On Saving Everybody
It’s summer now, schools are closing for the year, and those with a little free time are beginning to travel. I’m on the road already, having driven my wife’s mother from Manassas, Virginia to Rochester, New York yesterday so that she can attend a wedding of a somewhat distant relative. I won’t call Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York the American heartland, but passing through this region—like passing through anywhere—is very different from being at home.
When we’re at home, we’re firmly settled in whatever communities we’re a part of, and for most of us this probably means we’ve grown used to the differences between “our group” and other groups in the same area. We have our own families, our own friends, our own churches; we cope with modern life according to our own routines. We may regard “our world” as tiny or expansive, but we know its landscape, and we’re comfortable in it. Sometimes we’re too comfortable.
But to travel is to leave the region we routinely navigate on autopilot, to put all our senses on alert for what is around the next bend or over the next hill. And while we will sometimes see familiar signs and symbols, most often we notice what is different. On one level, of course, this is simply the stimulation of freshness, the joy of surprise, the delight in something new. But on another level, we tend to notice many things that we take for granted at home. We notice the landscape, of course, but I think we also pay more attention to all the signs of spiritual and moral diversity: all the little churches we haven’t yet pigeon-holed and forgotten, businesses both quaint and rapacious, dirty little puddles or even great palaces built to cater to the wanton pleasures of our tired race, evidence of bounty and signs of blight.
The longest part of my own drive was through Pennsylvania, a state which (one literally cannot help but notice) is rife with the dirty little puddles—adult this, massage that—a geographically beautiful but morally bleak example of a region with a high Catholic population which has somehow disconnected from its moral responsibilities. But regardless of the particulars, one observes again and again that the world is not converted to Christ, that the attitudes of citizens are in constant clash, and that it seems almost impossible to get a handle on the spiritual vacuity of an entire nation. It seems impossible, in other words, to make any real difference.
We see only superficially when we travel, but at least we do see. We notice again the unmistakable and widespread indicators that Our Lord is either misunderstood or ignored. These indicators surround us always, but I find they fade into the background when I’m at home, the background of the normal. When I travel, I am continually struck with a two-fold astonishment. On the one hand, I see almost everywhere beauties in nature, new places it would be delightful to visit, and special locations where it would be wonderful to reside. On the other hand, I wonder how we can possibly heal our magnificent yet corrupted world. How can we ever bring its people together for the glory of God?
I tend, I suppose, to be the kind of person whose cup is half empty; I need to remind myself not that it is half full but that it is overflowing with the gifts of God. Nonetheless, I see no easy solution to the profound lack of community which grips modern culture generally, the broken divisiveness, the self-chosen and almost bitter insistence on individual paths rather than common purposes. It is hard to preach to a world that believes it is normal, good and inevitable that everyone should have different beliefs and values. I wonder if this is particularly problematic in mass societies, in which every situation involves far too many people to know and be known. What real opportunities exist for moving beyond slogans into a serious, widely shared exploration of reality?
Sometimes when we travel we are deliberately taking a break from ordinary cares, including spiritual cares. That’s fine; we shouldn’t think we must always be beating our heads against the proverbial wall. But if this is true, why is it true? The reason, surely, is that our success as Christians is not measured by our ability to convert millions or to mold whole nations into flaming receptacles of the living God. Each of us eventually perceives the broad outlines of some particular calling. But even within that framework, we will find that we are not called to any sort of measurable success.
Instead, each one of us is called to a far more intimate participation in God’s plan, a participation which cannot be evaluated by tallying numbers. We are all called to discern God’s will in each situation and to follow that will as well as we can. If we do not know what God wants, we pray for light; if we do know what God wants, we pray for courage. God never asks us to deliver results. He asks us to seek His will and do it.
Travelling can give us an opportunity to step back, see things fresh, and reflect on life apart from the constrictions of our ordinary routine. Taking advantage of this opportunity may raise many questions, but we can be sure of one thing. God has ways of touching every heart. Where sin abounds, grace abounds still more (Rm 5:20); the mystery of each person’s salvation is ultimately hidden in Christ. He will use us to touch some, but He will not use us to touch all; He may not even use us to touch many. And the one thing He will not ask us to do is the one thing He has already done. He will not—He does not—ask us to save the world.
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Posted by: HKS -
Jun. 17, 2012 12:25 AM ET USA
Very helpful, very true!
Posted by: koinonia -
Jun. 16, 2012 12:51 PM ET USA
Each of us is called to martyrdom, not in the sense that we must literally suffer death for our Faith, but in the sense that we are called to bear witness to Christ. If we can be cognizant of this vocation, and we can remember to call upon Our Lord incessantly for the graces to be true to it while participating in the sacraments of Holy Mother Church and diligently persevering in our daily prayers, we might in some small way participate in God's plan for "touching hearts" in our local spheres.
Posted by: DrJazz -
Jun. 16, 2012 9:28 AM ET USA
I can't put into words how much this article resonated with me. Traveling (in a little different way) with my son to baseball tournaments and my daughter to softball tournaments, I see how much the country has abandoned the sabbath. I talk with my children about setting an example for others by honoring it (even though that is not our primary purpose in doing so), but in the end it seems our efforts are widely ignored. Meanwhile, we struggle to do more than simply "fit in" a Mass between games.
Posted by: Justin8110 -
Jun. 15, 2012 5:36 PM ET USA
Excellent reflection Dr. Mirus. Personally I think all we can do is to focus on doing what we can for whomever comes into our sphere of influence. Even if we see little going on in the way of conversions based on our actions in the course of our lives who knows who we ultimately touch through our prayers, conversations etc.? In many ways we live in a sort of darkness but it is the darkness of faith.