Taking Stock of 2018
For most of us, a new year is an occasion of both great regret and great hope: regret, that we so often failed in the resolutions we made the previous year; hope, that in the upcoming year we may yet make up for lost time and become the person we hope, and God intends us to be.
Our hearts taste a bitter irony in these moments when our gaze is turned backwards, and we are forced to contemplate the choices we have made. The irony is this: that the things that we so often treated as the most important were not, in fact, the things that we truly know are the most important.
Few of us review the previous year and lament that we did not spend more time watching television, eating junk food, lounging about on the couch, surfing the Internet, arguing with one’s spouse, consuming pornography, or even spending more time at work. And yet, these are precisely the things that we so often choose. Instead of choosing those things that, in our heart of hearts, we know to be the only good, true, and beautiful things, we have so often followed our baser instincts, choosing things that, in exchange for a brief pleasure, have only brought sorrow and disappointment.
It is only at a distance, in the grace-filled period provided by a new beginning, a clean slate, that we have the objectivity to look back and wonder at our own blindness, at our willingness to prioritize the frivolous or harmful over the ideals and aspirations that are closest to our hearts.
And at such moments, we cry out, along with St. Paul: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. … As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:14-18)
The Inward Journey of the Magi
St. Paul’s lament exposes a painful, but profound and transformational truth about our lives here on earth: that the things that bring the greatest happiness are often the things that are the most difficult to attain, and that our personalities and passions rebel against; whereas, those things that rob us of our self-worth and peace are often the easiest and most tempting to pursue in the moment.
The art of happiness, then – even purely worldly happiness in this life – is the art of embracing short-term suffering in exchange for long-term gain, of choosing discipline over self-indulgence. Whereas the path to misery is the habit of embracing short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term happiness.
One of T.S. Eliot’s most-famous poems dramatizes this strange and painful irony. In “The Journey of the Magi,” Eliot imagines the hardships undertaken by the wise men from the East, who came to see the Christ child. Leaving their wealth and comfortable lives behind, the magi undertook an arduous journey in midst of winter, encountering terrible weather, dirty and unwelcoming cities, disloyal and lazy servants, and the ever-present temptation to believe their journey worthless and foolish. Eliot imagines the wise men as admitting that at times their yearning for the comfort of their former lives was great: “There were times we regretted, / The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / And the silken girls bringing sherbet.”
But then, in a brilliant instance of dramatic understatement, Eliot has the wise men declare of their encounter with the Christ-child, that it was, quite simply, “satisfactory.” Perhaps this seems a poor choice of word to describe a meeting with God incarnate! This is a word that sometimes carries with it the connotation of the good, but unexceptional. But here Eliot is using the word according to its fullest meaning. For “satisfactory” is made up of two Latin words – satis (enough), and facere (to make or do). For something to be satisfactory, then, means that it “does enough,” that it fulfills (in the words of one dictionary) “all demands or requirements.”
Christ is the only thing that truly fulfills all the “demands or requirements” of our hearts. Every other good – the “silken girls bringing sherbet,” the little guilty pleasures for which we daily sacrifice our ideals and happiness – leaves us empty. For, as St. Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” As Eliot imagines it, after being filled by their encounter with Christ, the wise men returned to their own homes, only to find dissatisfaction: “But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods.” The Birth that the wise men found, also brought them death – the death of the complacency of their former lives, and the knowledge that satisfaction could only be found in something vastly greater than their former gods, and wealth, and pleasure.
In a homily on the Feast of the Epiphany in 2013, Pope Benedict XVI meditated on the example of the magi:
These men who set out towards the unknown were, in any event, men with a restless heart. Men driven by a restless quest for God and the salvation of the world. They were filled with expectation, not satisfied with their secure income and their respectable place in society. They were looking for something greater. They were no doubt learned men, quite knowledgeable about the heavens and probably possessed of a fine philosophical formation. But they desired more than simply knowledge about things. They wanted above all else to know what is essential. They wanted to know how we succeed in being human. And therefore, they wanted to know if God exists, and where and how he exists. Whether he is concerned about us and how we can encounter him. Nor did they want just to know. They wanted to understand the truth about ourselves and about God and the world. Their outward pilgrimage was an expression of their inward journey, the inner pilgrimage of their hearts. They were men who sought God and were ultimately on the way towards him. They were seekers after God.
Within T.S. Eliot’s poem, and Benedict XVI’s homily, and the story of the magi, we find a rich, rich lesson for our spiritual lives. And it is this: that our lives are like the magi’s journey. And to the extent that we are pursuing the only meaningful thing, the journey must of necessity be arduous, for we cannot pursue the only meaningful thing without first sacrificing the myriad of unmeaningful things that we constantly look to for temporary pleasures.
In The Soul of the Apostolate (a book that I cannot recommend highly enough), Dom Chautard notes that there are three types of work: physical labor, intellectual labor, and spiritual labor. The first looks from the outside to be the most difficult, but is, in fact the easiest. The second looks less difficult from the outside, but is deeply exacting: for, as any serious writer knows, a day spent in concentrated research and writing can be far more draining than a day spent lifting heavy stones. The third – spiritual labor – at times looks from the outside like complete inactivity – even laziness! – but is, says Chautard, “by far the most exacting.”
Most anyone who has ever seriously committed themselves to prayer knows this to be true: the practice of daily, deep, committed, authentic meditative prayer often brings with it enormous peace of mind and soul – a peace unmatched by any earthly pleasure. And yet, prayer is so exacting, demands such daily, hourly, minute-by-minute commitment, that the temptation to give up is omni-present. To pray is to enter the desert. It is like the journey of the magi. It is a severing of our hearts from the pleasures of this world, in order to embrace the one and only source of lasting happiness. It is a daily death that leads to birth.
“There are times,” notes Chautard, “when we might be inclined to prefer long hours in some exhausting occupation to half an hour of serious mental prayer, to an attentive hearing of Mass, or to the careful and intelligent recitation of the Breviary.” This is why it is easy to find men who have utterly spent themselves in pursuit of athletic prowess, or wealth, but few who have made the effort to become holy. As Chautard writes: “How many there are who can boast of great courage in the first two types of labor, which lead to wealth and fame, but who, when it comes to the effort to acquire virtue, are totally deficient in ambition, energy, or courage?”
And yet, not only is holiness the only thing worth pursuing, it is the only thing that will truly make us happy! For as Chautard writes, spiritual labor “offers us the most satisfaction here on earth. It is likewise the most important. It goes to make up not so much a man’s profession as the man himself.”
These past few weeks I have been emphasizing this same theme: that cultural transformation does not necessarily begin with grand or brilliant programs, but rather with personal conversion. In this battle to create a Culture of Life we need brilliant tacticians and activists. We need great leaders. We need money and time and resources. But what we need more than any of these are holy men and women: men and women who do not shy away from the fierce battle against the world, the flesh and the devil: men and women who follow the magi in embracing the death in life, that leads to life in death.
Only Christ is satisfactory. It is time for us to grow up and, as St. Paul exhorts, to “put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11). In this new year, let us put away the childish things that we so often chose in the past year, and that so often left us feeling empty, dirty, and filled with regret. A new year stretches out before us! Every year is a journey, a journey that either takes us closer to Christ, or further away.
Let this year’s journey be like the journey of the magi. Duc in altum! Set out into the deep! “For behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor. 6:2)