Those among my readers who consider themselves to be more sophisticated than I will not want to read today’s blog post. Those of you who are more aware of your own mortality and utter dependence upon Divine Providence however, please stick with me. For hopefully you will see a bit of yourselves in what I am about to describe, and you will see how we are, all of us, in the same boat when it comes to trying to keep focused on the horizon rather than on the waves that may toss us about.
Over the past few months I have been fortunate enough to attend the monthly Evening of Recollection for Men at the Catholic Information Center, here in the Nation’s Capital. And during that time it has inevitably happened that, soon after this monthly meeting, I suffer an absolutely horrible day. This is not an exaggeration, by any means: quite literally, the next day I have some terrible thing happen at work or at home, or I suffer from some very painful physical ailment, or I receive some terrible news about someone I care about, or I have a combination of all of these things and more.
If you have never attended one of these recollection evenings – which by the way are held for the ladies as well – the format is rather like that of a brief spiritual retreat from the everyday world. The attendees gather in the chapel and listen to one of the priests give a reflection, on some spiritual topic which will hopefully prove helpful to those in attendance. Then private confession is available for those who wish to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation; alternatively one may simply engage in an examination of conscience led by one of the leaders. Then the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, and this is followed by a second spiritual reflection by one of the priests, often continuing on a related track from the theme explored earlier, followed by benediction.
The reason I like these monthly gatherings is that an evening spent like this, at the start of the work week, is wonderfully refreshing to the soul. I like to get there early if I can, and do some spiritual reading in the chapel before the Evening starts or during the quiet bits. I usually take notes during the two reflections if I find them helpful, to transcribe and reflect on later. And of course it is just a good thing in and of itself to sit in a quiet chapel in the presence of God, gradually forgetting things like deadlines, appointments, bills, and so on, in the company of other professional men who know all of these things and more – mortgages, children, serious illnesses, etc.
Strange to say, over the past several months whenever I have attended these Evenings, the very next day is absolutely rotten, pock-marked by all manner of things. It seems that I leave the mini-retreat all refreshed and renewed, walking on a cloud, and yet something goes horribly pear-shaped within the next 12 hours. In fact at this point, it has become so predictable as to be almost tragi-comic.
The return to the material world of course is part of the cause of this. The spiritual and psychological “high” or sense of satisfaction one has after a good retreat, even a short one, is rather like the runner’s “high”, when the body is surging with endorphins, mixed with that peaceful and sated feeling after a really good Thanksgiving dinner which leads to falling asleep in front of the fireplace. At any time there is nothing like a good confession for taking the weight off of your shoulders and feeling as though you have been picked up and cleaned of all of the muck that has been slowing you down. However surrounding that with adoration, benediction, and these lengthy, insightful reflections just makes for a very fine experience spent in the presence of God with other men of faith.
And therein, I think, is what is going on, and why the next day, at least for me, is so inevitably awful.
Human beings are susceptible to evil, thanks to our fallen nature. All of the supposed sophistication which each successive generation of human beings claims to have over preceding generations is really nonsense, for we merely replace one set of societal ills with another, scoffing at the backwardness of our forbearers while not realizing our own myopia about the outcomes of our justifications of disordered acts. We simply enjoy doing things that are wrong, and then finding ways to justify our behavior through various means – political, editorial, legal, personal, you name it. If a man likes to do something which will ultimately condemn him, unless he keeps making efforts to reform his life and contain himself, he will manage to find a way to justify doing whatever it is that gives him temporary pleasure, at the cost of his eternal soul.
Hell is very busy making converts on Earth, perhaps now more so than ever, when the popularity of ignorance has never been more widely taught and disseminated to such great effect. Yet one of the things which Hell does not like is when individuals begin to believe that there may be more, and better, to come from this God person they hear of, if they stick with Him. And so sometimes Hell likes to send us unexpected problems, or remind us of messes that are piling up, or throw some illness or pain our way, to try to turn us inward and distract us from looking to what lies beyond this existence.
If you do not believe this sort of thing can happen, you need to go back and read your Scripture, and the Lives of the Saints, for this sort of things happens all the time, with disturbing frequency. Some of the saints were actively pursued by evil, and some of the great sinners were those who seemed unable to shut their ears to the calls of evil despite the best efforts of those around them. In fact the really sad stories we read are the ones about people who did not take these attacks seriously, to the point of not even recognizing that they were giving in to the wishes of the infernal, rather than following the Will of the Eternal.
The solution is to open your eyes, of course. If you recognize what is going on, when you are attacked and things go badly, you can and will experience the emotions of grief or anger or anxiety. You can mourn and complain and feel rotten, and I do not think it unfair to allow anyone to do that, as they need to. But once that time passes, then the strength that can be drawn from an Evening of Recollection, or confession, or just a quiet ten minutes spent in prayer, makes the believer pick himself up and keep going, as best he can.
It is difficult to remain focused on who and what actually matters, and I for one need to get better at it. Yet there is no other choice available to us, in the end. Either we do the best we can now, to do good in this world so as to prepare for the next, or we follow the path of materialism and nihilism to no purpose whatsoever. I know which choice I intend to make.
See you at the next monthly Evening of Recollection.