We live in times that are difficult to process. Events occur that are beyond our capacity to understand and fit into our worldview as people, much less as Catholics. In a sense, we’re living in a constant state of spiritual cognitive dissonance, and it’s anything but comfortable.
I’ve been feeling that the most around two current situations: the burning of the Amazon rainforest, and the worldwide migrant crisis. The enormity of the issues is exhausting—what can one person do? How can I even begin to think about what is happening, and all the implications of what is happening, much less do anything about it? And where am I hearing the voice of Jesus in the world as it is today?
For me, honestly? The times feel nothing short of apocalyptic. Surely this is how the world will end, in flames of fire and accompanied by the cries of lost children?
Those are a lot of questions. And as always when I’m in a panic, I move and think too quickly, too superficially, I’m too ready to give up. Take a deep breath. There’s a nagging feeling that I am asking questions, but they might not be the right ones.
The very first Christian communities, the people St. Paul addresses in his letters, the early Church, they all had something in common with my current fear: they too believed they were living in apocalyptic times. Guided by St. Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, and Justin Martyr, they believed Jesus would return soon, within their lifetimes, and thus the world would end shortly. So as I struggle with my eschatological panic, there has to be something I can learn from them.
And there is. In the Epistle to Diognetes, a second-century writer describes those first Christians:
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. To sum it all up in one word—what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.
This passage reminds me of two things. First, it reminds me this world is not the perfect world to which I aspire; “they pass their days on earth,” says the writer, “but they are citizens of heaven.” As a citizen of heaven, then, how can I view the state of the world in which I am living? And that very question changes my perspective. Instead of anger and hopelessness, I can look on the world with pity and compassion. With sadness, too; but sadness without despair. Surely that is the way God looks upon his beautiful creation and his beautiful children.
The second thing this letter teaches me is that, even expecting the end to be imminent, even living in the very shadow of the final days, the early Christians went about their lives, getting married, breaking bread together, following the laws of the land. Even as they knew they were about to leave, they continued in their callings and in their lives. My panic, my crazed thoughts about how I can effectuate change? This may not be the best use of my time and gifts. Going about my life might be a better way.
The early Church listened to the voice of Jesus, relayed to them through the apostles and early Church Fathers, and lived a way of life that conformed to what it heard that voice saying.
So where is the voice of Jesus in my world? How can I hear Jesus speaking, here and now?
When I ask, “what can I do?” the truth is I already know the answer. It is inherent in who I am. I have remarkably few skills. I’m not much of an activist, I can’t build anything with my hands, I don’t have a head for figures. What I can do is write. Jesus already spoke to me: in giving me this talent and allowing me years in which to hone it, he is saying, “this is your role.”
I think if we all slow down and think with our hearts rather than our fears, we can find many ways in which Jesus is calling us to act. What skills and talents were you given? Do you listen well? Can you teach? Do you have time to volunteer somewhere? Do you have enough money to donate some to help others? We are not all called to drop water on flaming forests or rescue children from detention centers, though some of us are, and they are heroes for sure. What we are all called to do, rather, is discern how our own individual vocations, our callings, can help us respond.
I was recently reading the forthcoming Jesus Speaking, a daily devotional taken from Gabrielle Bossis’ spiritual classic He and I, and I remind myself that many of Gabrielle’s conversations with Jesus took place in a world that had felt hopeless, too. Nazi Germany occupied her country, and all around her people were living under suspicion, privation, even terror. In some ways, that time may well also have felt apocalyptic. Yet like the second-century Christians, she stayed steady in her course, writing out her conversations, tending her garden.
When issues feel too big for us to get our arms around them, it’s time to bring our thinking down to our own level. To ask how we can live out our own individual Christian vocations, and what those particular vocations can bring to the table in this moment.
Jesus is speaking. We’ll hear him when we can think with our hearts and not with our fear.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir