Pentecost - Seventeenth Sunday After (25th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
"The Divine Example"
By Rev. P. J. Gannon
In the foolishness and inexperience of youth, my dear brethren, we are apt to enter the enchanted land of dreams. Our imagination, kindled by the fairy tails of childhood, is liable to hold up glittering visions of future happiness or future triumphs, and lightly builds those airy castles that are so easy of construction for the ardent mind of youth. But, if we are not wholly lost to sense and sanity, we are, I doubt not, quickly disillusioned. The sorcerer's wand is broken, and his spell lifted, and in the cruel glare of the truth we come to realize, that we are not living in any enchanted land, or masters of any magic forces. We come to see that for us, as for the overwhelming majority of mankind, Fate has decreed a struggling life, a lowly life, a hidden life; perhaps, even, a life of bitter poverty, of loveless solitude, of unrequited toil, or unalleviated suffering. We are taught the stern, if wholesome, lesson of our own weakness, our own helplessness, our cruel isolation in the midst of crowds.
At such moments of disenchantment, which doubtless come at times to all, the soul is sorely tried. We may be tempted to repine, to chafe against the decrees of Providence, or, at best, to acquiesce with a sullen submission that is not resignation. The heart may easily well into revolt, and harden into malice, or sink into despondency. We may turn blasphemers, or lotos-eaters, or epicures, bent on enjoying the uncertain sunshine while we may, and quite incurious of the deeper meaning and purposes of life.
For when the stimulus of youthful enthusiasm is gone we reach a crisis in our career. We must find a substitute, suited to our years, which will inspire contentment without inducing the languid fatalism of the East or the cold and cruel cynicism of the West. We must be capable of seeing clearly that we can do little, and yet prepared to do that little well; we must be ready to labor ungrudgingly without any rosy prospect of earthly reward or temporal requital. We must submit to the mysterious laws of God's providence, which have ordained our lowly lot and humble sphere.
Yet, the wise maxims and facile rhetoric of human philosophy will not teach us this. Its oracles are utterly vain, or wholly dumb, before the low whimper of infinite moan that rises everlastingly from the lips of men. There is but one influence, at least I know of none other, which is remotely capable of this difficult task, and that is Faith - the one clue to the labyrinth of life, the one solution of the Great Enigma, the only balm that has ever healed a broken heart, or eased it of its pain. We must turn with loving trust to God, who is our Father and our Maker, who knows us all, and loves us all, and has placed us all in those surroundings in which His Will would have us serve Him and earn our passage to the better life that alone makes this life either intelligible or endurable.
But as the lesson of contentment is not easily learned, as all our natural instincts lead us violently the other way, God, who is continually carrying His condescension to extravagant lengths, has done more for us in this respect than our wildest day dreams could have fancied. He has sent His only-begotten Son to teach us by word, and still more by example, that blessed are the poor, the meek, the suffering, the afflicted. He has given us in the Hidden Life of our dearest Lord a lesson which should silence every murmur and solace every grief. That it does not do so is not due to and inefficacy n the lesson itself. We can stop our ears to any music and close our eyes to any light. So, too, we can harden our hearts against almost any grace. The perversity of our free wills seems, as it were, to baffle the Almighty, until He is reduced to explaining, "What could I do for my people and have not done?" If only we would correspond more to His graces, how much joy and deep contentment would flood our restless hearts!
Now if the hidden Life has lessons for all men at all times, it is peculiarly rich in the teaching that is the specific remedy for the evils of to-day. Denunciation of modern degeneracy is an old theme, old, I dare say, as the second generation of men, and it is based, only too often, upon a biased view of the present or an imperfect knowledge of the past. But we may safely assert, at least in two respects, the age in which we live can claim a bad preeminence - namely, in love of notoriety, and impatience of all restraint or control.
These vices have always exercised a fatal fascination on the minds of men. Love of fame has been styled "the universal passion," and "the last infirmity of noble minds"; while as for love of independence, it occasioned the first sin known in Time, and may possible occasion the last. But both these failings present peculiar features in modern times. They have obtained a quickening and an extension hitherto unknown. They are moulding and modifying life in a manner and to an extent that it would not be easy to parallel in the past. Fame is now sweeter to the morbid vanity of man, because it means so much. Being before the eyes of the world is scarcely any longer a rhetorical exaggeration or a figure of speech. Those who now do anything out of the ordinary, from discovering the Pole to swindling the stock-exchange, waken up to find themselves famous, not in this city or in that, but all over the globe. Our very features, stripped of their native homeliness by the photographer's art, may travel to China or Peru, and we may win, by our merits, or our demerits, or our money, a prominent position in the illustrated press, a place of honor between the popular dancer of the hour and the wretched murderer who is to die to-morrow. We may even, if we are fortunate or judicious enough, smile at ourselves from a cinema film, and feel at last that we have not lived in vain.
Out of all this, there has arisen a morbid craving for the spurious fame of headlines, and picture post-cards, and photographs in the magazines. Men will essay anything and endure anything for the satisfaction of seeing their names in print. When Kitchener had defeated the Dervishes near the Atbara, a war correspondent visited the hospital tent of the English, where the wounded lay; and they asked him, "Was it a real battle, sir, like those we used to read about." "Oh, yes," was the somewhat questionable reply, "a great battle, and a great victory." "Then we'll all be in the papers tomorrow," exclaimed the jubilant soldiers. They were children of their age, and looked upon this as a not inadequate reward for the hardships and dangers of a campaign in the Sudan.
yet, my dear brethren, we know that, eager as our nature is for notoriety, we
expect the really great to stand above it, to work for loftier motives, to do
the thing that is their duty or their mission, and leave the rest to the
impartial verdict of Time. Indeed, it is surprising how many of the very
greatest men, I do not say in sacred history, but even in profane have lived and
died comparatively unvalued and unknown. They did not beat noisy
or low tin trumpets to summon a gaping world into their unrivalled show. They left all that to the cheats and thimble-riggers, who impose with circus-tricks upon the crowd. They lived in retirement, and loved solitude, which is the mother-country of the strong. Even in the natural order the "hidden life" is the source and measure of our greatness, the indispensable preparation for all solid work and lasting achievement.
But is is when we come to the supernatural order hat we find this truth most overwhelmingly verified. "Love to be unknown, and reputed s naught," says the Imitation of Christ. And what else could it say, seeing that Christ buried himself for thirty years in one of the most unknown households of the world; and shunned with scrupulous horror the fame which His miracles attracted, and which it would have seemed to us, as it seemed to His disciples, that the success of His mission demanded? We, too, would have counseled Him "to show Himself to the world," But He deemed the example of thirty years scarcely a sufficient rebuke to the insensate vanity of man, and even then he would enforce His precepts by his deeds, flying from those who would make Him king, and enjoining silence on the blind and maimed men who He healed.
With what right then, my dear brethren, do we, His followers, chafe at our narrow surroundings, or sigh for a wider arena, when we know in our heart of hearts it would only mean a wider field in which to display our weakness and cowardice? We should rather thank God, that He has placed us in safety in the valleys of life, and not on those beetling crags and giddy heights from which we every day behold some luckless wayfarer with unbalanced head toppling to sheer destruction on the rocks below. "Lord, it is good for us to be here" - not on Tabor in the light, but on Calvary in the gloom, not amid the loud "Hosannas," but amid the cruel "Crucifixes," not raising bodies from the dead, but nursing our dead souls to life, here amid the hills of Nazareth, in Thy unknown workshop, by the side of Joseph, at the feet of Mary. Lord, it is good for us to be where Thou hast been so long, where we must perforce be, in the Sabbath clam, in the holy peace of life obscure!
Nor need you fear, my dear brethren, the force of an objection that might here be urged. It is this: "How shall the Church conquer the world if all her children imitate the Hidden Life of her Founder? How shall she teach all nations if we are to love retirement and shun notoriety? In this age of self-advertisement is not self-effacement an antiquated weapon? Are not we Catholics perpetually reproached with not producing a due percentage of men famous in the arts and sciences? Is not the church constantly reminded that the so-called wise and great and learned are against her? Should she not come forward, then, as she could well do, and insisting on her ancient glory and present victories, give the lie direct to these poor, broken-winded charges?
My brethren, this objection would have great weight if the Church were some huge commercial trust, bidding for the markets of the world. The, perhaps, more modern methods would be imperative. Then, no doubt, she should endeavor to capture the press, and set her saints and heroes in the limelight.
But it can never be too much insisted on that the Church is the direct contradiction of the world, and the law of her growth and power the flat denial of its laws. Her whole existence is a paradox. She is a mighty army without horse or foot or guns; she wins astounding victories by defeat; she thrives where by all natural laws she should decline, and declines where men might promise her prosperity. She carries the tidings of joy and the message of peace, and is ever in conflict. She lives apparently in perpetual danger of annihilation, yet survives to chant her requiem masses over the empires that assailed her. She nurtures civilization into being, and when the viper brood turns upon its gray-haired Mother, she calmly awaits the operation of God's inexorable laws, which consign such civilizations to putrefaction from within and dismemberment from without; and then, with her divine patience, she sets about raising up a new order of things upon the ruins of the old. When one country spurns her, she shakes its dust off her feet, and carries her rejected blessings to another; when one continent falls away, she crosses the frontiers of the next. And thus, in eternal ebb and flow, she passes down the ages, with strong sweep of mighty waters moving noiselessly because their channel is broad and deep, not with the loud brawling of mountain streams, bickering down their narrow, broken courses.
But more sinister than our modern restlessness under obscurity and distaste of quiet ways, is our insubordination and impatience of control. The spirit of revolt has spread throughout the nations with such virulence that serious thinkers are growing anxious for the ordered continuance of society. Nor can these fears be called unfounded. When all allowance has been made for the exaggeration of alarmists, and when every period of unrest in the world's history has been passed in review before our eyes, we shall find, I fear, that there are symptoms at present so grave, that we must be pardoned if we look upon them as quite unprecedented.
For, first, the discontent is more widespread, more universal, more deep-seated. It is more clamorous in its appeal, more menacing in its attitude, more unreasonable in its demands, more unscrupulous in its methods, more intolerant of delay, more disdainful of consequences. And, secondly, it is associated with, or indeed largely generated by, a bewilderment in the domain of religion and philosophy, which bids fair to upset the ethics of ages. The very Decalogue is being inverted, and in the name of progress men are tempering with the moral principles that underlie our civilization.
Doubt is now a virtue, Faith a cowardly adherence to fond illusions; marriage is a slavery, honorable maternity a burden intolerable to emancipated womanhood; reverence for our submission to authority is mean servility. Even youth is restive. "Our young 'Sons of Freedom' are publishing the Declaration of Independence before they can well spell it, and cutting the connection with father and mother before they have learned to shave.": Woman is in revolt against restrictions that, if they curtailed her liberty, helped to shield her weakness and enhance her dignity.
There is no Heaven or no Hell for modern thought. Our vaunted life is but a brief scramble round the pig-troughs, where all are encouraged to fight for an equal share of the husks of swine. The new evangelists tell us, with great candor, that the only heaven they know of, or can believe in, is here on earth, and that this heaven is to be attained by cutting our cables from all old mooring, and launching boldly out upon an unexpected ocean of change.
They are generous with apocalyptic visions of perfect worlds. But, gracious God! have we not had madmen promising us millenniums for many, many centuries, and the end is not yet? Have we not sought our earthly paradise over swelling tides of blood, and sought it quite in vain? "Man," says a modern thinker, "is not what one calls a happy animal; his appetite for sweet victual is so enormous." And later, he adds: "Fools that expect your verdant millennium and nothing but love and abundance, brooks running wine, winds whispering music, - with the whole ground and basis of your existence champed into a mine of sensuality; which daily growing deeper will soon have no bottom but the abyss."
Nor should we make the mistake of underrating the pernicious force of these wild dreams. Ideas shape conduct and determine destiny, now as always. If we reason wrongly, we shall live wrongly. If we are fed on lies, our life is likely to prove a lie. The triumph of falsehood has been from old the devil's triumph and the precursor of storm. Tragic therefore in the aspect of our harassed epoch, with its blind prophets and false gods. It has wandered far from Bethlehem; it has wandered far from Life and Light and Truth.
Shall it return? We do not know. We cannot tell. We would be sanguine indeed who would predict the renewal of our effete civilization on an orthodox Christian basis; for though the world feels vaguely that is has gone astray, it is unwilling to confess its mistake or go back upon its past. It will not reverse engines, however doubtful it may be about its course. Yet certainly it shall find no rest, until it seeks again the sheltering mantle of the Prince of Peace.
But meanwhile our course is clear. We must see to it that we individually hearken to His Words and learn from His example. "How were the streets of Jerusalem kept clean?" asked a Scotch peasant of a Presbyterian elder, who was bearing somewhat too hard upon his delinquencies without being quite a saint himself. "I never heard," replied the elder. "Well, I'll tell you; every man swept before his own door." And a very good thing to do, my dear brethren. If we all sweep before our own doors, our city shall be clean. If we all hold our own outposts, the battle shall be won. If we endeavor, in whatever sphere we are placed, to live up to Christian principles we are doing all that we can do, or are expected to do, for the victory of Christ's cause, which is ultimately also the cause of human liberty, human happiness, and social progress. For this purpose we must be, what our Catholic ancestors in the past have been, men and women of piety and purity, whose lives, even when poorest and hardest, were lit up by an inner contentment springing from the consciousness that they were Christ's and Christ was God's! and that if the Son of God lived in poverty, and lowly toil, and meek submission, the sons of men would find no safer and no happier life on earth, no surer and no more direct road to Heaven.