Saturday, October 31, 2009

Shocking the luekwarm through violence?

One of the largest problems facing Catholicism in particular and Christianity in general is the apathy or spiritual slothfulness of many professing believers. There are many reasons for this apathy, most of which have been discussed in depth by Trads and everybody else concerned with the state of the Church. To a great extent it is true that things like lax discipline, heresy preached from the pulpit, and ambiguous or unreadable statements from the Magisterium can certainly lead to laxity and apathy among the congregation. But this is not really what I am pointing at here: I am talking more about the general kind of apathy or disinterestedness among believers that plagues the Church throughout any time in history. Even in the High Middle Ages there were pious Catholics and then there were worldly Catholics, and the temptation to worldliness is a reality even in the best of times. Perhaps a better term for it would be the Biblical phrase "lukewarmness" from Revelation 3:16, the spiritual state that comes about through a person not taking seriously the things of God, showing general disinterest in the state of their soul and living practically as if God did not exist.

This lukewarm existence describes my own Christian experience for the first five years or so, from the time when I first intellectually believed in Christ to the time several years later when I actually started praying, reading the Scriptures and attending Mass. When I was living a lukewarm Christianity, I did not really go to Church at all, or just went when I felt like it. That of course changed when I got serious about my faith. Some persons, on the other hand, come to Mass every Sunday but do so out of impure motive and maintain a kind of minimalist worldly Catholicism.

The one thing these people need (and that I needed) is true conversion, which is ironically the one thing nobody is able to give to another. I can give books, take them to liturgies, talk with them, but true conversion is due to a movement of grace in the heart that only God can give. I remember when I was in this state that the one thing I did not want to hear about was anything that would make me uncomfortable, guilty about my sin, or think too heavily about my mortality. It is very difficult to shock a lukewarm person out of their apathetic state if they intentionally do not want to be "bothered" with spiritual things, but in my almost ten years as a practicing Catholic I can recall a few things that have been successful.

One is the stories of the martyrs, not just the martyrs of olden days but the martyrs of Communist China, Vietnam and Mexico. I once was giving a talk to a group of young people about the faith of the martyrs, and in the process I told some truly gruesome martyrdom stories. Now, I do not like violence for the sake of violence, nor do I think any of us here. But there is a certain kind of violence that is perhaps fruitful to dwell on: the violence done to our Lord for the sake of our salvation, and also the violence endured by the martyrs for their faith. Well, I recall that one young boy, who we could describe as well-intentioned but worldly, was very disturbed by the stories of the martyrdoms he heard. He took them home with him in his mind, ruminated on them, and even had some dreams about them. He was disturbed that any human could do such things to another, but he was also moved to the core with the idea of someone willingly suffering such things for religion. I would say he was undergoing what may have been the first steps in a true conversion. Marveling at the deeds of the saints and martyrs was the thing that first set St. Ignatius Loyola on his way after his injury at the Battle of Pamplona. Unfortunately, the boy's mother did not recognize this as a moment of grace. She was upset that we had talked about "violence" at a Youth Group meeting and did not like her son thinking about these stories. He was promptly pulled from the Youth Group and sent to another parish where the Youth Group plays foolish games, gossips and hardly talks about God at all. In the meantime, he continues to watch violent movies and play violent video games unchecked.

But following up on this theme of violence, consider also the sad reality of abortion. I know of one kid who was 13 and pretty ignorant of what abortion was. Her parents, of course, had not really bothered to form her on this issue, and when another adult told her what abortion really was and how the babies were dispensed with, she was horrified and deeply troubled. However, like in the first case, the parent intervened. Instead of agreeing with her that abortion was horrid and talking with her child about how it could be stopped, she instead directed her anger against the faithful Catholic who had dared to tell her child about this procedure. I don't know what happened to this girl, but I imagine her enflamed conscience was quickly quenched by a worldly parent who saw the beginning of a moral conscience in her child and decided it was too much. There are certain things that only a parent should discuss with a child, but on the other hand, if you are a Catholic and still ignorant of what abortion is by the time you are 13 and about to reach High School age, then I think something is amiss.

In both scenarios, we see that a gruesome story happened to be the vehicle by which the conscience was awakened. This, of course, is the mentality behind the strategy of showing people pictures of aborted babies to get them to see the evil of abortion. I am not sure how successful this is, and I am shocked by the number of adults who simply see these pictures and say, "That's gross. Don't show me that," as if the gross thing is not the dead baby, but the fact that you are showing them a picture of it. When people see pictures of the Holocaust, the disturbing images usually lead one to take moral action: you see the horrid, shrunken shapes of the victims and the mass graves, and you are moved in your emotions, which lead you to think about the tragedy mentally and form some kind of judgment about the Holocaust and the men who perpetrated it. But when it comes to abortion, or the case of the martyr stories I told above, this natural progression from seeing to forming a judgment was snuffed out in its formative stage, at the time the kids were being moved by the images but before they could make definitive judgments on what they had seen.

Is shocking the lukewarm a good way to wake them up from their apathy? I guess it depends on the person and the propriety of how and what you are shocking them with. I certainly think pulling out pictures of aborted babies is not the most prudent thing to do in every situation, but it does have a time and a place. Of course, meditating on the wounds of our Lord is a time tested technique of growing in devotion, but it is usually done by persons who are already devout - not thrown on people who aren't. It's the reason why my Catholic mother is moved to piety by watching the Passion of the Christ but my fallen away father is disgusted out by it. The stories of violence suffered for righteousness sake is powerfully moving to the pious but seems foolish to the worldly.

"Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints" (Psalm 116:15).

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