If you ever spend time with people who are impoverished, ill, set apart, or persecuted in some way, that experience is going to challenge your complacency. It’s going to bring up existentialist questions. Guaranteed.
Sometimes, in fact, it takes something that dramatic to force us to ask the right questions. Here’s the truth that I live with: I’ve always had enough to eat, I’ve had a roof over my head, I’ve had the luxuries of a good education, of books and friends and the leisure to think about my faith, my beliefs, my place in the world. I have been blessed in more ways than I can even count. And while those blessings are wonderful, they can also make me blind and deaf to the rest of the world. To the majority of people on earth who have far less than I do.
When I was in college I spent a month and a half in Jamaica working with a group of Catholic volunteers. In Kingston, there’s a home for indigent elderly people, a hospice for those who have nowhere to go. It is run by a religious order and sits, literally, on top of a garbage dump. At night, there’s violence; there are armed guards that patrol.
C.S. Lewis has written that the only real obstacle to faith is the problem of pain. We are unable to understand God’s plans or intentions, so we interpret them in the light of our own concerns, and we ask why a loving God allows suffering. I asked myself that question at least twenty times a day when I was in Jamaica, and later again when I worked at a displaced persons’ camp in North Africa. What I could do–what any of us could do–for these people was such a small drop in the bucket of their pain and despair that some days it felt like there was no point in trying.
One night I was sitting up with one of my co-workers. There had been gunfire earlier in the evening and we were both frightened and unable to sleep. I suggested that we pray the Rosary together, and she agreed. We hadn’t gotten far when she stopped praying and started crying. “I can’t do it,” she sobbed. I was sympathetic: it’s hard work, it’s not for everybody. Burnout in these places is rampant. “No, that’s not it,” she said. “I just can’t pray anymore. I can’t believe anymore. I can’t believe that there’s a God in charge of this. If there is a God, and he’s supposed to love us, then he has a twisted sense of love.”
How do you answer that? Pain and suffering are realities of the world, and it seems sometimes that they’re both on the increase. Listen to the news, and it could appear that God has, as the saying goes, left the building. Or that he’s been hijacked by some televangelist getting rich by selling miracle cures.
How do I accept the tremendous blessings that I’ve received over the course of my life? How do I balance them with the destitution and illness and violence that others experience while I’ve been going blithely about my daily routines? I complain when I’m stuck in traffic; in Jamaica I met people who didn’t complain when they could barely take a breath because of their untreated cancers. Where is the fairness in that?
The truth is that there are no answers…now. No matter how much we fight it, we’re not going to understand everything. Many things will continue to happen to humankind that are violent, desperately unfair, even evil. So where can we look for hope?
The answer is, of course, in God. Richard Rohr writes that “the human soul is being gradually readied so that intimacy and partnership with the Divine are the final result. Note that such salvation is a social and cosmic concept, and not just about isolated individuals ‘going to heaven.’ The Church was meant to bring this corporate salvation to conscious and visible possibility.”
Many of us don’t spend a lot of time reading the book of Revelation. It’s filled with symbolism; it’s esoteric and difficult to understand. And yet it holds a promise that I cling to every time my anxiety gets too much to handle.
The One who sat on the throne said to me, “See, I will make all things new!” Then he said, “Write these matters down, for the words are trustworthy and true!” He went on to say: “These words are already fulfilled! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To anyone who thirsts I will give to drink without cost from the spring of life-giving water. He who wins the victory shall inherit these gifts: I will be his God and he will be my Son.
My faith was easy as long as I didn’t look beyond my own personal blessings. It got tested when I came to personally know and care about people in dire, critical need, a need that wasn’t being met. I wish we had a better world. I wish that leaders and governments cared more about people and less about greed. I wish that everyone could share the limited resources of the planet in peace. I wish I lived in that nicer, gentler world.
But that isn’t where God called me. God called me to live in this world. To make the differences in it that I can. To answer people like my volunteer colleague with the promise of the Gospels, the promise of Revelation, that there will be another world, a better world, a world in which God will make all things new. Because of that promise, we can make of all the anxiety and despair an offering of love…and, especially, of hope.
And this world holds the seeds for the next one. In a sense, if we don’t live in the eschaton now, then very little about the world will make sense to us. Somehow, the Church and Christians have lost that sense along the way: that we need to be starting it now.
And that means working toward it. For the Church as a whole, we have a responsibility that’s cosmic. We can’t just talk about going to heaven or decided that there’s nothing we can do individually… the responsibility is ours. God called us to live in this world. And we can all do something—prayer, lamentation, political involvement, education, parenting, healing, volunteerism…
It’s the promise of Genesis, the promise of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection, the promise of Pentecost, and finally the promise of Revelation that is being fulfilled. Here. And now. And if we remember that that fulfillment is our ultimate reality, then there is no pain or distress that can keep us from it. We’ll live more lightly, more gently in this world—as we are already experiencing the next.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir