Published November 21, 2021
I was on a Zoom conference call a couple of weeks ago. The face of one of the men on the screen was especially old and cranky. He had squinty eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses reminiscent of John Lennon or Heinrich Himmler, and a slight frown that looked like someone had stuck it there with permaglue. He had all the visual clues of a rather irritable, and probably irritating, person. And then it occurred to me that I was looking at myself.
George Orwell said that every man has the face he deserves by the age of 50. I think he was right. Or rather I know he was right, from personal experience. We sculpt our faces little by little each day. We do it with our thoughts, moods, frustrations, and joys. Which means that at 73, I guess my face, and the rest of me, are in a lot of trouble. Luckily, God is a great plastic surgeon, and I’ll come back to God and his surgical tools in a moment. In the meantime, readers need to know that I got my — how to put it? — somewhat-less-than-cheerful face not because of, but definitely in the process of, working for the Church.
That may sound odd. But I’ll explain. I’ve worked in and around the Church for 43 years. It’s been one of the great privileges of my life. I feel enormous gratitude for it. I love the Church — all of her: her beauty, her teaching, her people, her clergy, her understanding and compassion for the human soul. And I love her more — much more — today than when I began my work four decades ago. But I’ve also had a career filled with conflict. And that shouldn’t be a surprise.
The Church lives in the real world, not a medieval painting. She pursues her mission with real people in real time. Real people, both within and outside the Church, are messy creatures. We all have divided hearts. As a result, the real world is filled with conflict. It’s always been so. And in our own time, it’s especially so. We get a pretty stiff dose of reality from the mouth of Jesus himself in Luke chapter 12: “Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division, for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three . . .”
Those are sobering but honest words. Whether we like it or not, baptism drops us into a struggle for the soul of the world. We can make the world better or worse by our choices and actions, but “polarization” — the magnetic tug between the two poles of good and evil — is hardwired into the nature of the world and our place in it. The challenge we face as Christians is finding a way to live our faith joyfully, with confidence, while working to heal and evangelize as much of our world as we can. And we need to manage that without being poisoned by hatred or discouraged by criticism and resistance. Or getting a permanently unhappy face.
So how do we do that? I’ll answer that question. But it will help if we first understand the larger context we find ourselves in as a nation and as a Church.
I think the most urgent problem laypeople like my own family and many others face today is the routine, practical atheism that pours into our heads from the noise all around us; the rejection of the supernatural, the sacred, and the virtuous that results from a world of nonstop scientific and technological propaganda and mumbo-jumbo. Our news and entertainment media are very powerful forms of catechesis. They teach us a way of looking at the world. And a lot of their message boils down to depressing lies about our nature and our purpose as human beings.
I was trained in communications. I love the technologies that link us together and extend our sensory perceptions, especially for persons with disabilities like my youngest son. But all of these good tools also have a dark side.
The political impact of these technologies is obvious. They dumb down and heat up our public discourse. They accelerate hostility and fuel confusion. We can’t think clearly, or reason together to some kind of common ground, because we’re too busy shouting at each other. Our political turmoil then results in a subtle transfer of power from bickering individual citizens — people like you and me — to experts who claim they can manage public life better and more serenely than the rest of us. Which eventually produces leaders who think that the state knows better than parents what’s best for their own children.
The effect on the Church can be even more damaging. Digital reality undermines the supernatural imagination. It eliminates the human appetite for the miraculous and mysterious. And it substitutes microchip artifice for the natural beauty of the world that lifts the human heart toward God and the transcendent. We need more than artifice. We need more than lies. We yearn for things that are higher than that, better than that: beauty and meaning and truth. Somebody needs to remind us of those things, and lead us to them. And that somebody needs to be you and me, encouraging and reinforcing each other.
As I was writing burdensome thoughts, my wife asked me if were happy. Suann and I will be married 51 years next month. It’s been a great life, filled with children and grandchildren, love, fertility, and joy. And hardships too — but hardships, seen in the rearview mirror of life, only underline the satisfactions and sweeten the joys. So I told her, yes dear, I’m very happy. And quick as a whip she said, “Well then tell your face.”
As I said, God is the great plastic surgeon. And I’ve been living with one of his most beautiful surgical instruments for the past five decades. Suann makes me smile. When I look at her, I remember the goodness of life. And that’s what we need to do for each other as Christians. All of us. We need to remind each other that God made us for friendship and joy, not misery and depression. And then we need to prove it by our lives . . . and tell our faces.
The pressures of modern life trick us into thinking we’re powerless. We’re not. The one thing we really do control is ourselves — our choices and actions, our thoughts and moods. Mastering the self by conforming our hearts to an honest pursuit of holiness is a powerful act because through it, we influence and shape others. It takes work because the self is very stubborn raw material. But if we want to see the results, read Paul’s epistles. Paul was ignored, rejected, mocked, and run out of town by mobs again and again — and yet that one man, by persisting, changed the course of the world. And he did it, not with huge resources and a big strategic plan, but simply by changing the hearts of the people around him, one by one. That’s all that God really asks from any of us: personal conversion, personal witness, and a little personal charity to others . . . even when we don’t like them. Especially when we don’t like them. God handles the rest.
We’re not passive creatures. We can help God do his work through us and in us. And here’s how: Turn off the damn television. Unplug from the internet. Put away your cell phone. Not forever — we need to live and work in the world as it is, the world God gave us — but long enough each day to create an island of silence in your life. Silence has a fertile stillness. And in that stillness, God can speak to us, and we to him.
Listen to some good classical music instead of the usual garbage. Read a good history or biography or novel. Even better, read the Word of God. Reading trains our attention and builds our vocabulary in a way that enriches our perceptions of the world. A well written sentence is a kind of medicine for emotional turmoil; it teaches us how to think sequentially and logically through the structure of its grammar. Scripture feeds us with the meaning of our humanity and the message of our salvation.
And finally, tune the body with a sport; use your hands in some creative physical labor. My lovely bride ran 20 marathons and dozens of minor races. At 73, she’s still an embarrassingly better athlete than I’ve ever been. I have an eminent lawyer friend whose head would explode if he hadn’t taught himself the crafts of wood-working and carpentry, and then built his own home, one nail at a time, by hand. Another friend, a senior news editor, gardens, just to remind himself that the world is fertile; that living things are beautiful; that they grow and renew the world even when the headlines are poisonous.
If we make at least some of these things a habit, we begin to carve out a temperate zone between the warring poles of modern life where we can connect with God and make a place for his peace in our lives. Yes, this kind of advice sounds simple and obvious. And it is. It’s also remarkably hard. Try it as a daily discipline for a couple of weeks. Then tell me, honestly, if it’s “easy.”
Of course, if you’re like me, there’s always a skeptical little voice in your head. And right now it’s wondering if the more hopeful things I’ve just written are really just pious delusions, ineffectual, sentimental blather, and the world is on a high-speed railway to hell in a handbasket anyway.
I can’t speak for the world. But I can close with an interesting observation. I worked for the Church in Denver for 18 years. And I remember one of our parishes back in the mid-1990s that was dead on its feet — essentially a walking corpse, with a hearse in the parking lot and its motor running.
Today it’s alive and thriving. The reason is simple. A new young pastor was too naïve, or dumb, or stubborn, or simply zealous to realize that the parish belonged in a hospice. He believed in it. So he fought for it. A few people noticed, and then a few more, and over the next decade so did a great many more of the families and individuals who make up the flesh and blood, the muscle, conscience, and soul of the Christian community. We build and rebuild a culture by our witness. Personal witness is the seed of renewal and hope for others . . . and hope, sustained by faith and action, is contagious.
So I guess Scripture isn’t kidding when it talks about the resurrection of the dead. I’ve seen it in action.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.