These days are certainly very different from those in which I grew up. Perhaps you have a similar feeling? The assumption of Christian values and a Christian cultural environment just aren't there today as they were forty years ago. There is a very definite move toward atheism being more public and society being shaped by values which are far from those proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospel. I read last week how an import from Britain called the Sunday Assembly—a church that doesn’t believe in God—is seeking to take America by storm, and is also expanding to a number of other countries.
At the beginning of the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict offered us as an image of our new cultural situation: the image of Bartimaeus, the man afflicted with blindness who called out to Jesus for healing. "Bartimaeus could represent those who live in regions that were evangelized years ago, where the light of faith has grown dim and people have drifted away from God, no longer considering him relevant for their lives. These people have...lost a secure and sound direction and they have become, often unconsciously, beggars for the meaning of existence... It is only He, Jesus Christ, [who is] the true newness who answers the longings of man from every age."
This world—which some have described as an "inhospitable desert"—cries out for newness, a newness that we Christians can't offer others unless we ourselves are made new.
But there’s a catch. We can’t make ourselves new.
Newness, in the realm of the spirit, is a gift.
New life implies a kind of death to our past “self” which is made up of our ideas of ourselves, our opinions, the conventional wisdom of the day, our expectations, biases, and prejudices. We will dread new life in proportion to our attachment to this pastiche of images we take to be our real selves.
Without self-awareness we believe that what we think and feel about ourselves is who we ultimately are. It isn’t.
Without self-awareness we end up reasoning according to the conventional wisdom of the day because that seems to make the most practical sense. It doesn’t.
Without self-awareness it's easy to blame and scapegoat in an attempt to bring clarity about what's right and what's wrong, who's right and who's wrong. That doesn't help.
Without self-awareness we can struggle through life feeling like "practical atheists" and not know what to do because we ourselves are struggling to trust that God is here and God works only good. That's where St. Therese, the Little Flower, can help.
Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 remarked regarding the little St. Therese that her "grace of Easter," which was a very painful trial of faith, was understood by her to be a call to offer herself for the salvation of all the atheists of the modern world. She who had lived lost in the cloister of Carmel spent the last ten years of her life with Mary beside the cross of Jesus in the most heroic faith, and her faith has become a light in the darkness of the modern world, a faith that is the utter certainty and trust in the goodness of Jesus, whether one feels his presence or not. She even called the atheists with whom she suffered this dark struggle of faith her "brothers." Her act of faith made in the darkness of doubt was united in a mysterious way to their rejection of the faith. Their struggle with faith was played out before the face of the Father who loves all.
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Pope Francis wrote in The Light of Faith, “Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us. Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time” (no. 4).
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In the face of the growth of atheism in today's society, without self-awareness we might be tempted to join those who point fingers, blame, reject, label. St. Therese and Pope Francis instead teach us to stand with atheists in the mystery of faith and prayer, to stand with our brothers and sisters who struggle with the God who loves them and seeks them and embraces them. For we are all children of the same Father.
Sr. Kathryn James Hermes, fsp
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