Something about a road trip helps focus the mind. Perhaps because it’s one of the few activities that demands we be truly free of distractions. The Internet and all its pomps and works, while always available on my phone, are unable to snare me when I’m barreling down the highway. Instead, as I stare out at the vast expanse of landscape that exists between America’s far-flung shores, my thoughts are drawn to the more substantive things. The Real, as my friend Hilary calls it.
This year, I’ve had several opportunities for such reflection, as family matters thousands of miles away have taken me on multiple unplanned journeys, days spent behind the wheel yielding to a state of autonomous meditation.
On the most recent trip, I realized that I’ve been doing something wrong.
You see, I’ve been sensing a change coming in the world for quite a few years now. A feeling that something evil is headed our way. Like watching the gathering clouds of an impending storm, the past year has certainly manifested signs of the growing darkness in a thousand ways. The world is not, as people are so fond of saying these days, “in a good place right now.”
I am blessed, however, to be married to an optimist. A positive thinker. A woman who finds negativity to be a toxic obstacle to the accomplishment of her many daily pursuits. It’s a common refrain in our discussions: “You’ve been talking about bad things happening for years now. But I go out on my daily activities and things are normal. I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want to spend every day preparing for something that might happen. It’s awful.”
And I have always responded to her with the same refrain: “Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it’s not going to. Look at history. These things, these major shifts, they don’t happen overnight. They take a while to unfold. Look around and you’ll see the symptoms that it’s getting worse. It’s only a matter of time before it all comes to a head…”
And around and around we go.
But on this last trip, somewhere in the middle of Tennessee, it hit me. I realized that even though I was probably right, so was she. I had spent the evening before we left sitting in my boys’ room just talking to the oldest two, aged 9 and 7 respectively. Their enthusiasm, their ideas, their joy, all of it was made manifest on their faces, eyes bright as their imaginations gushed forth in a torrent of words that poured through huge grins.
I looked at those boys — boys that I deeply love — and I realized that I’ve been missing out on this. That I spend my days working, reading, analyzing, writing, the constant stress of some new outrage always keeping me from real peace, or from even living in the moment. That I smile infrequently and am often brusque with my children or even angry. That I don’t take time to stop and enjoy all the blessings and abundance that I have been given, all because I am so preoccupied with the feeling that bad things are afoot. My fear of what is unfolding and will arrive in the future has been stealing my ability to simply live joyfully today — and I, fool that I am, have allowed that to happen.
“Be not therefore solicitous for to morrow; for the morrow will be solicitous for itself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” – Matt 6:34
My wife needs me. She needs a partner, a friend, a leader – a man who helps her to deal with the pragmatic realities of every day. A man who doesn’t have the constant nagging thought in the back of his mind that whatever choices we make won’t matter that much in the long run, because it’s all going to hell anyway. A man who isn’t so preoccupied with documenting every piece of the sky that falls that he remembers that his wife was a woman he was in love with before she was an endlessly busy mother, and to make her feel that way again. A man who recognizes that talking about every crisis in the Church or in the world is not the kind of conversation that makes a girl feel special, irreplaceable, and truly loved.
My kids need me. They need me to teach and guide them, to be conscientious about leading them in prayer, to listen to their stories and tell them my own, to spend time playing with them, not just dismissing them so I can go do more work, to model what it is to be Christian man rather than begrudgingly dealing with them as nuisances that get in the way of whatever dark thing I’m contemplating. They need a father, not a storm cloud.
And now for the obvious part: I need them. They are the greatest treasure of my life, the proverbial roses I forget to stop and smell, their chaos and precocious curiosity a source not of frustration but delight. They ground me and give me purpose, and I have squandered too much of the time I should have been present in their lives for what? Why do the people who are visiting ruin on the Church and the world get more of my time and attention than the people I love? What kind of a fool am I?
Here I was, taking for granted the best things God has put in my life, convincing myself that it was out of concern for them and the world they are inheriting.
Depending on imminent doom can become an addiction. Whether it’s the need to be ahead of the curve, to have the knowledge of what’s coming while everyone else is walking around, oblivious to the danger, or the sense of dour satisfaction that soon — maybe very soon — we’ll be able to say, “I told you so!” — it’s like watching a train wreck that never stops coming, because it exists principally in our minds. One cannot exhaust the imagined horrors of an event that never fully arrives, and every report of disease, war, famine, economic upheaval, or [fill in the crisis blank here] only feeds the monster under our mental beds. I know good faithful Catholics who spend a lot of time reading and analyzing prophecy, trying to map the dire predictions of various saints and mystics onto current events, always looking for the event that will trigger the calamity they know is coming. I can appreciate the sentiment. I’ve certainly shared it.
At the same time, I have the growing suspicion that this can easily become a sort of pious gnosticism — a desire to have special, secret knowledge of what is coming so that we won’t be blindsided by it. So we’ll have enough food and water and blessed candles stored up. So that whatever apocalyptic thing comes slouching toward us like Yeats’ rough beast, we can square our shoulders and dig in for the fight.
In 1 Thessalonians 5, St. Paul did warn that we should be alert and watchful:
But of the times and moments, brethren, you need not, that we should write to you; For yourselves know perfectly, that the day of the Lord shall so come, as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, peace and security; then shall sudden destruction come upon them, as the pains upon her that is with child, and they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.
Even so, his advice on how to be watchful is pure Catholic pragmatism:
For all you are the children of light, and children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep, as others do; but let us watch, and be sober. For they that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that are drunk, are drunk in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, having on the breastplate of faith and charity, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us unto wrath, but unto the purchasing of salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us; that, whether we watch or sleep, we may live together with him. For which cause comfort one another; and edify one another, as you also do. And we beseech you, brethren, to know them who labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you: That you esteem them more abundantly in charity, for their work’s sake. Have peace with them. And we beseech you, brethren, rebuke the unquiet, comfort the feeble minded, support the weak, be patient towards all men. See that none render evil for evil to any man; but ever follow that which is good towards each other, and towards all men. Always rejoice. Pray without ceasing. In all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you all. Extinguish not the spirit. Despise not prophecies. But prove all things; hold fast that which is good. From all appearance of evil refrain yourselves. And may the God of peace himself sanctify you in all things; that your whole spirit, and soul, and body, may be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [emphasis added]
In other words: don’t reject the warnings about what is coming, but live your lives according the to universal call to holiness. Be good people. Live virtuously. Avoid vice. Pray and engage in conscious acts of gratitude — one of the surest safeguards against needless worry and despair.
I imagine that most of you live a fairly providential life. Our dependence upon God is fostered by our encounter with difficulty, by confronting challenges we do not know how to overcome on our own. For some, this is financial hardship. For others, illness or infirmity. Some of the faithful seem to endure more than their fair share of tragedy. Others are plagued with St. Paul’s proverbial thorn – some sin, vice, or temptation that they feel powerless to overcome. It is in these difficulties — the very recognition of our powerlessness — that we find strength, because when we are emptied out of our sense of pride, when we are stripped of our self-deception that we can overcome any obstacle by our own power, we are thus open vessels ready to be filled with God’s grace:
And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful. (2 Cor. 12:9-10)
The idea that we can adequately prepare for whatever chastisement God will allow us to suffer is a temptation to the very pride that keeps us from the kind of total reliance upon Him that will ultimately save us. Certainly, it is prudent to make certain preparations according to our means and state in life in order that we might better endure the difficulties that would arise from civil unrest, natural disaster, or economic collapse. In fact, prudence recommends that families have some basic supplies on hand in the event of an emergency. My family has gone days without electricity due to severe thunderstorms or fallen trees heavy-laden with snow. It’s better to be resourceful before such an event occurs than after. At the same time, as the flooding that is now ravaging Louisiana shows, storing up supplies is only as helpful as the disaster that finally comes permits. Even the most well-stocked home is of little use if it’s under water. And I think often of Our Lady’s warning at Akita:
“As I told you, if men do not repent and better themselves, the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity. It will be a punishment greater than the deluge, such as one will never seen before. Fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, the good as well as the bad, sparing neither priests nor faithful. The survivors will find themselves so desolate that they will envy the dead. The only arms which will remain for you will be the Rosary and the Sign left by My Son.”
No matter what kind of bunker you’ve set up, you’re only going to fare as well as God wants you to in a scenario like that. Immediately, the parable of the rich fool springs to mind:
And he said to them: Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life doth not consist in the abundance of things which he possesseth. And he spoke a similitude to them, saying: The land of a certain rich man brought forth plenty of fruits. And he thought within himself, saying: What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said: This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and will build greater; and into them will I gather all things that are grown to me, and my goods. And I will say to my soul: Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years take thy rest; eat, drink, make good cheer. But God said to him: Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee: and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God. (Lk. 12:15-21)
So the question I keep asking myself is: why worry?
I don’t want to spend my life focused on future calamity. If God wants to chastise us, He is going to, and there’s not a single thing we can do about it other than to accept it as a sign of His goodness. Like the months where I come to him on my knees asking for help paying the bills, He can choose to help us, or He can allow us to suffer according to His will. Do we not trust Him? Do we not think that everything He allows us to endure is for our good, and to help lead us to eternal salvation?
There will always be hardship in this Vale of Tears, but also beauty, goodness, and joy. I’ve written this entire reflection while holding a squirming — then sleeping — baby. My left arm is asleep. I’m uncomfortable in my chair. In the past, I would have found this to be a nuisance, and I quite likely would have been grumpy about it. But as I look down at her beautiful face and brush hair as fine as corn silk from her perfect forehead to kiss her, I realize how stupid I’ve been. I have a rich life full of blessings and treasures, not least of which are the beautiful people who surround me each day. I live in a world clad in wonder, filled with forests and lakes and rivers, mountains and oceans. There are so many things to experience and enjoy. I don’t want to waste another opportunity being upset when I could find a reason to be happy instead.
The crisis facing our world isn’t going anywhere. I plan to continue to face it, and we’ll do that together here. But I’m not marching to that drum anymore. Christ has risen, and He will conquer all.