Hope, Humility, and Awe: Virtues for Faith’s Rebirth

by Mary Ann Kreitzer

G.K. ChestertonThe January issue of Chronicles Magazine featured an interesting article by Claude Polin titled You Shall Be as Gods. He proposed that as a culture loses its sense of awe, humility disappears. Men become tyrants admitting no limit on their actions. Freedom in such an environment becomes a curse instead of a blessing. In his words:

Freedom is not necessarily a good thing per se, but a gift of a very ambiguous nature.... It is a dignity if understood as enabling a man to do of his own consent what his reason tells him he should do. But freedom is a curse if it is considered as a power to deny that there are things men should or should not do in nature's course, let alone to deny the very idea that things in general, and men in particular, have a nature. In other words, freedom inevitably involves a temptation to see oneself as entitled to do as one pleases, and, instead of trying to discover what may be one's specific part in the universal concert, to see one's freedom as the right to have no part to play, or only that which suits one's fancy.

And there we have it: the denial of natural law leads inevitably to the tyranny of the individual. And many today believe that “natural law” means the law of the jungle where the stronger eat and enslave the weaker. The very broad denial of natural law as an unchanging body of moral principles imprinted on the human heart has almost disappeared. How otherwise could so many people accept the ludicrous notion that there are multiple "genders" beyond the two sexes, male and female. But, as Polin says, for many "God is dead" and the "religion of progress... acknowledges only two divinities, science and democracy." And so, whatever man can do, no matter how perverse or bizarre, he may choose to do. Thus man, indeed, becomes "like unto God." And once the true God is exiled from the picture, man can do anything his mind can conceive no matter how monstrous. Unlimited by instinct as animals are, he can manipulate nature in new and exciting ways including "introducing lethal disorder (chaos) into the order of the universe." And chaos is certainly evident all around us thanks to the union of science and a “democracy” unfettered by the moral principles of natural law. Polin puts it well:

Modern science and democracy work hand in hand to beget a new man, an animal who respects nothing, and is particularly impervious if not hateful toward the notion of a nature of things. Such acts as homosexual marriage, abortion, and soon euthanasia, as well as the interference with the most primeval forces of nature, or playing Dr. Frankenstein with human bodies, display the most patent lack of awe and humility. They are the logical offspring of the new goddesses of the West....The progressive vanishing of awe and humility is the living proof that our Western societies are dying.

Those who deny God and the awesomeness of the natural world become "depraved animals" unable to form a true human society because, where each man is creating his own island universe, no unity is possible:

Society is just an unstable balance among competing solitary individuals, each one having no reason, other than his own personal interest, to be sociable, and no other reason to respect his neighbors than the fear of retaliation."

As I said, the “natural law” becomes the law of the jungle!

Polin ends on a depressing note. "Then society is but war by other means." Sadly, I believe he’s correct and the proof is everywhere. We see wars between nations and within nations, wars on the front pages of newspapers and among so-called “friends” on Facebook, and even in the family! No surprise, of course, to readers of the gospel. Jesus Himself spoke of bringing a sword to divide “a man against his father” and “a daughter against her mother.”

I can’t really argue with Polin’s depressing picture of the state of the West. Just examine the demographics. The West has lost its will to live. Most western nations are well below replacement level, and are busy passing laws so doctors can legally kill their patients. When a society stops having children and actively kills its people it has no future! In fact, collapse of the birthrate is a global problem and some demographers say it’s too late to fix it. Yes, the war is everywhere and the death toll is high.

Having said that, however, I believe Polin presents only the dark elements of the picture, the angel of death so to speak. But his picture is incomplete without the light of hope. Egypt wasn’t just about the plagues, but about those saved, marked with God’s sign, “passed over” by death, and sent forth to the Promised Land. Hope, the very essence of light, lives, and Christians embrace it as the very hallmark of Christianity.

The French Jesuits who evangelized the Indians of Canada had little reason for optimism. The Iroquois attacked and burnt their missions to the ground. They rebuilt. The Indians tortured and martyred those sent to them. More came. In fact, many priests volunteered knowing full well they would be murdered. They embraced martyrdom! Before them their Jesuit brothers over a hundred years earlier streamed into England to bring the Mass to Catholics persecuted under bloody Queen Bess. Most were hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. And before that, the first century martyrs refused to deny the faith and faced wild beasts and other unspeakable horrors. Most amazing, all these martyrs welcomed the most gruesome deaths with joy…often singing praise to God, as they became living sacrifices. Now that is awe-some indeed.

So, rather than focus on what looks like a hopelessly dark picture, let’s look at the light, signs of hope and awe that remain in our sadly sinful culture. One that springs to mind immediately is the recent flap over Duck Dynasty. Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Commanders, responded to an interview question from Gentleman’s Quarterly author Drew Magary. “What, in your mind, is sinful.” Here’s how Magary reported Phil’s response:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

Wow, talk about clearly articulating the problem. Would that the U.S. bishops defended orthodoxy with such clarity and zeal! Robertson is correct. Immoral lifestyles are not right. (He points the finger at himself first!) But sadly, speaking politically incorrect truth is anathema, so A&E immediately suspended Phil from the show. While the Robertson family considered a response (Cancel the program?), millions gave A&E an earful, signed “I Back Phil” petitions, and promised to boycott the network. It didn’t take long for A&E to eat crow and reinstate the outspoken patriarch. After all, A&E didn’t want to kill the ducks that lay golden eggs. So Phil is back, and more popular than ever. Consider also what happened when gay activists went after Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby. Business boomed! Obviously, millions of Americans reject sodomy and same-sex marriage as norms. Duck Dynasty is unabashedly Christian and family oriented and one of the most popular shows on cable. That’s a positive sign for sure! The Robertsons may not be Catholic, but they are part of the “new evangelization” considering how they use media to spread truth and love of Christ. And, as Phil told GQ, the family “has a flock now” and will work to bring folks to Christ even after the show ends. All I can say is, “Rednecks rule!”

But we Catholics are no slouches when it comes to the new evangelization. Orthodox websites, blogs, and other new media continue to spread. Phil Lawler, Director of Catholic World News, recently published a book, When Faith Goes Viral which is guaranteed to fill readers with hope. After all, the death of the West is nothing compared to the death of a single soul. So there is much to rejoice about even when successes are relatively small compared to the number of endangered souls.

In his forward to the book, Fr. C. John McCloskey echoes Polin’s dismal view of our time. “Has there ever in the Christian era been a more joyless, aimless, lonely society than our own, one which appears to have gained the whole world but has forgotten its own soul?” He balances that statement with this one. “On the other hand, have there ever been three consecutive Roman pontiffs who have so incessantly and hopefully proclaimed the Gospel in all its fullness, addressing the fallen yet redeemed world’s hopes and anxieties so completely?”

Fr. McCloskey emphasizes that the partial success of some of the heresies of the past few centuries is because of the “Catholic laity largely ‘missing in action’ in the apostolic sense…ignorantly content to let the clergy and religious do the ‘heavy lifting.’” Lawler’s book makes it clear that is changing. In his introduction, he writes, “There are as many paths to successful evangelization as there are individual Christians…Since we cannot predict which efforts will be successful…the most productive approach may be to encourage as many efforts as possible.” And the diversity of the stories illustrates his point. Several, like Mother Angelica’s EWTN, focus on the religious, but many are lay run apostolates.

One I found most encouraging is the Fellowship of Catholic Students or FOCUS which began at Benedictine College in Aitcheson, KS in 1998. It’s goal? To reach the minds and hearts of college students. The brainchild of Curtis Martin, FOCUS was inspired by his experience of Protestant outreach on his own college campus, LSU. Why couldn’t Catholics do something similar? His belief that the Church is “hemorrhaging” young adults inspired him with a sense of urgency. Despite Newman clubs, evangelical outreach is often limited. FOCUS took on the challenge to irrigate the hedonistic wasteland that most campuses have become by using FOCUS missionaries who commit at least two years to the work. Here’s how John Burger’s essay describes them:

It begins with the missionary’s friendship with God, which he tries to share by befriending the students he serves. Missionaries, who are not much older than those students, are expected to frequent the sacraments and make a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament. As FOCUS literature instructs them, “You talk to God about college students for an hour, and for the rest of the day you talk to college students about God.”

FOCUS is based on “incarnational evangelization” to bring students to Christ. It begins with “cultivating true Christian friendships” and then using Bible study, retreats, and other events specifically geared to college students to lead them to a closer relationship with Christ. For those who want to go even deeper, a mentoring component lets the “missionary and the disciple pursue holiness together.”

The FOCUS website reports active programs on 83 campuses in the U.S. including four state schools in my own state of Virginia: James Madison, George Mason, Mary Washington, and UVA. Currently, the program counts over 350 young adults missionaries. An exciting fruit of the program, in addition to tens of thousands of students touched is the number of religious vocations inspired. Fr. David Nix attributes FOCUS for his own call and says the group “has given more priests to the Church than any other organization I can think of.”

Lawler’s book stresses that evangelization begins with the spiritual. Three chapters emphasize prayer and liturgy. One describes a dying Chicago parish, St. John Cantius, transformed by following the “‘way of beauty’ through liturgy [the traditional Latin Mass], music, art, and architecture.” Another spotlights diocesan efforts around the country to increase use of the sacrament of Confession including The Light is on for You project which has its own website. And Lawler ends the book with a chapter titled First Adore; Then Evangelize. It emphasizes that bringing others to Christ requires first meeting him in the Tabernacle. A charming story from that chapter describes a young Irishman, a lax Catholic “in serious trouble” due to the political conflicts in the north, who attended a retreat at a Marian shrine:

On the fourth or fifth day of the weeklong pilgrimage, the young man was standing among four of his friends and a total stranger walked up to them and said: “Do you want me to show you the quickest way to get to heaven?” He replied that he did…. The man said: “Then follow me.” He was the only one to rise, and the man led him to the adoration chapel where he prostrated himself before the Blessed Sacrament. The young man looked down at this stranger who was now lying with his face flat on the floor and then looked up at the Blessed Sacrament and perceived in his soul that this was not “something” but rather “somebody,” a human face with a gaze that pierced the depths of his soul. He prostrated himself in imitation of the stranger and when he walked out of that chapel, not only did he now have the gift of Catholic faith, but also the seeds of a vocation to be a Eucharistic apostle. He returned to Northern Ireland, started to adore every day and after hearing the Gospel in which Christ says: “Let the children come to me”…he began to bring the grace of adoration to children in local primary schools.

Lawler’s book is well worth reading because it offers real-world hope. Despite the gloomy outlook of an expanding wasteland, we are not beyond the irrigation of life-giving grace. And the seeds of evangelization thrive on humility and awe as one kneels before the “Word made flesh” in the tabernacle.

In closing, let me offer the perfect model of awe and humility for our cynical age, the “apostle of common sense,” G.K. Chesterton who once said that “thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” In an age of unreason, Chesterton’s is a voice of reason. In an age of gloom, he resonates with joy. In an age of cynicism he reflects innocent goodness calling to mind Christ’s admonition “that unless one becomes like a little child he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Last August at the Chesterton Society’s annual meeting, its president, Dale Alquist announced that the Bishop of Northampton, England, Peter Doyle, gave permission to announce that he “is sympathetic to our wishes and is seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for [G.K.] Chesterton.”

The Lord raises up saints according to the need. The 20th century was an age of unreason; the 21st is the age of insanity where millions deny fundamental realities. Just in time to bring our world back to its senses we see a rising popularity of one of the most sensible individuals of the 20th century. There is plenty to foster pessimism in the challenges of our day. But to read Chesterton is to restore hope and find an example of evangelization based on friendship. Chesterton, who was filled with such awe, humility, and thanksgiving that he made the sign of the cross with a match before lighting a cigar, offers joyful hope to our dismal age. Want a sure way to learn to evangelize with joy? Read Chesterton!

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