Friday, September 09, 2022

Response to Robert

[Sep. 9, 2022] Earlier this month, I was written an open letter by Robert at the lovely blog Pater Familias. This post is my response to his letter. Before you read this post, therefore, you should visit Robert's "Letter to Boniface" post and read it in order to understand my response in context.

My brother, I am touched by your correspondence. I commend you for your candor and openness. You brought up many points, to which I don't know if I will have adequate answer; but I will answer as I can, according to my poor ability. Please understand that my words here represent my own peculiar spiritual approach to the vicissitudes of life. I am no spiritual advisor and do not intend to lecture you on how you ought to be doing things; I am just one beggar telling another beggar where I have found some bread. 

You spoke of the fear that your children may one day apostasize. I understand the anxiety a father experiences over their children's faith; I have suffered with it myself occasionally, although—thanks be to God—it is something I no longer fret over. Certainly not because the world has gotten any better. Rather, it has served me well to remember what Christ has said: "Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matt. 6:34). If I wish to have peace, my focus must be on what is before me. The only moment I have any control over is the present, and this is where our Lord desires us to keep our focus. Now is the day of salvation; now is the moment of grace. What good can come of anxiety over a future that has not happened, and may never happen? The best way I can secure my children's faith in the future is to be Christlike now.

We imagine our theater of action is vastly broader than it is; in actuality, it is quite small, confined to the tiny, fleeting moment we retain control over, a moment so brief it is gone by the time we even conceive of it. But it is to our great benefit that the window is so small, for it puts our salvation into a context we can manage. The grand arc of my life, my eternal destiny, and that of my children and friends, and the will of God overarching it all—it's all too much for me to maintain in head and heart; "such knowledge is too wonderful for me; far too lofty for me to reach" (Ps. 139:6). Thank God He does not ask me to navigate such a tremendous vessel all at once! Rather, he commits to me a single oar and tells me "Row well, and live"; he entrusts me with a single coin and says, "Use this wisely." And that I can manage, especially with the aid of His grace which enlightens my mind. The burden of our salvation is actually quite small; "my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:30). That's not to say salvation is not of tremendous import, obviously, but it is one of the paradoxes of the Kingdom of God that the import of such a grave matter can be a burden of light and an easy yoke. Just because something is important does not mean it must be draining; I am reminded of Chesterton's famous quip, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." To achieve great things, we must become small. That includes shrinking the locus of our attention in the way Christ suggests in the Beatitudes.

This relates to our Lord's command to be as children. We usually interpret the childlike faith to relate to trust, and this is certainly true, but I think it also relates to our focus. Children are concerned only with what is before them; they take no care for tomorrow and scarcely remember yesterday. Their attention is entirely fixated upon whatever they are doing at the moment. Imagine if your own spiritual attention was so fixated on the moment! Invest that kind of focus in the here and now and you will do better. "Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life?" (Matt. 6:27)

I realize this is easier said than done, especially given the darkness that is overtaking the world. You mention your disgust with the world increasing with each passing year, and a fear that your faith is being corrupted by a kind of judgmental self-righteousness. I read this part of your letter many times, contemplating it from various angles, and I think you are correct to be concerned about this matter. Our Lord does not want us to be consumed with disgust, even if we are surrounded by things that truly merit it. Jesus promised that His commandments would bring us joy. He said, "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love...These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:10-11). Our Lord intends our joy to be "full." If we are not people of joy, we therefore must stop and ask why?

The world is covered in darkness, the Church is in chaos, society is adrift, the economy is collapsing. How can we be joyful? I return, again, to my previous theme, reduction of scope; in other words, my brother, who told you any of this was your concern? Has God laid it upon you to save the world? Is the goings on of the Vatican your personal responsibility? Or are the economy and western civilization entrusted entirely to your hands? Assuredly not. Of course, there are some men whose responsibilities are much more vast; some men have been given ten talents, and their obligations are weighty. But such is not you, and such is not me. The Church? Not my concern. The country? Not my concernat least not in the sense of making it all my personal business and wasting my energy fretting about it all. Commending it all to prayer is the best we can do, fulfilling what Paul asks of Timothy, to make prayers and supplications for all all in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Then what is my concern? The Lord requires my faithfulness in the things He has entrusted to me. What talents has He put into your hand? Your work, your children, your wife, your parish. All relatively modest, when you think about it; at least vastly more so than worrying about the world, the church, and society. My brother, just be attentive to the little circle of this universe that is under your immediate gaze. Hug your wife and children. Be diligent in your daily tasks. Plant and grow your garden and rejoice in the dirt under your fingers, the greenness of grass, blueness of sky, and the wind on your face. Walk down your road and marvel at the movements of bone, sinew, and limb before the ravages of age deprive you of them. Thank God for the breath in your nostrils. 

The small things, the small things, ah, yes, that is where happiness lies, if it lies anywhere. Not in the fire, or earthquake, or roar of wind but in the still, small voice. Find Him there. I understand your restlessness to "do more" and "be more"; believe me! I feel it every day of my life. But if you want to do more, then be less. If you want Him to increase you, then decrease. In the Kingdom of our Lord, the way up is down. Instead of thinking about doing greater things, do average things with greater love. Imbue your routine with meaning, and you may find that a golden tide washes over all of it and the mundane becomes bathed in glory like a sunbeam falling through your window on a summer afternoon.

You noted that you are alarmed at your shortcomings despite doing the "right things." I see how this alarms you, but I think it alarms you more than necessary. The faith is not a matter of box-checking;  certainly these things you mentioned (Rosary, First Fridays, Adoration, etc.) are all of great importance. But we delude ourselves if we think things are going to go our way just because we have checked the boxes. There is a "not knowingness" that is inherent to faith; a kind of "not yet"—a haze that caused St. Paul say "we see in a mirror yet darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12); this mist must simply be accepted. Embrace your status as a viator; we are not yet what we will become (cf. 1 John 3:2). We are pilgrims, whose feet ache, whose brows are beaded with sweat, whose stomachs hunger; and for all our trials we do not see clearly our destinationbut it is sufficient to know we are on the road there. We wrestle with God like Jacob wrestled the angel. You must simply accept this; accept the not-knowingness. Of course, continue to do the "right things," but abandon any notion that the "right things" are going to yield some specific, concrete result in the here and now. Paradoxically, if you let go of that expectation, you might find things begin to change for you. Things change for us when we stop forcing them; the Spirit works in those realms beyond our mind and strength.

Of course it is only by grace that any of us can hang on. But what has comforted me greatly is a passage from 1 Corinthians, in which Paul says, "if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not" (1 Cor. 8:12). If we yield ourselves to God in sincerity, He accepts our offering based on what we have, not what we lack. If we invest our talents faithfully, His standard of judgement is proportional to what we had to work with. The man who is given one is only expected to yield one; the man with ten is expected to yield ten. I have returned to this passage again and again to help me see my own life in perspective. I hope it may be of benefit to you as well. That we hang on by grace is nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, it is a tremendous consolation, or ought to be. 

I understand loneliness all too well. I, too, am a father, but I have been divorced for several years and have no woman. I'm not sure if my loneliness is of the same as yours; I am fairly content where I am at and don't feel the urgent desire for companionship you express. Such was not always the case, though; I have spent many years learning the art of happiness. St. Paul says he had learned to be content in all situations (cf. Php. 4:11-13). I have realized over time that I, too, can be happy despite my circumstance. I can be happy even in my loneliness. Just like I can have faith even when I don't understand. I can have hope even when I feel broken. I can have love even when darkness is crashing around me. We all can.

Have you ever seen the HBO John Adams series? There is a fantastic scene at the end where John Adams, now elderly and looking back on his life, counsels his son to live in jubilation at the wonders of the mundane. I highly recommend you watch this scene if you haven't seen it before. 

Your expression of the loneliness at Adoration grieved me. I do not know what to tell you, other than such has not been my experience. But then again, when I come before our Lord, all I expect Him to do is just be. I suppose I do not contrast His "affirming" or "speaking" with His "being." When I come before Him, I come unto the ineffable light, that which simply is. And in merely beholding Him, He both affirms and speaks all that must be affirmed and all that needs be said. His gaze is transformative. Heaven is the vision of God. The only thing that ever needs to change in light of that vision is me.

I will say one more thing: when I was a new Christian, I glossed over the Beatitudes because they seemed so simple. Of course I affirmed them and believed them, but they seemed very "basic"; I was eager to get onto bigger things. I did not want milk; I was eager for meat. But now I see that what St. Paul said applied to me: "I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready" (1 Cor. 3:2). I have since gone back to the Beatitudes and found a treasure trove of riches therein, especially of value for maintaining the right balance and proper spiritual focus. I have derived more spiritual benefit from them than I ever though possible. So I encourage you to interiorize the Beatitudes until they are your very breath and the pulse in your wrist.

I apologize in advance that my answer is so poor. I fear I may not be of much help to you. But know that I have prayed for you in hopes that you, too, may find light, refreshment, and peace in His glory. 


Paul said...

Thanks for responding and being a light to my darkness, my brother.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Boniface, and again I say, Amen.

Anonymous said...

Consider the fruit of a thing. Having instant access to all that is going on in the world and in the Church can be a blessing or a curse. It provides access to enriching resources, such as this blog, but also provides access to all that is going on in the world and in the Church, which one may consume ad nauseum. And suddenly, one find himself feeling despairingly lonely. Godly loneliness is a fast for the senses. Persevere beyond the senses and one reaches holy detachment and unshakable joy. The joy of the Lord is our strength.