Are We Living in Apocalyptic Times?
The question is a volatile one and leaves plenty of room for a vast amount of commentary and interpretation. Indeed, our times seem to be rife with wildly differing interpretations of the meaning of the book of Revelation. In addressing our topic tonight, I hope to make a contribution to what should always be a sober discussion, yet is so often otherwise. Even so, I suppose that everything I am about to say on the matter this evening could be summed up in a single word: Yes.
Yes, we are living in apocalyptic times. But this needs qualification. The Church, the sacred scriptures, the saints, the approved mystical apparitions, all speak about the end times within the context I would like to lay before you. Turning to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in a section dealing with the return of the Lord in glory, we read:
The Church’s ultimate trial
675 Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the mystery of iniquity in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the Truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in the place of God and his Messiah who has come in the flesh
676 The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope that can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism.
677 The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of a the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.
Gazing about at the contemporary world, even our “democratic” world, could we not say that we are living in the midst of precisely this spirit of secular messianism? And is this spirit not manifested especially in its political form, which the Catechism calls in the strongest language, “intrinsically perverse”? How many people in our times now believe that the triumph of good over evil in the world will be achieved through social revolution or social evolution? How many have succumbed to the belief that man will save himself when sufficient knowledge and energy are applied to the human condition? I would suggest that this intrinsic perversity now dominates the entire Western world.
The Catechism draws its authority to teach us about these matters from sacred scripture itself. Turning to our foundations, then, what does divine revelation tell us about the mysterious culmination of history, the mega-climax called the Apocalypse, which is prophesied in the book of Revelation and in other books of the New and Old Testaments.
In his first letter, the apostle John says, simply, without the theological nuances that we have grown so accustomed to in recent years, “Little children, it is the final hour,” and in another English translation, “Children, it is the last days.” (1 John 2:18)
Here is our context, the conceptual framework in which the time of the end should be considered by every generation of Christians. We are living in the final hour, and have been living in this hour from the moment Our Lord ascended into heaven. All of subsequent history is a waiting-for his return. These past two thousand years are the last days. In his second letter, the apostle Peter writes, “In the eyes of the Lord, one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years are as a day.” (2 Peter 3:3-10).
Jesus himself tells us about the period in the undefined future when all of mankind will be put to an ultimate test. The 24th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is the most extensive section of the Gospels in which he speaks about what must come. Here he presents us with more than a symbolic description, and alternately with more than a one-dimensional template, a mere linear-historical prediction of the near future. It is rather a vision which contains elements of both but which penetrates through his own times, and through the persecutions of the first three centuries of the Church, and beyond through all subsequent history until his second coming. He is not a linear thinker. He is not a one-dimensional man. He is God and man.
“As for the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but the Father only. The coming of the Son of Man will repeat what happened in Noah’s time. In the days before the flood people were eating and drinking, marrying and being married, right up until the day Noah entered the ark. They were totally unconcerned until the flood came and destroyed them. So it will be at the coming of the Son of Man (Matt 24: 36-39).”
This passage, embedded in pages of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching, is the core of what he wishes to communicate to all those who seek to follow him. He wants us to go deeper than our usual human tendency to desire knowledge per se of the future, deeper than a kind of “baptized” fortune-telling. Jesus desires to take us to the well-spring of Wisdom, not to knowledge as such because knowledge cannot save us. He is always drawing his apostles into deep waters, event at certain moments to the brink of literal drowning. In this immersion is the beginning of wisdom, for it pulls us from a merely horizontal perspective into a vertical perspective that offers a truly cosmic perspective—so much higher than it is broad.
He goes on to say, “Stay awake, therefore! You cannot know the day your Lord is coming (Matt 24: 42).”
This dialogue with the apostles is repeated in the Gospel of Luke, with some additional words of Christ. He begins by speaking of the nature of his return in glory after the upheavals that are to come:
“The Son of Man is his day will be like the lightning that flashes from one end of the sky to the other. First, however, he must suffer much and be rejected by the present age (Luke 17:24).”
This phrase, “rejected by the present age,” is highly significant, for it implies that there are ages to come after his life on earth. Elsewhere he says that some people now living in his generation will see him glorified. Thus, in these seemingly contradictory passages, we are led to understand that he is imparting a multi-dimensional vision, transcending a purely linear chronology.
“As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They ate and drank, they took husbands and wives, right up to the day Noah entered the ark—and when the flood came it destroyed them all. It was much the same in the days of Lot: they ate and drank, they bought and sold, they built and planted. But on the day Lot left Sodom, fire and brimstone rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.
“It will be like that on the day the son of Man is revealed. . . . Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever tries to preserve his life will lose it; whoever loses it will keep it (Luke 17:26-33)."
Here, if you will, is the true “survival manual” for the apocalypse, here is the spiritual foundation of our savior’s teachings about what we must do and where we must be, spiritually and mentally, as we pass through times of darkness. It goes without saying that there are mini-apocalypses for every individual, and also prefiguring apocalypses that have occurred at certain moments of the history of the Church. The major Apocalypse will be that period of history when everything is tested, when the Church itself will be crucified throughout the world. Where will our resources be then? Will we, like Lot’s wife, look back to the securities of Sodom? Perhaps in her mind she knew it wasn’t the greatest town in which to live, but told herself that, after all, it was a place of material security—they ate and drank and built and planted. Clearly they could make a good living there. There are always reasonable arguments for compromise, for not going into the desert in obedience to the word of God, and doubtless the lady had some good ones. It bears repeating: Whoever tries to preserve his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for the sake of Christ will keep it for eternity.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus warns us:
“As to the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father. Be constantly on the watch! Stay awake! You do not know when the appointed time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he orders the man at the gate to watch with a sharp eye. Look around you! You do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether at dusk, at midnight, when the cock crows, or at early dawn. Do not let him come suddenly and catch you asleep. What I say to you, I say to all: Be on guard! (Mark 13:32-37).”
Again and again we hear such passages in the readings of the liturgy, becoming ever more accustomed to them as we grow older. Of course, they are always interesting, but the urgency of the Lord’s admonitions can fade in our minds with familiarity. We may give an intellectual assent to them, acknowledging that they are true, yet subliminally we can feel (“feel is indeed the accurate term in this regard) that they are not applicable to one’s own life. The warnings blend into the background, become part of the large body of Christ’s teachings, most of which are less obscure, less full of unknowables. And so we tend to set the question of apocalyptic reflection aside, either dismissing it altogether as a symbolic representation of events long past, or alternatively, of events that are to come in some very distant future. Hence we live as if we are under no threat, convinced on some level that no Beast is going to stare me in the face and devour me—neither a beast on the personal level nor some “mythological” apocalyptic Beast of grand cosmic dimensions. Neither of these approaches are faithful to what Christ tells us.
There is always a battle over every soul. Even if our times prove not to be the times toward which St. John’s Revelation is pointing, each of us must go through a kind of small “a” apocalypse. Each of us certainly will be given a capital “R” revelation at the moment of our deaths when we experience our personal judgment, when all that we are, all that we have done or neglected to do will be revealed. The Greek word apokalypsis means a revealing or unveiling. During our lives in this world each of us will indeed face the beast, which is the devil, our ancient adversary, the enemy of our individual souls and of mankind as a whole. In some form or other we must learn to personally resist him and to overcome him in Christ. At the same time we must understand that there will come a point in history when all his malice, all his devices, all his rage will be released in a final vicious attack upon the entire Body of Christ. It will be intense; it will be brief. If we find ourselves in the midst of those three and a half years of total persecution, it will not feel so brief. Yet we must always keep in mind that his time is coming to an end; indeed he is already defeated by the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and there remains only the final battle through which the Church and the world must pass.
We are in the final battle, we are in the apocalypse, we are in the book of Revelation, which the Church, beginning with most of the Church Fathers, believes to be a vision of the entire unfolding of salvation history after the Incarnation, culminating in the total victory of Christ over the entire cosmos and its restoration to the Father. The book of Revelation is not a schematic diagram or a flat blueprint or a purely linear time-line. It is a mysterious multi-dimensional vision which surely contains linear-chronological aspects, but that is not the whole thing. Indeed it is not the main thing.
The main grace of the book of Revelation is the Lord’s exhortation to every generation to stay awake in a spirit of vigilance, to open the eyes of our hearts, minds, and spirits to the very nature of Reality. The various bizarre manifestations of apocalypticism in our times, ranging from certain wild scenarios in some Protestant circles to their counterparts in some Catholic circles, distort the intention of Revelation. Whenever they are not rooted in profound reverence for the mystery and wisdom of God, whenever they fail in absolute confidence in the coming victory of God, whenever they are not rooted in obedience and docility to the Holy Spirit, they will invariably grasp at knowledge as the saving factor. Why is it that so many people gallop to the book stores to purchase the latest speculative scenarios? Why do we invest so much interest and trust in these, and so little in the interior life of union with Christ—the very One who will save us? Recall at this moment that he does not promise to save our lives in this world in strictly human terms, but to save them for eternity if we but trust in Him and cling to him wholeheartedly. Are we unwittingly falling prey to a religious form of saving ourselves? Have we placed our faith in secret “insider” information, in techniques of self-preservation, survival manuals and combat journals which heavily emphasize the preservation of our lives and minimize our spiritual health? If so, it is time for some self-examination. An attitude that gives mental assent to God while on other levels proceeds as if He is not in fact caring for his flock is unhealthy in every way.
Because of our fallen human nature, even our baptized human nature, we are ever tending in the direction of desiring to be autonomous units in control of our own lives. Yes, we want salvation, we want the consolations of God, but we want them on our own terms. This attitude may not even be conscious, but it must be humbly recognized if we are to move beyond the tragically limited world of the self. Whenever we say to ourselves, “I will decide what scripture means. I will not submit myself to any Church that tells me what it means!” we have slipped into the realm of the self. These attitudes creep subtly into our thinking and feeling. They saturate the atmosphere of our times, especially in Western culture. In an era of history dominated by fear and mistrust, the submission of heart and souls to the mind of Christ and his Church is misinterpreted as anti-personalist, when in fact the Church is anti-isolationist and is profoundly personalist. The new mythological hero is the autonomous individual accountable to no one other than his sovereign self, and the spirit of the age encourages us at every turn to emulate him, and in doing so to make petty gods of ourselves.
It should be noted with a certain sobriety that the exaltation of a creature above the authority of God is the spirit of Antichrist. Few if any devotees of the self would entertain the notion that they serve this diabolic spirit, yet the truth of the matter is that he who denies that Jesus is the Lord over his life makes himself vulnerable to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, the spiritus mundi, the spirit of the world. As this spirit becomes increasingly dominated by the ideas of Antichrist, the sovereign self would do well to look beyond the frontiers of his small kingdom, lest he find himself one day, without knowing how he arrived there, in a condition of slavery.
The spiritus mundi in our times displays some unique characteristics, characteristics that become comprehensible only by the light of the visions of Daniel, Hosea, Zachariah, and a host of other prophets, and by the eschatological passages in the New Testament, most importantly the warnings of Christ and the great vision of the book of Revelation. Read the scriptures and you will see that our times are spread out before us in those texts.
In every age, this spirit works against the absolute sovereignty of God. Yet we know from divine revelation that there will come a definitive period in history when this spirit will spread throughout the world and will at the height of its influence seize by lies and flattery and subtle seduction the totality of world-power, and then will launch an unprecedented persecution of the followers of Christ.
In 1948, Etienne Gilson, one of the great Thomistic philosophers of the 20th century, gave a talk to the bishops of France on the subject of the character of the emerging post-war world. In his prescient 1949 essay, "The Terrors of the Year 2000", based upon that address, he argued that the man of the new era is dominated by the spirit of "Anti-Christus". Having abandoned belief or trust in the God who became man and suffers with us in order to raise us up, we would make ourselves into God, for man cannot live long without a god and a spirituality. Positing the "demoniac grandeur of Nietzsche" as the forerunner and articulator of this spiritual condition, Gilson warns that his influence is great because in our time he bears no resemblance to the fantastic beast of the Apocalypse.
The entire human order totters on its base. Antichrist is still the only one who knows this, the only one who foresees the appalling cataclysm of the "reversal of values" which is in the making, for if the totality of the human past depended on the certitude that God exists, the totality of the future must needs depend on the contrary certitude, that God does not exist. . . .
Have we understood at last? That is not certain, because the announcement of a cataclysm of such magnitude ordinarily leaves but a single escape: to disbelieve it, and in order not to believe, to refuse to understand it. If Nietzsche speaks truly, it is the very foundations of human life which are to be overthrown. . . .
"He who would be a creator, both in good and evil, must first of all know how to destroy and wreck values" [Nietzsche writes]. They are, in fact, being wrecked around us, and under our very feet, everywhere. We have stopped counting the unheard of theories thrown at us under names as various as their methods of thought, each the harbinger of a new truth which it promises to create shortly, joyously busy preparing the brave new world of tomorrow by first annihilating the world of today. . . .
Since men have refused to serve God, there is no longer an arbiter between them and the State which dominates them. It is no longer God but the State which judges them. But who, then, will judge the State?
If there is no longer an absolute moral order, no set of absolutes exterior to man’s subjectivity, no unshakeable standard of good and evil by which we can measure the rightness or wrongness of our personal, national, and international acts, what stands in the way of simply reshaping mankind according to whims and theories? What stands in the way of redefining a certain portion of mankind as less human than other portions of mankind—and thus undeserving of life? It has already happened, abortion being an obvious example. But we have grown accustomed to it. We know it is wrong, yet it has become normalized all around us. And though we continue to resist it, it has been integrated into the texture of the ordinary. The institutionalization of evil from top to bottom in our society has been absorbed into the geo-psyche of our consciousness.
Josef Pieper, in his essay "The Art of Not Yielding to Despair", makes a similar point, citing sources that range as widely as Saint John on Patmos, Nietzsche and Marx, Thomas Mann and Robert Oppenheimer, and most especially Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited. Huxley's 1931 dystopia Brave New World had warned that the age of world-organization was approaching (though still distant), and that such an age would abolish private life and personal responsibility. Writing thirty years later, in Revisited, Huxley was a good deal less optimistic, and expressed his conviction that the predictions he had made in 1931 were materializing at a much faster rate than he had thought possible. In the near future, he warned, we would see the rise of a "scientific dictatorship" in which there would be less violence than under Hitler and Stalin, "and in which we will be painlessly regimented by a corps of highly trained social engineers," and in which "democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial," but "the underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism." Pieper points out that this is the most inhuman form of totalitarianism, almost impossible to throw off, because it can always cite what appear to be valid arguments to prove that it is not in fact what it is.
In his 1942 reflection on the looming post-war world, The Judgment of the Nations, historian Christopher Dawson contrasted the collapse of the Roman Empire to the collapse of a Christian civilization. He believed that something far more ominous is at work in the latter:
For the civilization which has been undermined, and is now threatened by total subversion, is a Christian civilization, built on the spiritual values and religious ideals of Saint Augustine and his like; and its adversary is not the simple barbarism of alien peoples who stand on a lower cultural level, but new Powers armed with all the resources of scientific technique, which are inspired by a ruthless will to power, that recognizes no law save that of their own strength.
Dawson is here referring to overt tyrannies. However, he goes on to sound some additional warnings for us all:
Thus, the situation that Christians have to face today has more in common with that described by the author of the Apocalypse than with the age of St. Augustine. The world is strong and has its evil masters. But these masters are not vicious autocrats like Nero and Domitian. They are the engineers of the mechanism of world power: a mechanism that is more formidable than anything the ancient world knew, because it is not confined to external means, like the despotism of the past, but uses all the resources of modern psychology to make the human soul the motor of its dynamic purpose.
Dawson is describing the shape of a possible future, a global non-violent totalitarianism that is the most serious of all from the Christian viewpoint, because in it evil has become depersonalized, "separated from individual appetite and passion, and exalted . . . into a sphere in which all moral values are confused and transformed. The great terrorists . . . have not been immoral men, but rigid puritans who did evil coldly, by principle."
If sober minds such as Gilson, Pieper, and Dawson (one could easily add a long list of admirable names to their company) have spoken with a certain urgency about the significance of our time's unique character, surely we who live a generation later can afford a little reflection on the possibility that history may be approaching its definitive crisis. The widespread reluctance on the part of many Catholic thinkers to enter into a profound examination of the apocalyptic elements of contemporary life is, I believe, part of the very problem they seek to avoid. If apocalyptic thinking is left largely to those who have been subjectivized or who have fallen prey to the vertigo of cosmic terror, then the Christian community, indeed the whole human community, is radically impoverished. And that can be measured in terms of lost human souls.
Much of the apocalyptic commentary issuing from academic circles these days is limited to the shibboleth of the first millennium. “Ah, yes,” we are told over and over, “in the tenth century there was a mass hysteria about the approaching millennium, and you see, the date passed and the world recovered its balance.” In preparation for his address to the bishops of France, Gilson studied that period carefully and found little evidence to support the theory of tenth century millennial fever. The tradition regarding a supposed widespread hysteria was so grossly inflated as to be ludicrous, and was in fact due largely to the writings of a single cleric. While there were isolated incidents, Gilson admits, mass hysteria was definitely not the temper of those times.
What, then, are we to make of the widespread abhorrence among intellectuals for serious reflection on apocalyptic themes? Fear of the irrational? Yes, there is some of that—distaste for a subject that is full of unknowables and ripe for inflammatory conjecture. Clearly, it is a healthy thing to feel some aversion to the danger of projecting one's formless dreads upon a big dangerous world. Nevertheless, this misgiving should not be allowed to paralyze the critical faculty, or more accurately the charism of spiritual discernment which Christians should exercise whenever they seek to understand the world. Have we become so worried about the danger of paranoia that we are no longer able to consider the possibility that something of the magnitude of an apocalypse might occur in our times? Is not the psychology of denial every bit as dangerous as the psychology of hysteria—perhaps more so? How easy to dismiss the entire question with a backhand swipe at the poor style and obvious excesses of many “end-times” writers with their various conflicting scenarios, or the screaming apocalyptic headlines of the tabloid magazines. By its very nature the subject of world-catastrophe evokes knee-jerk responses, and thus for the academic mind there is a strong counter-temptation to draw back so far from the problem that he practically dismisses the subject altogether.
Human psychology is such that we tend to perceive our own times as normal. We are born and raised in a given culture with certain spiritual and material realities all around us. People of every generation experience the world as an imperfect environment, but it is still their world. At some point in history, however, a generation is going to go through the final stage of the apocalypse, yet to them it will appear to be a normal world. It will have problems, and its citizens may even admit that the problems are grave, but it will be difficult for most to understand it in terms of the absolute crisis presented in the Book of Revelation. This is precisely the condition which Jesus warns us about in Matthew 24. That generation which is least awake, least able to recognize what is happening, perhaps even a most comfortable and confident generation, will be the one in which the spirit of Antichrist will manifest itself fully. Are we the long-foretold generation?
And if so, how will our enslavement be accomplished? It will be accomplished by increasing the voltage of state power combined with a gradual decreasing of civil rights, the lifting of burdensome responsibilities from our shoulders combined with the increase of pleasurable rewards, the growth of a power class of “knowers”, who enshrine a multi-faceted gnosticism in organs of institutional governance. If at the same time, man’s ability to exercise his healthy critical and analytical faculties has been limited by corrupt education, by media indoctrination, and by a generalized loss of the sense of human identity, the new world order can be achieved—and achieved most effectively, it should be noted, to the degree that it is understood as a “moral” cause, a great leap forward in the name of humanity.
This is already underway in several nations of the West. It may in the near future succeed to the level of totality. What stands in its path? Only the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II in a number of his public talks and in his encyclicals, notably Centessimus Annus, says that we must not conclude that simply because the more brutal forms of totalitarianism such as fascism and Marxism appear to be overturned and democratic governments are rising in these former tyrant-states, mankind will now right himself and we will all proceed into the new and glorious future. John Paul II continually taught that a future defined as a restoration of the world through inexorable evolutionary processes is a false assumption, and in fact he goes so far as to warn that we of the Western liberal democracies may in the long run stand in greater danger than those peoples of Eastern Europe and other parts of the world who have suffered under overt tyranny. Their sufferings were catastrophic; they were crucified nations, crucified peoples, crucified particular churches. Yet in those lands the beast was unmasked, revealed itself for what it was. The beast that is now all around us devours the innocent on many levels of our society. Most obviously, it devours the innocent in the womb in huge numbers, through state-sanctioned, state-funded murder, discretely hidden within our hygienic institutions. Euthanasia now is spreading. Ten years ago, a member of my extended family was saved only by a hair from being murdered in a Catholic institution. Such incidents are becoming more frequent. Why, then, is the unthinkable becoming normalized all around us? It has spread, and will continue to spread, because of the blurring of thinking and numbing of conscience, aided by the theological nuancing of the Truth into abstractions that seem no longer applicable to practical reality.
What have the Popes said about the character of our times?
Pope Saint Pius X, in his 1903 encyclical, Suprema Apostolatus, wrote, “There is room to fear that we are experiencing the foretaste of the evils that are to come at the end of time. And that the Son of Perdition of whom the apostles speak has already arrived on the earth.”
Five years later, at the beatification of St. Joan of Arc, he said:
“In our time more than ever before the greatest asset of the evilly disposed is the cowardice and weakness of good men, and all the vigor of Satan’s reign is due to the easygoing weakness of Catholics. O, if I might ask the divine redeemer, as the prophet Zachary did in spirit, ‘What are these wounds in your hands?’ the answer would not be doubtful. ‘With these I was wounded in the house of those who loved me. I was wounded by my friends who did nothing to defend me and who, on every occasion, made themselves the accomplices of my adversaries.’ This reproach can be leveled at the weak and timid Catholics of all countries.”
Speaking as a weak and timid Catholic, a fallen human creature in need of salvation, in my own ongoing self-examination of conscience I have been seeing more and more those areas where I fail to resist the spirit of the world. I ask myself, where have I failed to grow in courage? Where have I made my compromises? Though I think of myself as a good Catholic, striving to remain in the state of grace, attending daily Mass and saying my prayers, in my heart of hearts am I really willing to give everything for Jesus? Am I willing to say at each moment, “Take my life. Do what you want with it.”? The forms this can take are myriad. It may be that he desires you to change diapers for the next ten years and unite that humble task to his own sacrifices; it may mean that you will have to speak the truth boldly when you encounter the lies that dominate modern consciousness. Regardless of your state in life, you must be willing to be put to many kinds of tests, even some that could inhibit the advance of your career, slowing or defeating your own plans for doing good in the world.
If you stand firm, if you remain faithful, whether your task is “small” or “large”, you will bear much good fruit in the world, though it will not be on your own terms. The concept of small and large, great and insignificant, is generally skewed in modern thinking, and we must admit that these measurements often infect believers as much as non-believers. In the canticle in the eleventh chapter of Revelation, all those in Paradise are glorifying the Holy Trinity. The passage says that “the great and the small” are praising Him (Rev 11:15-18). But who are these great and small? If we pay attention to everything Christ has taught us, the great is not necessarily what we think of as great by human standards, nor is the small. Greatness has nothing to do with having one’s name on a book cover or one’s presence being felt in the forums of the world. Genuine greatness may be to labor at humble and humiliating tasks unnoticed by anyone other than God himself. Such tasks put to death within us the core of selfishness in human nature. Indeed, a lifetime of hiddenness, of anonymity and of being considered to be of little or no consequence, if lived in union with Christ, will lead you to a day when you pass through the gates into Paradise and find, to your astonishment, that you are great in the eyes of the Father. For the Father loves you with a love you cannot now begin to fathom, and in you he sees the living image of his Son.
If we are living in definitive stages of the Apocalypse, our path through this radical darkness will not depend on the “greatness” of human status or strengths, nor on maps, blueprints, and survival gear. It can never depend on any attempt to save ourselves. Our salvation in the time of the ultimate assault on the Body of Christ will depend on our union with Jesus. And so our faith cannot be simply a matter of rational assent to a set of doctrines—though of course this is an essential part of our faith. One might memorize the Catechism, give every item in it an intellectual assent, yet as laudable as that would be, it is not enough. What our faith is about is union with Jesus Christ, here in this world and for eternity. If we are baptized, we are already living in this communion—which the Church calls the communion of the saints. The terrible spirit of the apocalypse strives to disintegrate this communion; it seeks to create a dreadful isolation. It tries to split us away from other souls, to cut us out of the flock, to push us ever farther into a sense of unholy abandonment where it is so much easier to be confused, discouraged, and annihilated. And whenever we are overwhelmed by such feelings, when we think we are alone and unprotected, we instinctively turn toward the natural human resources: we seize whatever influence or control that is accessible to us, we try to make a safe insular world for ourselves. Ah, if only I can get enough money or knowledge, influence or power, we think, then I will be all right. The list of resources goes on, the many ways through which we try to create security. These may not be bad things in themselves, but all too easily the essential question is forgotten, minimized or ignored, and in the end never faced. The question each of us must ask now in this time of great grace and mercy is: “In what have I placed my ultimate trust? Where am I deceiving myself about security? Where, perhaps, am I bowing before idols and not even realizing it?”
To the degree that we have placed our hopes in anything other than Christ himself we are going to be confused and overcome; we will hesitate, flounder, fall into fear, and wander still further from the flock and quite possibly slide into discouragement and finally despair. Is this not the test undergone by the people of God in the Passover? We too can find convincing arguments why we should not follow Christ on the way of the Cross, which is the new pillar of holy fire. The teachings of the Church refer to the time of the end as a “final Passover.” As we move toward the eternal Promised Land, why should we assume that we will never be tested like our ancestors in the desert? Why, moreover, should we assume that we will behave differently? After the astounding miracles the Hebrews had witnessed, such as the chastisements of the Egyptians and the parting of the Red Sea, then the pillar of fire, the gifts of miraculous food, they were still tempted, still fell into unbelief. And what was their anguished cry in the desert? “Did you bring us out here into the desert only to die!” Is this not already our cry whenever our personal situations become destabilized and promise to become radically insecure? Do we protest, “Where are you, God! Have you abandoned us?!” This will be our response if we have invested our hopes only in the consolations and blessings of God, instead of union with Him, including union with him on the Cross. If we desire only his securities, what will we do when these are removed? Will we fall into dismay and then betrayal, reject what he desires to teach us, and where He wishes to lead us, and what he desires to do through us? Here is our test. None are exempt from it. For it is the only path to true and eternal freedom.
But what are we to do, if we should find ourselves way out there in the desert, in a situation where all securities are falling away and we stand exposed to the dangers of human existence? The answer can be found in numerous places in scripture, but one passage I often read and pray is from Psalm 56:
"O Most High, when I begin to fear, in you I will trust." The entire psalm is worth meditating upon, for its author King David understood what it is to be human, to tremble before the apparently overwhelming power of an adversary, to feel in every aspect of his being his fragility as a creature. He had faced Goliath with nothing but a little sling, his five smooth stones, and his faith. He faced numerous other enemies, not least of which was his own vulnerability to sin. Yet he always turned to the Lord, and turned and turned again, and learned in the process that we must never lose heart.
Trust does not come automatically to us. It grows as we exercise it. We can begin to do this now, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, in the normal and sometimes extraordinary trials of life. Each of us have them, and each of us, by invoking the Lord to strengthen us, can find in them the opportunity to retrain our thoughts and the movements of our hearts.
I have found it helpful in impossible situations to pray prayers glorifying God in advance for whatever way, unknown to me, he will bring me through the trial at hand. I also like to pray the song of the three young men in the fiery furnace in Babylon. This is a song of great beauty, most beautiful because it is a hymn sung in the very place where it is least likely to be sung. Such prayers uttered in a "hopeless" place are greatly treasured by God, and he will not disappoint those who pray them. It's practice again. Athletes strengthen their muscles and endurance by training, and we too can train ourselves to confidence in God. We must remind ourselves often that he desires to flood us with every grace we need for this kind of growth, for the deep work of maturing in Him. The particular difficulties of ordinary life and the major tests of life are the very situations where we learn best. He loves us, and this we must never forget. All the communion of saints loves us too, and are constantly interceding for us. Their intercession and the aid of the holy angels will increase as we need them. But they will force nothing upon us, and thus we must develop the habit of asking for and relying upon grace. We are presently living at a moment in history when it is possible to learn these deep lessons in the heart and mind and soul without undue interference. Heaven is pouring out many avenues of grace for us at this time. We can turn to the Holy Eucharist with renewed focus and fervor. We can ask Our Lady to play a greater role in our lives, consecrate ourselves and our families to her motherly care. And we can develop the habit of reading scripture regularly and prayerfully.
We can also seek out ways to contribute to the new evangelization, for right to the end (be the end a thousand years from now or only a few years away) God desires to bring all souls home to himself. This is not the time to give up on the world, but to renew our efforts to bring hope to the world. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical on Divine Mercy, even if the sins of mankind now deserve a second great flood, we are called to plead for his mercy on each and every soul in the world. We must avoid the alternative temptations of false optimism and dread-filled pessimism. Christians are the ultimate realists. We are people who can look into the reality of a dark age and find there the approaching victory of Christ. And this too takes practice.
Returning to the words of our Holy Fathers regarding the apocalyptic characteristics of our times:
At one of his Wednesday allocutions Pope Paul VI said that “the smoke of Satan is seeping into the Church of God through the cracks in the walls.” In a 1976 allocution, he went so far as to say, “the tail of the devil is functioning in the disintegration of the Catholic world.” The choice of this unusual description is significant, for it alludes to a passage in the Book of Revelation:
“A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Because she was with child, she cried aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky: it was a huge dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns; on his head were seven diadems. His tail swept a third of the stars from the sky and hurled them down to earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, ready to devour her child when it should be born.” (Rev 12:1-4).
The woman clothed with the sun is a type of Our Lady and of the Church, and thus the passage is multidimensional. Satan’s attempt to destroy the Christ Child by acting through King Herod is its literal-historical meaning; the role of the Mother of God at the end of the ages is another level of meaning, allegorical and prophetic, which will unfold as literal-historical at some point in the future. In this sign can also be seen the role of the Church in every age, her labors to bear the fruit of salvation into the world. Every child, in a sense, is her child. Thus the phrase used in the context of “the disintegration of the Catholic world” is very strong language from a Pope.
In that same year a Polish cardinal named Karol Wotyla gave an address during a visit to the United States.
“We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of the American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel and the anti-Gospel. This confrontation lies within the plans of divine providence. It is a trial which the whole Church . . . must take up.”
(The address was widely disseminated after his election to the papacy, when it was republished in the November 9, 1978, issue of The Wall Street Journal)
I find it stunning that the man whom the Holy Spirit put in the Chair of Peter only two years later is speaking of the “final” confrontation as a present reality. It is a small word, but a world of meaning is embedded in it.
Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, in a talk he gave in Palermo, Sicily, in March of 2000, spoke about of the loss of spiritual fatherhood in the modern age: “The crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity. The dissolution of fatherhood and motherhood is linked to the dissolution of our being sons and daughters.”
Further on in this talk, the cardinal reflected on the fatherhood of God. He pointed out that the book of Apocalypse speaks of the primeval eternal antagonist to the Father, “the Beast,” that is, the devil. The Beast as it is described in the Book of Revelation, does not have a name; it has a number. Cardinal Ratzinger then referred back to the Holocaust of World War II, and connected the concentration-extermination camps to our times, especially in the defining element of the new global civilization, which is overwhelmingly technological, with all the consequent potential for corruption and dehumanization of souls:
“In their horror [the concentration camps] cancelled faces and history, transforming man into a number, reducing him to a cog in an enormous machine. Man is no more than a function. . . .
“In our days, we should not forget that they prefigured the destiny of a world that runs the risk of adopting the same structure of the concentration camps, if the universal law of the machine is accepted. The machines that have been constructed impose the same law. According to this logic, man must be interpreted by a computer and this is only possible if translated into numbers. The beast is a number and transforms into numbers. God, however, has a name and calls by name. He is a person and looks for the person.”
Cardinal Ratzinger was not referring to the overt horrors of such camps, but to what they were in essence. These camps prefigured what the world will become if the universal law of the machine is accepted. Miraculous and eternal beings will be reduced to the level of objects which can be used or discarded at the whim of unaccountable governments and the social forces controlled by such governments. There will then inevitably follow the radical dehumanization of mankind. In that “brave new world” whatever scraps of “spirituality” it retains will be false ones, leading not to our Father but to Satan himself.
I would like to conclude with a quote from a well-known spiritual writer, who is commenting on the canticle of praise in the fifteenth chapter of Revelation:
"History, in fact, is not alone in the hands of dark powers, chance or human choices. Over the unleashing of evil energies, the vehement irruption of Satan, and the emergence of so many scourges and evils, the Lord rises, supreme arbiter of historical events. He leads history wisely towards the dawn of the new heavens and the new earth, sung in the final part of the book under the image of the new Jerusalem (see Revelation 21-22)."
The speaker is Pope Benedict XVI, the address is from his general audience of May 11, 2005, delivered a few days after his election to the papacy. Here is our first and final word. The victory of Christ is the first and final theme of the Book of Revelation, and so too it must be the first and final word of our own lives. We are not alone, not abandoned to the malice of dark powers and the evil energies of their human agents. Jesus Christ is the Lord of history, and he is the One to whom we must cling as we make our way through a dark age. We must do so as little children, with the spirit of the child clinging to his father’s hand. Regardless of whether we are granted another thousand years of history, or a hundred, or a decade, or even just a handful of years, the truth remains the same.
“Unless you become as little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God.”
The loss of the sense of spiritual fatherhood, and hence the loss of spiritual childhood, are the major voids in the modern world; they may even be so in our lives as believers. Here, then is the task ahead for each of us, here the “survivor manual” for the Apocalypse.
The Lord stands ever ready to receive us, to feed and guard and guide us. Open and read, take and eat, come and drink. Life pours though the words on these printed pages. They are not dead letters, not even true dead letters, for they are living words. In them the Lord says to the Church in Sardis, “Awake and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death!” Each of the particular churches must heed this, for it contains both an exhortation and an admonition.
The book of Revelation reaches its climax with the final words of Christ, “I am coming soon.” The entire sacred scriptures end with St. John’s response, his voice crying out for the whole Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
“The Lord cries aloud into our ears, too, the words which in Revelation he addressed to the Church of Ephesus: ‘I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place, unless you repent’ (Rev 2:5). Our light can also be taken away, and we do well if we let this warning resound in all its gravity within our souls, and cry aloud to the Lord: ‘Help us to convert! Give us all the grace of true renewal! Do not permit your light in our midst to be extinguished! Strengthen our faith, our hope, and our love, that we may bear good fruit!’” (from a homily of Pope Benedict XVI, 2 October, 2005)
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