On Not Losing Heart

The editor of a Catholic publication anno Domini 2022 often receives insightful messages from readers, friends, even enemies – some inspiriting, some quite dispiriting. There’s much more good going on in the Church and the world than any one person knows. And there’s also much – we tend to hear a lot more about it – so appalling that it leaves you all but speechless.

Lately, there’s been (for this writer) a noticeable and growing trend: generalized fatigue. More and more people write that they simply “have had enough.” Typically, something like, “I can’t take the controversies (in the Vatican, the American Church, American politics, American society) anymore. I just want to live a peaceful life, practicing the faith and caring for the family, free from all that.”

If you don’t recognize this tendency – sometimes a temptation – in yourself, blessèd are you.

St. Paul countered Christian fatigue with appropriate wisdom: “let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” (Gal. 6:9) That sounds great, big harvests and all that. Someday. Maybe not too far off.

Good advice. But it tells us something that he had to warn the Galatians about discouragement and fatigue because of difficulties, in what’s probably his earliest letter, written about 48 A.D., i.e., within only fifteen years or so of the Resurrection.

Paul also makes it clear that the fatigue is a mood – not an end. Hence his encouragement.

So even though a certain generalized fatigue is something new in our time, it’s not at all new in the longer perspectives of Christian history. It tends to crop up when the challenges seem so many and hard that you no longer know what to do or where to turn.

Writing maybe only ten years later, St. Peter, too, had to remind Christians, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Pet. 4:12)

Christianity’s centuries-long dominance in the West has led us to forget that the world doesn’t like the Good News, because it’s Bad News for many things the world would like to think are good. And the world doesn’t take the bad news lying down. It lashes out. Now that Christianity is weakening in the historic Christian nations, it should come as no surprise that the old attacks are appearing again.

The Roman historian Tacitus records how early Christians were “hated for their abominations” and “depraved superstition.” The Emperor Nero blamed them for a fire that destroyed much of Rome and got away with it because of widespread prejudices: “an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.”(Annals 15:44)

Some things never change. We were tagged as “haters” even back then.

So what is to be done?

I myself find that the relative quiet of summer is an opportunity to recharge the batteries. It’s part of any solid spiritual discipline to know when to turn aside, for a time. The Gospels report that Jesus Himself several times withdraws from the crowds to be kat’idian (“alone”). Relationships with other people are important, as are our struggles to make things better.  But we also need time by ourselves to develop the kinds of habits – virtues – that enable us to maintain a certain peace of soul whatever is happening around us. Which helps in our practical struggles as well.

Peace of soul. Not indifference. Not resignation. Not giving up the struggle. But we require times when we can prepare ourselves to deal with the inescapable truths that: the world is a fallen place; most of the people we meet are going to be highly imperfect (as we ourselves are, if you haven’t already noticed); human institutions will fail, sometimes spectacularly; and yet we can be at peace because God, in admittedly inscrutable ways, is ultimately in charge.

Peace of soul is not easy to achieve. When I’m trying to recover it, I often recall this passage from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”:

              what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

There are multiple suggestions here. To begin with, we can let, say, people in Rome wrangle over “tradition” versus “traditionalism,” a distinction Pope Francis tried to draw with his fellow Jesuits during his recent trip to Canada. While they work at that, the rest of us can recognize what Eliot did: that we need what the tradition has already discovered – the sifting of the wheat from the chaff – an achievement that is not the work of a single group of people who happen to be alive at any given moment, but of the real-world testing of truths and their application in many times and places.

We have to hold onto that and make it live again, despite the times. I myself have seen many things I’ve worked on for decades crumble in both America and the Church. But I think of St. Augustine, who as bishop of Hippo, found his city besieged by the Vandals, barbarian hordes that, as Augustine lay dying, were about to lay waste to much that he had achieved for his people. Yet Augustine’s work still stands.

Some times are less propitious than others – and there’s no point in hiding from ourselves that we are in a particularly unfavorable period for Christians. But all the more reason to take time out to cultivate the virtues that will keep us from losing heart and allow us to go about our true business, whatever the times may bring.


*Image: The Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio, 1601 [Parish Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome]

You may also enjoy:

St. John Henry Newman’s Persecution

Youssef Fakhouri’s The West Must Save Persecuted Christians

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.