. Fear not, little flock; it has pleased the Father to give us an immune system, and it works pretty well most, but not all, of the time. There is no such thing as a world free of threats.

Let’s return to the Lord’s question: Why are you terrified? The worst (and least likely) case is that you will die, but for a Christian, death has meaning, and “To die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Would that we worried as much for our souls as we do for our bodies!

Now let’s look at the “right” kind of fear, which was discussed in Tuesday’s first reading. Amos warns the people of a coming day of judgment that they should reverently fear and prepare for. Sadly, there were many unrepentant sinners in his day who were unconcerned for the state of their souls; they would not be able to withstand the coming judgment and encounter with God:

Hear this word, O children of Israel, that the LORD pronounces over you, …. I will punish you for all your crimes…. Does a lion roar in the forest when it has no prey?… If the trumpet sounds in a city, will the people not be frightened? The lion roars—who will not be afraid! The Lord GOD speaks—who will not prophesy! I brought upon you such upheaval as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah you were like a brand plucked from the fire; Yet you returned not to me, says the LORD. So now I will deal with you in my own way, O Israel! And since I will deal thus with you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel (Amos 3:1-8).

Israel was lost in its affluence and injustice, stubbornly clinging to sin. Prophet after prophet warned of coming ruin but they were ignored, persecuted, and even killed. In 721 B.C., the clock finally ran out and the scales of justice tipped to disaster. The kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians and ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were all but lost to history.

Here is a proper thing to fear: sin and what it does to us, individually and collectively. For now, God sends us prophets, graces, sacraments, His Word, and other reminders as His voice echoes in our consciences. There will come a day when the question is called: Do you want my Kingdom and its values or not? Yes, this is a proper fear: the coming day of our judgment. Prepare to meet your God, O sinner.

Too many pay no heed to this. They run about the business of living unconcerned about where they will spend eternity. They fear declining health, financial ruin, and aging—things about which the Lord says, “Fear not.” They care about their bodies but not their souls. And they do not fear the one thing they should: the looming day of their judgment. 

Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). This “One” of course is Jesus Himself, for, the Father judges no one but has handed all judgment over to the Son that the world may revere him (John 5:22). To revere Jesus means to hold Him in honor and holy fear.

As one matures in faith, this fear we have for Jesus should be a loving fear, in which we hold him in awe rather than cringing in dread of punishment. But if cringing fear is all you have, go with it, for it is far better than the foolish presumption that too many people hold today.

Tuesday’s readings provide great instruction on the right and wrong kinds of fear. What do you fear most? Whom do you fear most? Be honest with yourself when answering these questions. Ask the Lord to help you to put your fear in the right place and on the right One, namely, on Him whom even the winds and the sea obey!

Of Hunger and Hallucinations – How the Stages of Starvation Describe the Decaying West

This is the third in a series of articles on the decline of the West. Given the exceptionally poor condition of whatever is left of Western Culture and Christendom, it may help us in this article to gain some perspective of what is going on from the stages of starvation.

Physical hunger is a serious problem; We are obliged to assist the starving and malnourished. But even more prevalent these days is spiritual hunger, if not outright starvation. As is the case with physical hunger, the source of spiritual hunger is not God, who has given us abundant grace and truth; it is we who are the source. It is a strange starvation to be sure, for it is largely self-inflicted. Further, it seems to be at an advanced stage.

I am told that as physical starvation advances there comes a time when a kind of lethargy sets in. Although a person knows he is hungry, he lacks the mental acuity to want to do much about it. This seems to be the stage of spiritual starvation at which many Westerners find themselves today. Most people know they are spiritually hungry and are longing for something, but through a kind of lethargy and mental boredom, they don’t seem inclined to do much about it.

I’d like to look at the progressive stages of physical starvation (gleaned from several medical sources) and then speak of their spiritual equivalents. Please understand that when I use the pronoun “we” I am not necessarily talking about you, but rather about a large number, perhaps even a majority, of people in our culture today.

  1. Weakness – In our time of spiritual starvation, a great moral weakness is evident. Self-control in the realm of sexuality and self-discipline in general seem increasingly lacking in our culture today. Many are too weak to keep the commitments they have made to marriage, religious life, or the priesthood. Addiction is a significant issue as well: addiction to alcohol, drugs, and pornography. In addition, we seem consumed by greed; we are obsessed with accumulating possessions, and the more we have the more we seem unable to live without them. Increasingly, people declare that they are not responsible for what they do and/or cannot help themselves. There is a general attitude that it is unreasonable to expect people to live out ordinary biblical morality, to have to suffer or endure the cross. All of these demonstrate weakness and a lack of courage, signaling the onset of spiritual starvation.
  2. Confusion – As spiritual starvation sets in, the mind gets cloudy; thinking becomes distorted. There is a lot of confusion today about even the most basic moral issues. How could we get so confused as to think that killing unborn babies is OK? Sexual confusion is also rampant, so that what is contrary to nature (e.g., homosexual acts) is approved and what is destructive to the family (e.g., illicit heterosexual behavior) is widely accepted as well. Confusion is also deep about how to properly and effectively raise, train, discipline, and educate our children.
  3. Irritability – As spiritual starvation progresses, a great deal of anger is directed at the Church whenever she addresses the malaise of our times. In addition, there is growing resistance to lawful authority and a loss of respect for elders and for tradition. St. Paul describes well the general irritability of a culture that has suppressed the truth about God and is spiritually starving: They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (Romans 1:29-31). Because we are starved of the common meal of God’s Word and revealed truth and because we have rejected natural law, we have been reduced to shouting matches and power struggles. We no longer agree on the essentials that the “food” of God’s truth provides. Having refused this sustenance, we have become irritable and strident.
  4. Immune deficiency – As our spiritual starvation grows we cannot ward off the increasing attacks of the disease of sin. We more easily give way to temptation. Deeper and deeper bondage is increasingly evident in our sin-soaked culture. Things once thought to be indecent are now done openly and even celebrated. Many consider any suggested resistance to sin to be unreasonable, even impossible. Sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, abortion, the consumption of internet pornography, divorce, and cohabitation are becoming widespread. Like disease, sin spreads because we are less capable of fighting it off.
  5. The body begins to feed on its own muscle tissue (after fat cells are depleted) – In our spiritual starvation, we start to feed on our very own. We kill our children in utero; we use embryos for research. We euthanize our elderly. Young people kill other young people in gang violence. We see strife, power struggles, and wars increase. In tight economic times, we who have depleted the fat cells of public funds and amassed enormous debt fight with one another over the scraps that are left and refuse to give up any of our own entitlements, instead of restraining our spending and re-examining our priorities. Starving people can be desperate, and desperate people often turn on others. In the end, we as a body are consuming our very self.
  6. Internal organs begin to shut down – In the spiritually starving Western world, many of our institutions are becoming dysfunctional and shutting down. Our families are in the throes of a major crisis. Almost of half of all children today no longer live with both parents. Schools are in serious decline. Most public-school systems have been a disgrace for years. America, once at the top of worldwide academic performance, now lags far behind. Churches and parochial schools also struggle as Mass attendance has dropped in the self-inflicted spiritual starvation of our times. Government, too, is becoming increasingly dysfunctional; strident differences paralyze it, and scandals plague the public sector. As we go through the stages of starvation, important organs of our culture and our nation are shutting down.
  7. Hallucinations – St. Paul spoke of the spiritually starved Gentiles of his day and said, their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools … Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind (Romans 1:21-22,28). As we in the West spiritually starve, our thinking becomes increasingly bizarre, distorted, fanciful, silly, vain, and often lacking in common sense. Since our soul is starving, we hallucinate.
  8. Convulsions and muscle spasms – Violence and turmoil run through our culture as basic social structures shut down and become dysfunctional. The breakdown of the family leads to many confused, incorrigible, and violent children. This is not just in the inner cities; violence, shootings, and gangs are in the suburbs as well. Even non-violent children have short attention spans and are often difficult to control and discipline. Although ADHD may well be over-diagnosed, overstimulated children with short attention spans are a real problem today. Adults, too, manifest a lot of convulsive and spasmodic behaviors, short attention spans, and mercurial temperaments. As we reach the advanced stages of spiritual starvation in our culture, convulsive and spasmodic behavior are an increasing problem.
  9. Irregular heartbeat – In the spiritually starving West, it is not as though we lack all goodness. Our heart still beats, but it is irregular and inconsistent. We can manifest great compassion when natural disasters strike, yet still be coarse and insensitive at other times. We seem to have a concern for the poor, but abort our babies and advocate killing our sick elderly. Our starving culture’s heartbeat is irregular and inconsistent, another sign of spiritual starvation.
  10. Sleepy, comatose state – Our starving culture is sleepy and often unreflective. The progress of our terrible fall eludes many, who seem oblivious to the symptoms of our spiritual starvation. St Paul says, So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thes 5:6). He also says, And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (Rom 13:11). Jesus speaks of the starvation that leads to sleepiness in this way: Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap (Luke 21:34).
  11. Death – Spiritual death is the final result of starvation. We become dead in our sins. Pope Francis remarked that the lights are going out in Europe. As Europe has forsaken its spiritual heritage and embarked upon a self-imposed spiritual starvation, its birthrates have declined steeply. It is quite possible that during the lifetime of some of the younger readers of this post, Europe as we have known it will cease to exist. Western liberal democracies that have starved themselves to death will be replaced by Muslim theocratic states. This is what happens when we starve ourselves: death eventually comes. America’s fate is less obvious. There are many on a spiritual starvation diet, but also many who still believe; there are signs of revival in the Church here. Pray God that the reversal will continue! Pray, too, that it is not too late for Europe.

Thus, while we know little of physical starvation in the affluent West, spiritual starvation and its symptoms are manifest. Be well-fed spiritually! Spiritual starvation is an awful thing; it is the worst thing.

This post has been a bit heavy, so I hope you won’t mind if I inject a little humor in the form of the video below. Though humorous, it makes an important point: you’re not you when you’re hungry. Spiritual starvation can rob us of our identity as joyful children of God, meant to be fully alive and fully functioning. Ultimately, we are meant to be Christ, to become what we eat in Holy Communion. When we do not eat, we are “not ourselves.” This video is trying sell Snickers bars, but please understand that I am talking about Jesus. If you’re hungry, you’re not yourself.

 

How Civilizations Rise and Fall in Eight Stages

In yesterday’s post we examined the danger of marginalizing God and how the Lord warns that such a thing is a civilization killer. In today’s post we ponder a more sociological examination of how cultures and civilizations go through cycles. Over time, many civilizations and cultures have risen and then fallen. We who live in painful times like these do well to recall these truths. Cultures and civilizations come and go; only the Church (though often in need of reform) and true biblical culture remain. An old song says, “Only what you do for Christ will last.” Yes, all else passes; the Church is like an ark in the passing waters of this world and in the floodwaters of times like these.

For those of us who love our country and our culture, the pain is real. By God’s grace, many fair flowers have come from Western culture as it grew over the past millennium. Whatever its imperfections (and there were many), great beauty, civilization, and progress emerged at the crossroads of faith and human giftedness. But now it appears that we are at the end of an era. We are in a tailspin we don’t we seem to be able to pull ourselves out of. Greed, aversion to sacrifice, secularism, divorce, promiscuity, and the destruction of the most basic unit of civilization (the family), do not make for a healthy culture. There seems to be no basis for true reform and the deepening darkness suggests that we are moving into the last stages of a disease. This is painful but not unprecedented.

Sociologists and anthropologists have described the stages of the rise and fall of the world’s great civilizations. Scottish philosopher Alexander Tyler of the University of Edinburg noted eight stages that articulate well what history discloses. I first encountered these in in Ted Flynn’s book The Great Transformation. They provide a great deal of perspective to what we are currently experiencing.

Let’s look at each of the eight stages. The names of the stages are from Tyler’s book and are presented in bold red text. My brief reflections follow in plain text.

  1. From bondage to spiritual growth – Great civilizations are formed in the crucible. The Ancient Jews were in bondage for 400 years in Egypt. The Christian faith and the Church came out of 300 years of persecution. Western Christendom emerged from the chaotic conflicts during the decline of the Roman Empire and the movements of often fierce “barbarian” tribes. American culture was formed by the injustices that grew in colonial times. Sufferings and injustices cause—even force—spiritual growth. Suffering brings wisdom and demands a spiritual discipline that seeks justice and solutions.
  2. From spiritual growth to great courage – Having been steeled in the crucible of suffering, courage and the ability to endure great sacrifice come forth. Anointed leaders emerge and people are summoned to courage and sacrifice (including loss of life) in order to create a better, more just world for succeeding generations. People who have little or nothing, also have little or nothing to lose and are often more willing to live for something more important than themselves and their own pleasure. A battle is begun, a battle requiring courage, discipline, and other virtues.
  3. From courage to liberty – As a result of the courageous fight, the foe is vanquished and liberty and greater justice emerges. At this point a civilization comes forth, rooted in its greatest ideals. Many who led the battle are still alive, and the legacy of those who are not is still fresh. Heroism and the virtues that brought about liberty are still esteemed. The ideals that were struggled for during the years in the crucible are still largely agreed upon.
  4. From liberty to abundance – Liberty ushers in greater prosperity, because a civilization is still functioning with the virtues of sacrifice and hard work. But then comes the first danger: abundance. Things that are in too great an abundance tend to weigh us down and take on a life of their own. At the same time, the struggles that engender wisdom and steel the soul to proper discipline and priorities move to the background. Jesus said that man’s life does not consist in his possessions. But just try to tell that to people in a culture that starts to experience abundance. Such a culture is living on the fumes of earlier sacrifices; its people become less and less willing to make such sacrifices. Ideals diminish in importance and abundance weighs down the souls of the citizens. The sacrifices, discipline, and virtues responsible for the thriving of the civilization are increasingly remote from the collective conscience; the enjoyment of their fruits becomes the focus.
  5. From abundance to complacency – To be complacent means to be self-satisfied and increasingly unaware of serious trends that undermine health and the ability to thrive. Everything looks fine, so it must be fine. Yet foundations, resources, infrastructures, and necessary virtues are all crumbling. As virtues, disciplines, and ideals become ever more remote, those who raise alarms are labeled by the complacent as “killjoys” and considered extreme, harsh, or judgmental.
  6. From complacency to apathy – The word apathy comes from the Greek and refers to a lack of interest in, or passion for, the things that once animated and inspired. Due to the complacency of the previous stage, the growing lack of attention to disturbing trends advances to outright dismissal. Many seldom think or care about the sacrifices of previous generations and lose a sense that they must work for and contribute to the common good. “Civilization” suffers the serious blow of being replaced by personalization and privatization in growing degrees. Working and sacrificing for others becomes more remote. Growing numbers becoming increasingly willing to live on the carcass of previous sacrifices. They park on someone else’s dime, but will not fill the parking meter themselves. Hard work and self-discipline continue to erode.
  7. From apathy to dependence – Increasing numbers of people lack the virtues and zeal necessary to work and contribute. The suffering and the sacrifices that built the culture are now a distant memory. As discipline and work increasingly seem “too hard,” dependence grows. The collective culture now tips in the direction of dependence. Suffering of any sort seems intolerable. But virtue is not seen as the solution. Having lived on the sacrifices of others for years, the civilization now insists that “others” must solve their woes. This ushers in growing demands for governmental, collective solutions. This in turns deepens dependence, as solutions move from personal virtue and local, family-based sacrifices to centralized ones.
  8. From dependence back to bondage – As dependence increases, so does centralized power. Dependent people tend to become increasingly dysfunctional and desperate. Seeking a savior, they look to strong central leadership. But centralized power corrupts, and tends to usher in increasing intrusion by centralized power. Injustice and intrusion multiplies. But those in bondage know of no other solutions. Family and personal virtue (essential ingredients for any civilization) are now effectively replaced by an increasingly dark and despotic centralized control, hungry for more and more power. In this way, the civilization is gradually ended, because people in bondage no longer have the virtues necessary to fight.

Another possibility is that a more powerful nation or group is able to enter, by invasion or replacement, and destroy the final vestiges of a decadent civilization and replace it with their own culture.

Either way, it’s back to crucible, until suffering and conflict bring about enough of the wisdom, virtue, and courage necessary to begin a new civilization that will rise from the ashes.

Thus are the stages of civilizations. Sic transit gloria mundi. The Church has witnessed a lot of this in just the brief two millennia of her time. In addition to civilizations, nations have come and gone quite frequently over the years. Few nations have lasted longer than 200 years. Civilizations are harder to define with exact years, but at the beginning of the New Covenant, Rome was already in decline. In the Church’s future would be other large nations and empires in the West: the “Holy” Roman Empire, various colonial powers, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the French.  It was once said that “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Now it does. As the West began a long decline, Napoleon made his move. Later, Hitler strove to build a German empire. Then came the USSR. And prior to all this, in the Old Testament period, there had been the Kingdom of David, to be succeeded by Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.

The only true ark of safety is the Church, who received her promise of indefectibility from the Lord (Matt 16:18). But the Church, too, is always in need of reform and will have much to suffer. Yet she alone will survive this changing world, because she is the Bride of Christ and also His Body.

These are hard days, but perspective can help. It is hard to deny that we are living at the end of an era. It is painful because something we love is dying. But from death comes forth new life. Only the Lord knows the next stage and long this interregnum will be. Look to Him. Go ahead and vote, but put not your trust in princes (Ps 146:3). God will preserve His people, as He did in the Old Covenant. He will preserve those of us who are now joined to Him in the New Covenant. Find your place in the ark, ever ancient and yet new.