My wife and I frequently talk about a shared sense of urgency: a sense of something more that we’re waiting for, of being on the brink – not just as a couple or a family, or even as a parish or a city, but in national and global terms – of…what? This sense has been growing in me for several decades now: the need to get ready, to be deeply rooted in the Lord, to be firmly anchored in the Reality that He is. The elements of the rootedness include a deep commitment to frequent and intense prayer; an openness to and hunger for intense Christian community; frequent Eucharist and Confession; seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit moment by moment; sharing Christ at any opportunity that presents itself, without forcing it; and in the last decade or so, seeking out the maternal care and intercession of the Blessed Mother through consecrating our lives to her.
The urgency carries with it both weariness and energy: an excitement regarding being born “for such a time as this”, but also a “How long, O Lord?” kind of desperate longing. When my sense of urgency began some 30 years ago, the burden was heavier because I encountered so few people who shared it, and my passion about it probably came off as, at best, unusual if not (to use the technical term) totally unhinged. Progressively, I’ve encountered more and more people who share the sense of urgency, the need for intense preparation preceding a time of severe testing. At present, it seems that more committed Christians than ever see the handwriting on the wall: the clouds are gathering, the oncoming storm will be intense, and we’d best be ready for it. To use another nature image: the tsunami is going to hit, and the time for playing around in the sand and shallows is gone. We need to dive into the deep water of commitment to the Lord, or we will perish.
The clouds that have been gathering for the last couple of decades are remarkable in their vast influence and in the quickness with which they’ve developed. For example, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of communism everywhere but in China, who would have foreseen the rise of Islamic extremism, and how it has radically changed the globe? Who would have believed that increasingly in the West, even to speak against homosexual behavior would be punishable as a hate crime, and that opposition to gay “marriage” would be seen as bigoted and unreasonable? Or that the media and government’s spin on abortion would have morphed from making it “safe, legal, and rare” to enthroning it as the most basic of “rights”, trumping freedom of conscience and religion?
The clouds are darker still in terms of the global and national plight of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Hostility towards Christianity is rising on all fronts: from intense persecution of Christians in all Muslim-dominated areas of the world; to government support of explicitly anti-Christian agendas; to anti-Christian propaganda pouring out of Hollywood and the mainstream media; to gay activism’s intense attacks on orthodox Christian belief and practice in the areas of sexual identity, gender, and marriage; to the Western public education system’s steady eradication of any sense of moral absolutes in favor of the “dictatorship of relativism”; to the increasing global political and economic influence of the atheistic, totalitarian regime of China.
The upshot: the world has become steadily more hostile to orthodox Christianity and more tolerant towards, if not active in, Christian persecution. If this trend continues – and it’s hard to see what would stop it – every part of the world will end up in explicit or covert totalitarianism. In that case, as Catholic writer and artist Michael D. O’Brien has observed, how could one escape such a worldwide totalitarianism? Where would one run when there’s nowhere to hide?
Besides the stormclouds gathering against Christianity, the cloud of an increasingly polarized U.S. looms. There is an ample amount of hatred and anger going around, in the areas of race, political affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, and class. Our current president has – perhaps partly to distract his constituency from his glaringly inept leadership, but more to foster his own socialist class-warfare agenda – stoked this fire with frightening success. There are significant rumblings of worldwide economic collapse. If the U.S. economy collapses as well, violence and revolution are all too likely to erupt from this simmering rage. With the profoundest respect for our Jewish brethren, are we watching an eerie replay of Hitler’s rise to power: economic collapse, a scapegoat (the Jews then, Christians now) to unite against, and a demagogue (Obama or his successor) to rally the forces of revolution and save us?
As the crisis we face seems increasingly inevitable, I feel correspondingly overstuffed with learning, Bible studies, conferences, and talks: input, input, input. I have almost a nausea when I think of reading one more reflection or hearing one more insight. As one TED talk had it, “We spend so much time learning so little time thinking”: or more, “I’m sick of learning, I want to DO something!” Pope Francis’s words regarding the need for the Church to move from maintenance to mission resonate. He rightly emphasizes the desperate need to reach out to the lost, to those who’ll never darken the doors of a church; through new venues, ventures, and visions so that they come to know the joy of the gospel. The need to be a proactive Church, more than ever, to be lights in the increasing darkness, is desperate.
So again, the “fire in my bones”: Lord, I want to DO something! “Can’t keep it in”, as Cat Stevens sang back in the 70s. As Pippin observed in “The Lord of the Rings”, as he watched the forces of Mordor advancing on Minas Tirith: “The only thing worse than being in a battle is to be on the brink of a battle you know you can’t escape.” Yet as I cry out, “How long, Lord? When is ‘it’ – the cataclysm, the crisis – going to happen?”, the only answer that comes is, “Wait; pray; trust; keep doing what you’re doing; when it’s time to act, I will make it clear.”
I’m aware of the temptation to so focus on what I may be called to do in the future that I stop focusing on what the Lord calls me to do now. Glorious dreams of professing the faith in the face of prison, torture, or martyrdom can distract me from the ordinary obedience, patience, and acceptance called for today. It’s important not to escape from the everyday into a fantasy world. Yet I’ve run into so many Christians who share this urgency that it cannot simply be me. To sustain this tension is actually a dilemma as ancient as Christianity itself: How do I live in, yet not of the world? How do I fully invest in and act in the present world, knowing that it is passing and that the Real Life of eternity begins in Heaven? How do I focus on this day’s needs and troubles, while living in hope of the Lord’s return?
Ultimately, as in all things, it is a question of transformation in Christ, into Christ. Jesus himself underwent 30 years of waiting for the remarkable prophecies given at His birth to be fulfilled. During his Nazareth years, he grew in wisdom, age, and grace. He must have had constantly to confide his hopes and expectations to the Father: “Father, I’m ready now: yet not as I will, but as You will.” The waiting, in some mysterious way, purified him: “Son though he was, he learned obedience through what he suffered”(Heb 5:8). And when he was sufficiently purified, in the fullness of time, the call came, and he launched on his public ministry.
So I have to believe that I – you – the Church as a whole – am/are/is not quite ready to face the crisis. Yes, in the midst of the gathering darkness, lights are shining out: wonderful signs of the New Springtime of Evangelization, remarkable renewals and conversions. But we’re not ready: more preparation is needed; more waiting, trusting, hoping. And the waiting purifies; the trusting molds us into the image of Jesus Christ; the hoping transforms us in holiness. In God’s perfect timing, we will be as ready as He needs us to be. In the mean time, we keep our hands on the plow and do the next right thing. And even if the sense of urgency is mistaken or misdirected, still the waiting in hope and trust for whatever the Lord does send cannot lead us astray.