Here’s a quote brought to my attention by my, let’s see, brother-in-law’s brother. Thank you, John Herreid.
More than ever before the Lord today has made us conscious of the fact that he alone can save his Church. …We are called upon to work with all our might, without anxiety and with the composure of one who knows that he is a useless servant even when he has done his full duty. Even in this reference to our littleness, I see one of the graces of a difficult time. A time in which patience, that daily form of love, is called for.
Just like last year, as Christmas draws closer, crises in the wider world and in my own circle of friends seem to be piling up with ever-increasing speed.
Throughout the world, there’s war and disease, natural and manufactured disaster. And, like everybody else, I have friends besieged by physical and mental disorders, marriage and family troubles of every description, addiction troubles, money troubles. I don’t know if there’s more sorrow in the world now or if it just seems that way against a backdrop of the pressure to be cheery and busy.
Father Benedict calls this age “a difficult time.” In fact, he called it that thirty years ago, when he was being interviewed for The Ratzinger Report, but who would doubt it still applies? So what exactly are these “graces of a difficult time”?
For one thing, when times aren’t difficult, we can imagine it’s all our own doing. We get distracted, start acting like His kingdom is of this world, or that it’s synonymous with our country, or with our culture.
If things are going well in our own country, we might think that’s the result of our own virtue—and to some extent, of course, we will be right. Countries where piety and natural law and hard work are valued will end up happier and better in certain ways.
Or when our kids seem to be turning out well, we get tempted to take the credit, imagining it’s the inevitable result of raising them a certain way. There are objectively better and worse ways to raise children, of course, but the more of them I raise, the more tenuous the connection between anything my beloved husband and I do and the way the kids turn out begins to seem.
Or if we’re healthy, we’re easy prey for presumptuousness, becoming smug about our diet or exercise habits, or even (less logically) about our good genes.
And contempt for countries or families or people who don’t do whatever it is we’re taking credit for can creep in. We observe countries or families or people who aren't enjoying the same pleasant results and assume it’s because they’re doing an inferior job.
The role of the omnipotent King of the Universe slips our mind.
When times are difficult, though—when sorrow and tragedy and hardship can’t be ignored or avoided or glossed over—we’re not as subject to those particular temptations, temptations of self-righteousness and pride, which are—remember Lucifer?—the most poisonous kind of all.
By contrast, Father Benedict urges that we work with “the composure of one who knows that he is a useless servant.” Getting to where that thought produces composure instead of discouragement is a giant step in the right direction. The times are dark. But I'll leave the last word to J. R. R. Tolkien, with this passage from The Two Towers:
The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.