Saturday, March 19, 2011
To Leave the Shackles of Human History Behind
Simply put, the history that I flee, and continue to struggle to leave behind, is not the history that led me to the Church. The history I left behind is an impediment, a barrier if you will, to Truth. Let me give you a few examples.
I'm a Southerner by birth. However, I am not a Confederate, even if some of my ancestors were. I am not a slaveholder, nor would I wish to be one. I don't measure all people by the yardstick of some idea of Southern chivalry or hospitality, nor on some standard that my ancestors took as set "in stone" way back when. I don't harbor animosity to anyone because the South lost "the War between the States."
This doesn't mean that my life hasn't been shaped by the culture that I grew up in. Of course it has. That is a universal characteristic that applies to everyone. But where I grew up makes no difference to Christ or the Church. When I became a Christian, I became a citizen of a much broader realm, a kingdom beyond the mere points on a compass. Beyond skin color, and beyond ethnic divisions too. We are all children of God.
It is for this reason that I didn't spend any time worrying about worldly history when I decided to become a Catholic. Salvation history trumps worldly history by a country mile, if not by a few parsecs. In terms of my faith, I don't give a hoot about the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, or the War of the Roses. Nor do I get up in arms about the Papal States’ land grabs of yore. Or about what transpired during the Spanish Inquisition. Because, if the grievances and conflicts of my forebears continue to live on, and thrive through me, then the enemy has won.
But as Christians, we know the enemy has lost. So why continue carrying around all that baggage from the history of the world? That is something that I didn't just give up for Lent, it is something which I gave up for Christ's sake.
Don't take me the wrong way. I enjoy history. I work in an archive, remember? I realize that most history has not been written down in history books, but lies untapped in historical documents in collections like the one I work for. But I don't look at history as a way to try and understand the world or make sense of it. Because honestly, the verdict on that is already in. The world is a madhouse. You hadn't noticed?
Remember what George Santayana said about those who don't remember history? I've got news for you. Even those who do know history are doomed to repeat it, or be a party to it and definitely be effected by the repeat offenders of our brokenness.
My reaction to this fact used to be denial. "The world is a great place, if only we could just get rid of these bad people." Typical of the culture of death psychobabble, my answer was: that which is troublesome should be killed. Or taught a lesson, you know, by means of military force. The problem with that outlook is that when you think you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And this worldview is directly contrary to words in the Gospels. That is a fact I could no longer deny.
The Papal States land grab of yore? Last time I checked, the Vatican city-state now occupies a postage stamp size piece of land. The Inquisition? Replaced by an enlightened tolerance and a call for religious freedom for all peoples. Her history of being a stabilizing temporal power, with armies, etc. whilst Europe evolved out of feudalism? That has been long gone from the scene. How many army divisions are under the Pope's control now? Where is his air force or his navy?
As the virtuous man fled, Wisdom led him along straight paths. She showed him the kingdom of God and taught him the knowledge of holy things. She brought him success in his toil and gave him full return for all his efforts. (Wisdom 10:10)
Instead of being shackled to history, I have been liberated by His story. I've been called to start living my eternal life beginning right here, and right now. This requires throwing a lot of temporal baggage overboard. It requires obedience and discipline. And it means loving people without regard to where they come from or what their station is in life. Loving them as if they are members of the Mystical Body of Christ, because for all I know, they already are. And yes, loving and forgiving even those who have hurt me. This also means putting others before me and putting myself in the service of others.
Being a Christian is a life-long vocation and the most important work for us as Christians and Catholics is to agape everyone. For as Our Lord instructs us so clearly,
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
Christ didn't provide caveats like "provided they are Christians," or "provided they smell nice, look presentable, and can be mutually beneficial to you." The whole law and the prophets hangs on loving everyone without qualification.
I'll be the first to admit that I am not an unqualified success at this vocation yet. But I do know this: the Church is the school of love, the saints are the teachers, and I am mindful of these lessons. History is noise and Love is signal. The saints stayed focused on the signal, and so must I.
Update: Speaking of the Papal States, George Weigel has a few words.