Getting through it

Life seems to be going haywire. No, not life, exactly, but the world. Sometimes I wonder whether I am just getting older. Maybe the world seems to be going off the rails to me just as it has done to every previous generation as they get older, and the next generation rises. Still, it seems very unhealthy to me, unsustainably so. There cannot be such extensive, almost limitless, uncertainty, so much speed and pressure. Who can live like this?

I asked my students, a few weeks ago, how many of them knew someone (or had themselves) suffered from mental illness. Nearly everyone. That’s worrying. If mental illness is so prevalent, maybe we ought to be spending as much time seeking causes and preventing it as we do devising new therapies–especially drug therapies. And I say this as someone who has taken medication for depression for nearly two decades. Maybe, just maybe, something out there is making us sick.

Having said that, though, I worry about the medicalisation of everything. So little deviation from the norm of health and well-being is allowed now, very little suffering is permitted. Not that suffering is a good thing–it’s just that it is an essential and inescapable feature of human life. We have begun to regard suffering as unnatural, an unwelcome intrusion into our life of health and happiness.

The trouble is that health and happiness are never guaranteed. in the world there is beauty and joy and wonder. At the same time, there is poverty, pain, disaster and loss, and sickness and blight. And sometimes the only way out of suffering is through it. In such situations, patience, it seems to me, is the only way forward. Patience and humility seem to be the central lost traits in our human life. Where do we learn patience and humility, and grow in them, in a world that is driven by efficiency and achievement?

We have forgotten how the world changes: little by little, one small act of kindness at a time. Very few are the big acts that do obvious good. And the people to whom the tasks of Big Change fall are not necessarily to be envied. Frodo Baggins did manage–with lots of help–to get the One Ring to Mount Doom, and by luck it ended up in the fire. But the achievement broke Frodo, changed him, so that he no longer ‘fit’ in his world. ‘We saved the Shire,’ said Sam. ‘But not for me,’ said Frodo. Not for me. And so it is, sometimes, that people to whom the world-saving falls do somehow find themselves no longer fit for the world made different.



Maybe I am wrong. But I think that more and more people are being taught to desire the Big Things, when what we need, and what the world really needs are people who faithfully do the small things. That’s really the way forward: patience and humility. And Frodo Baggins is not, in the final analysis, the hero of the tale. The hero of the story is the patient and humble Samwise Gamgee, who carried Frodo when he could go no farther. Sam carried on, when Frodo could not. And so the world was saved, not by the wise elves or the powerful wizard, or even the servant-healer-king, though these each had their part to play. the world was saved by the smallest and least of all, and the burden borne in large part by the lowliest of all, who received it as a privilege and a gift.

The world seems very short of Samwise Gamgees today. Everyone wants to be Aragon, or Gandalf, or perhaps Elrond or Galadriel. Maybe even Frodo Baggins. But Sam Gamgee? The servant? Less so, it seems to me, less so. Patience and humility look so small and dull in the world of bright, shining achievements. ‘Nice guys,’ so the saying goes, ‘finish last.’ Maybe so, maybe so. But it has also been said that many who are first shall be last, and the last first. Let it be so.

Deo gratias.

NB This post is dedicated to Bishop Daniel E. Flores, Amigo de Frodo.


Tuesday of the second week in Lent

You do this, and I should keep silence?
    Do you think that I am like you?
A sacrifice of thanksgiving honours me,
   and I will show God’s salvation to the upright.
                                            Psalm 49 [50]: 21, 23

.        .       .

‘Do you think that I am like you?’ Too often, yes, I do think exactly that–that God is like me, like a human being. I mistake God for a finite being, whose love has limits, who can be offended in a way that makes forgiveness difficult. But God isn’t like that. As one translation of the Benedictus has it, ‘through the bottomless mercy of our God / one born on high will visit us’.

I like that. God isn’t like us. God’s mercy is ‘bottomless’–an inexhaustible reservoir of love and forgiveness. In my finitude, I run out. I run out of patience; my will to forgive fails. Bitterness creeps in, and resentment, too. But God has none of that: only love, and mercy, and patience, and compassion. I bring my failings and disappointments to God, and receive in return grace, and delight, and joy.

That doesn’t sound very Lenten. But all the penitential practices of Lent aim precisely at this goal: to make space for that joy and delight that should fill our hearts at Easter.