In this month of Thanksgiving in the United States, the world, needless to say, is going through significant disruption—perhaps more worrisome than the hardships that surrounded the first Thanksgiving not so very long ago. A pessimist may say that this is the beginning of the end. We’ve all heard it before; these are the worst of times and the end is near. Balderdash.
Not so fast. There may be good cause for concern. We must take into account the convergence of multiple indices. In other words, in this early 21st century, there are too many spirit-killing events coming all at once: not just rumors of war but endless wars; too many desperate situations; too much carelessness and disregard for life and love; too great a lack of common agreement and understanding; too much polarization and the absence of listening and cooperation. The convergence of these indices and many more lead me to a very pessimistic outlook for the future unless something very dramatic happens—probably even more drastic than a worldwide pandemic—to change hearts and minds, not superficially but radically.
I start with the environment, our earth, because terrible things are happening that threaten the very existence of our planet. There are too many important people and important countries that are not convinced there is a problem, and they refuse to cooperate with professional environmental-protectionist advice. Furthermore, the general populace has no choice but to suffer indifference because there is no intense public, multinational groundswell to change minds and hearts. We talk and tsk, tsk, but nothing happens. The planet is dying.
Of course there are wars, there are always wars. There is no war to end all wars. We’ve advanced beyond that. Now we are in a constant state of war, and we have to accept this, too, because the world is not of one mind in advocating for peace.
Economics is a major factor in nearly every country on earth. It is a matter of wealth and who owns and manages the wealth. People in Yemen and other poor nations are starving; they don’t own the wealth and seem hopeless to do anything about it. They rely on the vision, insight, foresight, and charity of others who own the wealth. There is no international groundswell to end dire poverty. In spite of the reality of our global village, the fact is that Yemen and other impoverished nations are not our homes, those hovels, those tents and garbage-strewn paths. My problem? Meh.
What about politics and world leaders? There is a lot of dissension and hate on all sides. By what standards are worldwide heads of state judged as good or bad, loveable or hateful? The short answer is that they are great if they create an environment whereby the majority of people get what they want, which is—no head count necessary—more money. I’m sorry—I’d like to say that it is compassion and love that people want and need, but those are not high on the list of priorities.
Where do we find the truth? We used to find it in network and cable news. Now we seek it in the chatter of social media and conspiracy theories. The disease that has thrust the world into another sort of chaos has cast a shadow over media that used to shed light upon our lives. We are cloaked in a pressing and depressing, smothering and foreboding negative environment of questioning, wondering, supposing, and guessing. Where is truth?
My list of earth- and people-killing indices could go on. I haven’t even mentioned the Covid-19 pandemic, nor the decay of democracy in our time, especially in America. These and many more areas of life today are in turmoil, and there does not appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The convergence of multiple indices all point to disaster and the end of life on earth as we used to enjoy it. But we are men and women who live in hope. Where is the hope? What can we do?
First, we have to identify the problems more specifically and concretely. Only then can we work toward solutions. Amazingly, people have learned and are still learning to cope with the world as it is today just as we impatiently cope with the virus. The human spirit is indomitable. Regarding the virus and the controls that must be put in place in order to diminish the outbreak, there are pockets of resistance, deep pockets that threaten us all. Fear, calls for wanting to be “free” of restraints, unreasonable outbursts about nobody is going to tell me that I have to wear a mask are happening not just in the land of the free and the home of the brave. They are happening all over the world as people revolt against being controlled. Freedom is not determined by a constitution or a bill of rights; freedom is part and parcel of the human spirit. The only time we will allow being told what we can or cannot do is when it is obvious to our concrete and personal advantage.
There is something begging for attention behind all the traumatic impositions that humanity is enduring, wittingly or unwittingly, in our time. It is a force outside of us that is hammering on the doors of humanity and looking for attention and entry. It transcends all of these above-noted challenges and superficialities with which we are daily bombarded and consumed. It is more, much more than political, social, cultural, and physical disruptions in our world begging for truth and peace in our time. These upheavals are calling for something deeper and more profound, and I think that something is the spiritual life.
Spiritual life, by my definition, is the best in humanity pushed and honed to perfection, to fine points that penetrate the hardest hearts, the deepest sorrow, and the densest mindsets to touch finally at the core of what makes us human. The problems that I have posited and discussed are superficial and transitory, and yet they have penetrated into the heart of humanity. We have allowed them to do their dirty work, surreptitiously, covertly with near-silent stealth. As a whole people we have fallen victim to evil. Jonathan Edwards lives again! But we are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are sinners in the hands of God’s offer of greatness and grace. We need a conversion experience, not only as a nation but as a whole world order.
The spirituality that I am talking about is not the I-Thou relationship between me and God. That vertical phenomenon is a later event. It is preceded by something more terrestrial. Spirituality begins with the horizontal, with people and the world around us. A child, learning to grow, is aware of the self and its personal needs, its likes and dislikes. Growing into maturity means to begin to recognize “the other,” to be willing and able to sacrifice oneself for the other, to make the ultimate gift of self. The less self-centered one becomes, the more actualized one is as a person; and the more actualized one is, the more spiritual. The spiritual man and woman embrace all of creation as holy, as godly, as good. Go further and unite this to an awareness of the great unknown and unknowable God, and there is a spiritual life. It is to have a vision that sees through and beyond everything to a unity of all things in the One who is totally other.
In sum, spirituality may be defined simply as making whole by actualizing potential, according to the mind of God, Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier. That is my definition. That is a rare person indeed. None of us achieves that goal; we work toward it once we become aware of it.
Which of our world leaders is a spiritual man or woman? This question matters because our leaders exercise a tremendous amount of influence upon the entire global order. If these leaders are not men and women of great stature—mature, deep-thinking, altruistic, self-sacrificing, peace-loving, compassionate, truthful, and honest—and if the majority of them are not of a spiritual cast of mind, then the global population will suffer. And who is responsible for seeing to it that our leadership is of such high caliber? We are. We must first of all possess those qualities that we instinctively look for in our leadership. If there is no depth of spirit, or spirituality as I have defined it, in the people, there will be shallowness and superficiality in those whom we choose to guide us through the morass of political, social, economic, and environmental life.
In the old days of religion, with all its superstition, lack of knowledge, and dearth of sophistication on the part of the people, most citizens were still deeply spiritual men and women holding strong, generation after generation, with their habitual people-first values, their modicum of depth that were their guides through life. Today we have fallen into a shallow pit and the heavens are crying out for us to wake up, climb up, realize what is important in life and on our earth; to stir the waters that are going to make us healthy in body and soul again, and sane in our thinking, and careful to whom we entrust positions of authority. The pandemic is one fatal flaw in our fragile humanity that begs us to look inward at ourselves and what we have created. Do we accept the challenge?
Gene Ciarlo is an ordained Catholic priest no longer in the active ministry. He lives and works in Vermont. He has been writing for Today’s American Catholic since the early days of its publication.