September 29, 2020

Serendipity of Providence

How do we know what we must do?

Serendipity of Providence

Not very long ago, I was in a conversation with a friend about something. Frankly, I barely remember what we were talking about, though I think it was something like what we are supposed to "do" in regards to injustice in the world, related in part to how much we subscribe, follow, etc. various news sources. What I took away from it, what has been slowly germinating since then, is what is important.

These days our culture has become increasingly aware of the very many injustices in the world. I say "become aware" because there have always been very, very many injustices in the world, but lacking modern communications, we historically were not made aware of most of them. Sadly, the untethered-from-the-Mighty-Mountain (i.e., God) response to these injustices is frenetic, anxious, and even violent. It is inevitable that when we try to "fix the world," the best we can do it patch it up while breaking it in other ways. This is not to say that we ought not try to improve this world. By no means. However, how we choose to do it--and why and when--matter immensely.

This "wokening" has not produced peace nor notably greater justice, and in its wake is spawning injustices that it merely winks at, excusingly. Certainly there is promise in some areas, but what we are trading for that progress may be too much. I contend that it is.

A key way that people nowadays become aware of various injustices in the world is through social media. For most of us, I'll wager, even the traditional media reach us at least first through social media. It is, after all, nothing if not social, driven by our need to be connected to each other and our inclination to talk about each other.

The problem is that we can very easily get swept away with the tide that is all of the very many sources of information about the world. This problem is exacerbated by the nature of social media to surround us with echo chambers. Thus, our choices in what we subscribe, follow, and connect with drive the information that reaches us, and the information that reaches us inevitably demands that we subscribe, follow, and connect to more of the same.

And because of the "wokeness" that has become the attitude du jour, that information comes more and more with demands on us. We must act now. We must speak out and not remain silent. We must do. But due to our oversubscription, there is always more to do than we can possibly do. There are always more injustices than we possibly can work to solve. This leads to a sense of being overwhelmed, of feeling that the world is unusually or uniquely worse than it ever has been, and that we are, more or less, doomed.

I see this kind of sentiment on the Left, where the focus tends to be on climate change, fear of Trump, and helping the many marginalized groups of people. The latter has reached fever pitch these last few months, no doubt driven by the substrate of anxiety and stressors produced by the pandemic. I see this on the Right, particularly the religious Right, where there is ever growing concern that our culture continues to drift away from our religious roots, particularly on sexual and life issues.

In the Catholic Church, we have an added dimension these days in the growing rift between the self-dubbed traditionalists and everybody else in the Church (whom they derisively call Modernists, among other things). Now every word and action of the Pope is analyzed in the most ungenerous light possible, along with every bishop and not a few priests who achieve some notoriety. (Oddly enough, this used to be primarily the preoccupation of the Leftist media; it is strange and sad that this destructive activity has moved inside the Church.)

I am no doubt forgetting some causes, and indeed, there really would be too many to mention. The plight of refugees around the world. The still extensive poverty around the world. The numerous oppressive regimes. The continued secularization in the West. The "liberalization" of our colleges and universities. The pandemic and all of the ensuing consequences of it. The list goes on and on.

We cannot fix everything. Our Religion, in point of fact, suggests that this has never been possible, never will be, and that it should not be our primary concern in any case. Our primary goal, as individuals, is first the salvation of our own souls, and secondarily the salvation of others' souls, although those two cannot rightly be separated because the salvation of our own souls is tied to our charity for that of others.

Recognizing this is not (again) to suggest that we faithful have no duty of action towards justice in the world. Rather, it is to say that we must always situate that action in view of the eternal. We love our neighbors in God and because of God, as St. Thomas wrote in his eloquent prayer to Our Lady.

Some years ago, I wrote that when we help the poor, it is always with an eschatological purpose. This is to say that we do so with our True End (God) in mind. We do it in him and because of him, out of love for him. We do it because Christ commanded us to, telling us that at the end of all, at the last judgment, we will be judged based on what we did for the least of these, for as we did it for them, we did it for Christ (or failed to do).

And because we are always pursuing justice out of such love for God and, by extension of that, our neighbors, we may never pursue that good through evil ends. This excludes, for instance, violence--physical, psychological, social, and every kind of violence. Non-violence is the perfection to which Christ calls us. And I do not mean violence in a rarified sense of acting to create change (as I recently heard it defined) but rather acting in a manner that we have good reason to believe will be harmful.

This is why, for instance, we have limits on the means by which we pursue medical and technological advances. This is why we ought not sully the good name of others to promote our political candidates and causes. This is why we certainly ought not to denigrate our pastors in the cause of what we believe to be the truth or, say, a better liturgy. A sure way to know we have gone off track in our particular cause/efforts for justice and right is when we begin to do harm to others, to make excuses and rationalizations that "it is necessary" "for the greater good."

To do good without doing evil is a high calling. It is very often not the most efficient way to achieve our ends. It may mean that we have to suffer rather than be victorious in the short term, even to the end of our lives. It may be even that it seems that the wrong is prevailing. But this is where our faith and hope are tested.

This is the way of the Cross, which is the ultimate example of appearing to allow evil to triumph. It is the ultimate example of suffering and sacrificing despite having the power to forcibly achieve the desired end. It does not and will not ever make sense to the world. This is the "foolishness of God that is wiser than man's wisdom." (1 Cor 1:25)

Do we truly believe that God really is guiding all things to his good ends?

If so--and I hope we all answer yes to that--we must do our part in his service. And as the agents of God in this world, when we think of ourselves that way, it becomes very obvious that we cannot do evil in order to pursue good. Evil will surely happen, but we should not knowingly and willingly participate in it, excusing evil in the name of greater good. Every little thing we do should be examined in light of eternity, in as much as we are able.

And this brings us back to the germinating insight I mentioned in the begining of this article. Given that there is and will always be more to do in this world than we can do, given that, even in our limited pockets of awareness, we are made aware of more than we can do, how are we to know what we are to do? If we, as I have suggested, back away from social media and unsubscribe from all those very many newsletters--each of which are constantly telling us about some bad thing that someone did, some terrible and outrageous thing that happened,  demanding our action (and our money), if we turn off to a dribble (or completely) the spigot of news headed our way, how will we be made aware of the things in this world that need our attention?

My friends, this too is a matter of Providence, and of trust in God. We should not imagine that we are so capable as to arrange things in such a way that we will receive the information that we need to know to act on. In fact, if our motivation in following, subscribing, etc. is "so that we can stay on top of important thing," I suggest we are doing it wrong, at least as a rule.

We need to reorient ourselves. We need to turn towards God rather than towards all that noise. And it is essential that we turn down the noise enough so that we can hear God. You may recall the story of Elijah waiting to hear the Lord's voice, and God's voice was not in the mighty wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, but it was a gentle whisper. (1 Kings 19)  

In order to be able to hear that voice, Elijah fled many days into the wilderness and stayed in a cave on a mountain. This should be our motif in seeking God. Recall also the example of Christ himself, who would always seek to withdraw to solitude and quiet for prayer. This is our exemplar.

But if we are constantly swept up in the tide of "news" that comes through social media, through our TVs, through the radio, and so on, we will not hear God's voice. God's voice is not in that mighty wind of noise. It is not in the fire of anxieties that the world places before us. It is not in the earthquake of happenings all throughout the world. It is, rather, singular and apart from all of these, found in silence.

And we have to prepare ourselves to hear it. We have to run away from that noise and find that quiet place. We have to make time for God to speak to us, in his own good time--not on our own schedules. We have to cultivate an awareness of God's presence and always be listening for his voice.

This is how we will know what we are to do. In that gentle whisper, God told Elijah what to do. And it was completely clear--because he made the space and the silence for God in his life. There was no other voice but God's for Elijah to hear.

We must trust God. He will lead us into what we need to do. It may be this or that cause. It may be joining forces with this or that organization today. It may be something else tomorrow. It may be simply that we are to humbly and meekly entrust ourselves to God until further notice, living a life of hiddeness in God. And if that is the case--that is what we should do! It may appear to the world that we are "doing nothing," but when we seek God's face, we are doing all that we ever need do, no matter what exterior form of action (or apparent lack of action) that is.

This is the serendipity of Providence. We are in God's hands whether we acknowledge it or not. We can choose to kick against the goads, to drown out the voice of God in the name of "justice" or "truth" or "action." And in that case, we will always be realizing less than we are meant to be, because with God, all things are possible (Matt 19:26). Without him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

So go ahead. What are you waiting for? Unsubscribe. Unfollow. Disconnect. Fight that urge that says "but I need to know." Trust God. Seek him in silence. Abide in Him. He will tell you what you need to know and to do, or not do.