Pulses and Impulses: The world as God’s theater
I could not help but smile at the news that Pope Francis had sent a message, via the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, to be read at a global “virtual” ceremony marking World Pulses Day. Never mind that it took me a little time to figure out what “pulses” were (annual crops harvested solely as dry grains, yielding between one and a dozen grains or seeds). As better-informed Catholics know, they are an important source of nutrition for the poor.
By word association, this led me to reflect on a classic first world problem, the conflict between pulses and impulses, and on the chronic mishandling of both. Here we are in the West, busying ourselves with a continuing redefinition of human sexuality to cater to various “impulses”, while so many people both here and abroad would love to be busy solving the problem of getting enough to eat. And millions more, often unknown to themselves, yearn for spiritual nourishment.
And then, of course, we continually impose on the entire world our new and improved vision of the essential goodness of every sensual impulse. Neither food pulses nor spiritual impulses can compete. People may be uninterested—or perhaps the proponents of spiritual impulses, including charitable activity, simply lack imagination. This last point is worth pondering.
Granted, not every human impulse is bad, but the West tends now to self-select its preferred impulses in a deliberately anti-Christian way. Perhaps we can learn something about a different sort of impulse from Bishop Rubén Jaramillo Montoya, who boarded a firetruck on February 10th to spray Holy Water over his gang-infested and drug-ridden city of Buenaventura, Colombia—and to preach spiritual renewal. I will be very interested to see what comes of it.
Meanwhile, we face not only grave evils in our own cultures, but an entire set of uncontrolled impulses. We in the West continually opt for the maximization of individual pleasure with little or no thought for God or even the common good, including the kind of virtues without which the common good cannot even begin to flourish. Nearly all of our novel social decisions—and certainly all the seriously controversial ones among men and women of good will—are rooted in the enforced propagation of unrestrained sexual impulses which, in the end, destroy the stability of the family, leading directly to abject spiritual and material poverty and—wait for it—even malnourishment.
Nothing undermines the basic necessities of human life, including the availability of pulses, more quickly than a secular society driven by its impulses.
In all of this we must understand that materialism, though nearly always rooted in wealth, does nothing for the poor and the hungry. It is too busy tearing down the familial relationships and structures which are necessary for a healthy society which looks after its own. I think that even in the affluent West we are going to need dramatic public gestures, such as that offered by the Bishop of Buenaventura, to renew the sense of community among those who are still attracted or committed to a life that is larger than their own disordered impulses.
The good made accessible
We Catholics need to look deliberately for ways to attract attention—unashamedly. Right now, especially under the regime of COVID, we are more isolated than ever, with less spiritual guidance and even fewer rallying points. It is not enough to live virtual lives. At some point we need dynamic, spiritually healthy parish communities that are actually publicly recognizable to both their theoretical members and those who are not yet part of them.
Unfortunately, in many ways the Catholic Church has become suburbanized. It is the essence of the suburban environment that almost nothing spills out into public view. Even the repeated celebrations of a Catholic people are shrouded inside churches and recreation halls, with access controlled through private cars. Almost everything is done in isolation from the larger community. To put this another way, there is almost no way for non-Catholics, or even non-practicing Catholics, to take the pulse of Catholic life. This is compounded by our understandable reluctance, in a society dominated by secularism, to maintain a Catholic identity outside of the parish buildings.
Even if outsiders could take our pulse, would they know they could, if their own impulse is to stay inside, glued to the digital universe? They too need to be drawn out, though in an age of digital shopping, this is rapidly becoming more difficult.
Indeed, a digital society is eerily similar to the situation in the movie The Matrix (I proclaim this as I type on my keyboard and see an essay take shape on a screen). Many of us respond to an impulse to stay plugged in, allowing our lives to be dominated by digital words and images. This is much less demanding than direct human engagement, and we are sometimes so habitually isolated now by digital affluence that we can no longer see how we might make a difference in the world other than by pressing a button on a screen.
This is enervating, and I admit I do not have a ready-made solution. So much is controlled at so many levels “above” us that it is difficult to see what sort of local, community-based action could actually begin to change the culture of a particular place. But I am convinced that there is a kind of community building and community transformation which needs to take place even before politics. For if all politics is local (as in a voting culture it still must be), then local culture must be transformed before even politics can be any good at all.
With a dramatic flair
If we take “pulses” to stand not just for food but for the elements of the common good, then I think the solution consists partly of putting a different set of “impulses” on public display. We need, if you will, a bit of Catholic theater in all of our communities. Half a millennium ago, every town would have had public festivals replete with mystery and morality plays, not to mention many wholesome activities and projects undertaken by the various guilds, all in a culture which still lived outdoors in far greater public view. Perhaps it is time for Catholic parishes to become centers of public, outdoor events to serve those in need, with occasional rallies and parades devoted to the kind of evangelization and service that not only draws the needy into seeking help, but draws an ever growing number of inspired onlookers to join in helping.
In recent years in the United States, at least, I believe there has been a modest increase in Eucharistic processions, which are rooted in the sacramental dimension but serve to highlight pressing contemporary needs. This is all to the good, and I am speaking, of course, of both material and spiritual need. There are many ways to be lost and forgotten. It is inadequate to emphasize only physical hunger and bodily health. There is, after all, a Divine pulse which people can connect with in Jesus Christ, and in His body in the communion of the Church. I suggest that, without resorting to theater for theater’s sake, we need to be far more public and even flamboyant in the means we use to reawaken our communities to the love of Christ.
There is a Divine impetus that wants to shape every human impulse for good, so that the good “pulses” might be propagated far and wide. Bishop Jaramillo put that Divine impulse on public display in Buenaventura, complete with a dramatic flair. He may be on to something.
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