About this time last year, I received a letter from a university student undergoing his first spiritual crisis. Just as he had rediscovered his faith, this awakening faith had been shaken by dread about the world.
Such heartache is not unusual among Christians. Marriage is on the decline. Abortion is commonplace. Children vanish away into hopelessness. Women are made to act like men, and men like women. The poor are made drunk with false help, and deprived of true help. The old and sick are thrown away like trash. Atheism is on the rise, and getting angrier. More and more, our political institutions are polluted by lies. The sanctuary of conscience is under storm. The world falls to pieces, like the garment of a corpse. The skies seem full of circling crows.
To my young correspondent it seemed that no one cared much. God Himself seemed indifferent. The Church seemed to be on the retreat. He writhed in an agony of fear that he might belong to the last generation of practicing Catholics. The new generation of Catholics are far more faithful, joyful, and devout than those of the last -- but since he had not yet acquired the right friends, he didn't know. He was isolated, and he felt alone.
Seeing that his newly-lit candle was already smoldering, his false friends quickly moved to snuff the wick. “You are on the wrong side of history” was their jeer. It was powerful, deadly, and accurate. No knife could have cut him more deeply.
By the way, this taunt has a history. In the early days of the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, as the Mensheviks walked out of the Second Congress of Soviets, Trotsky mocked them with the words, "You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!" Imitating the jeer a half-century later, Nikita Khrushchev boasted to the countries of the West, “We will bury you!” When I was growing up, we studied terrifying dystopian books like Orwell’s 1984, which depicted a future in which totalitarianism, having crushed its enemies all over the world, went on and on, world without end, amen.
But no one can extrapolate the future from what seems to be happening at the moment. Within a few short decades, the Soviet Union had been dismembered, Eastern Europe had been liberated, and orthodox Marxism was discredited even among left-wingers. Then were we as those who dream.
So it is with every little breath of wind to which we give the big name of history. If it weren’t so dreadful, it would be almost funny that people like my young friend’s false friends imagine that the causes which happen to be fashionable within their own short lifetimes, in their own little circles, are the very shaft on which the cartwheels of history turn.
They are like the blind men encountering the elephant. You know the story. One, feeling its tail, says “The elephant is a kind of snake.” Another, feeling its side, says “The elephant is a kind of wall.” A third, feeling one of its legs, says “The elephant is a kind of pillar.” All are wrong, because they cannot perceive the elephant as a whole.
Neither can we perceive the elephant of history as a whole. The first theologian of history, St. Augustine of Hippo, wisely recognized that only the Author of history and Creator of the elephant can do that.
I sympathized with my young friend’s anxiety. He imagined the Church as another institution which might fail. If it were a purely human institution, then it might, but to be Catholic is in part to know that it is not. Our true country is heaven, our true sovereign is God, and the Church is His outpost in the world. He has not promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the universities, or the United States, or the West, but He has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church.
We believe Him. Not because of the wisdom and virtue of the Church’s human members -- in fact, despite their frequent foolishness and vice -- the Church has endured for two thousand years. No merely human nation, civilization, or organization ever has. The Romans expected their empire to last forever. If any empire could have, theirs would have. Who is left to burn a pinch of incense at the altar of the emperor today? Any given civilization may survive or crash – including ours -- but Christ is always with His people, and has promised to return.
In the meantime, there are wars and rumors of wars. Things on earth always seem to be getting just as bad as they could possibly be. He cautioned His disciples not to be concerned about that, but only to wait patiently for Him.
Even if history really were on the side of the bad guys, would that be a reason to join them? Compared with God, history is less than the period at the end of this sentence. The great thing isn’t to join the people who seem to be powerful at the moment, but to do the right thing: To bear witness in this little while before our lives are overtaken by eternity.
Doing that right thing and bearing that witness may require more courage than we have. It does not matter. Christ is a bottomless well of courage, who invites all to “Come and drink of Me.” If we haven’t enough hope, perhaps it is because we haven’t enough faith. If we haven’t enough faith to have hope, perhaps at least we have enough to ask Him to send us more. Such prayer it delights Him to answer.
To any who are suffering as my friend, who has recovered, was suffering, to any who are tempted to despair about the apparent course of things, I offer a small suggestion. We are entering into Holy Week. Find a parish and join in its worship as though you already had the faith and hope you don’t have yet. Yield to Christ who has already passed through the death you are passing through now. Let Him accompany you. See what happens.
To the Risen Christ, the Lord of Life, the Victor, the discouraging events of our time are as nothing. It is He who scatters the proud in their conceit. It is He who makes our dry bones live. It is He who brings fire from our ashes. The question is not whether we are on the right side of history, but whether we are on the right side of God. Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy.