An intelligent woman who has studied iconography with another intelligent woman (who happens to be my wife) was recently in Florence. An art historian by training, she was lecturing on and revisiting the old Catholic masterworks there, long-time objects of affection. Many were produced during the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation in order to reinforce Catholic belief and combat the Protestant revolt. (Elizabeth Lev has a fine book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith, on this subject.)
But this trip, she was especially aware of the even older, rich, pre-Renaissance, Eastern-inspired icons and similar works in the city, which she hadn’t noticed during multiple earlier trips. There’s a lesson here for those of us caught up in – otherwise quite crucial – polemics and activism: We often suffer from limited connection with our richer tradition. And we need to remedy that narrowness, even for the sake of practical action. Because as a Catholic should realize, we are in a struggle not only over Church practices and public policies; we are in a battle, as St. Paul says, with diabolical principalities and powers.
I was in a hotel restaurant this past Sunday before Mass. Multiple TV screens were tuned to the “Sunday morning talk shows.” I’ve been involved for twenty-five years in many of the controversies they hammered away at, but it struck me: there are now people – lots of them, especially in culture-forming social sectors – for whom that IS their Sunday morning, the thing they find most important, even sacred (if they use such archaic terms).
When at certain seasons, I try to encourage people to get away, for a while, from the culture wars in the Church and the world, and the politicization of everything – and instead to read, look, or listen to something soul-enlarging – I often get one of two responses.
On the traditionalist side, I’m told – who knew? – “we’re at war,” and that reading Plato or Augustine, or spending time with art or music or poetry is a distraction. I think of these critics as the Jansenist Party.
On the progressive side, people also lecture me – about ivory-tower intellectualism – as if being interested in truth means you probably never DO (or care about) anything else. Go feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. (Also, these days, welcome LGBTs.) Sure, but without making – as Our Lord commanded – a public parade of it. I think of these critics as the Social-Justice Party.
But if we are going to deal with anti-Christian forces or practice corporal and spiritual works of mercy better, most of us need, first, to learn to open our eyes to different ways of being and acting – unless we want to just keep repeating the same old thrust and counterthrust online, in comboxes, TV shouting matches, talk radio. With the same bad results.
In Lent, prayer, fasting, almsgiving are traditional ways to take the focus off ourselves and turn to others, especially God Himself – who alone can keep our efforts to do good from becoming yet one more form of self-absorption.
If you spend most of your time in mental work, it may be a good idea to do other things the next forty days. If your passions run to activism, of whatever stripe, maybe this is a good time for more reflection, even regular contemplation. It’s quintessentially Catholic to recognize that what God wants in the current moment depends on our circumstances and the state of our individual souls.
We Americans in particular like action, which has produced some wonderful things for the whole world. But especially in Lent, most of us need to be more passive – and receptive – for a while. Jesus Himself spent forty days in the desert before he started his public ministry.
The Devil tempted him there with physical needs, political dominion, even the demand for God to show His power. Jesus resisted and, instead, stayed focused on the Father’s will. He did pretty well after that – the whole world is still feeling the effects.
John Milton went blind in his forties and felt frustrated that he couldn’t be more active in serving God and man, but found some consolation in this:
God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Wait, that is, if that is what He asks, for a while.
These temptations and more come out when we try to break away from the world’s disorders. Cardinal Sarah’s book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise appeared just two years ago. And it already seems necessary to remind ourselves of that singular work, as we’re tempted to rush on to the next book or controversy.
Just one of his crucial insights: “If we give ourselves to ephemeral and insignificant things, we will understand ourselves as ephemeral and insignificant. If we give ourselves to beautiful and eternal things, we will understand ourselves as beautiful and eternal.”
The culture of noise dominates our lives so much – even more than the culture of relativism, its natural ally – that even as we quote wisdom like this, we almost feel we have to apologize that it doesn’t mean we are going to retreat and let the world go to Hell.
We don’t embrace deep silence for the sake of the world exactly. We do so because our ultimate destiny is not in this world.
Yet it’s by focusing on what really matters, Reality (the Kingdom) that the other things will be added to us – cannot truly be added in any other way. It’s only too painfully evident just now that, for all our good work, we’re failing because we’re missing something crucial – that must come from elsewhere. Otherwise, we’re just Pelagians, like most modern activists, who think it all depends on us.
“When we retreat from the noise of the world in silence, we gain a new perspective on the noise of the world. . . .To retreat into silence is to come to know ourselves, to know our dignity.”
That’s the only perspective that will produce real revolution, in ourselves and the world.
*Image: Christ in the Wilderness by Moretto da Brescia (Alessandro Bonvicino), 1515-20 [The Met, New York]