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Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Problems with Ecclesio-Nihilism

"He must increase, I must decrease." ~St. John the Baptist.

One may come to the arguably reasonable conclusion that our existence in this world is really nothing. This is not to say that each of us is merely a grain of sand in the seemingly infinite cosmos - but that we really are nothing. However, in disagreement with this, one could with good reason present his successful career, his stellar academic record, or the endearing words of his significant other as clear evidence of the meaningfulness of his life. But when gazing in adoration at our Lord during the elevation, contemplating the prayers of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many others over the centuries in their preparation for receiving Him, whom could we convince that we really are something? It would seem to me easy to convince ourselves that we are, in truth, nothing.

One might then convince himself that his being misled into believing that he was something is primarily the fault of the secular culture. It is the fault, he might say, of those in the mainstream of society who, in rejection of the transcendent, portray happiness as something attained through egocentrism and rebellion against any system of morality imposed upon them, who are guilty of fooling us into thinking that we could find meaning in our lives completely on our own.

There are two problems I see with the nihilistic view and this claim regarding its roots. The first is that it is clear that our society - which would include those groups who adhere to no particular religion - is not completely devoid of the sense that we really are in need of something outside of ourselves - namely, something other than nutritional sustenance. A faculty member at Wellesley High, a public school in Massachusetts, recently gave an address that expressed clearly the importance of our acknowledging our minuteness in the grand scheme (link). We can also see an acknowledgement of this truth clearly in the lives of countless other individuals: in the soldier who gives his life for his nation, in the parent who lives out his entire life in the service of his family, and in the mother who carries and sustains her child for nine months in her womb.

So, it would be a caricature to say that the secular society is completely out of touch. To address society in such a way would be a distortion of the truth of the situation. To gain perspective, we could consider that there may be a number of statue-worshipping, pagan individuals who claim to be Christian, but it is obvious that it would be unfair for anyone to speak as if all Christians were this way. In reality, there are competing, mutually exclusive worldviews that are subsisting within society. No one group of people embodies perfectly one or another of these worldviews. Here, we are perhaps getting at what people speak of when they talk of spiritual warfare. It is a battle taking place within and outside each one of us, and the only reasonable response to such a dire situation is a life of prayer, seeking mercy, and repentance from sin.

The next problem with the nihilistic view is that, strictly speaking, we aren't really nothing. After all, we exist, don't we? To speak more precisely, we should instead say, then, that we are just virtually nothing. However, to ensure an accurate perspective on this, let us imagine a picture of all people who have ever lived, are now living, and ever will live, appearing on a standard 1680x1050 monitor. If one were to look for himself in such an image, he could realize in short time that he is much smaller than even a single pixel. Hence, we are virtually nothing. So close to nothing we are, in fact, that one might even be justified in making the claim that we are nothing. The more that one grasps this and attempts to deal with it on his own, the more he might be drawn to self-destructive habits. Do we have the courage to place instead our trust in our Lord, and turn to him during the great "Hoc est enim corpus meum"? How does one find the courage to approach Him in whom we find all that sustains us? We find part of the answer by looking around at our fellow congregants in the Mass and thanking God for them: the parents, the children, the religious, etc. Their very presence might speak to us, "We know. We are virtually nothing. It is only by receiving Him into our lives that we have hope." We look to the priest: at his life and in his prayers. It may seem impossible to approach our Lord, but we don't have to ask the priest the question, "How?" He tells us in the thrice-spoken "Domine non sum dignus." We listen also to the voices of the Saints, echoing throughout the centuries:

"He must increase, I must decrease."

June 24 is the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, prophet and martyr.


Eric M. said...

I think this addresses some very interesting points. It is seemingly paradoxical that contemplation of God can remind us of our smallness yet also remind us that we, our existence and value being grounded in such greatness, are significant.

Now it's time for the days to decrease until the Lord's birth at Christmas.

Patrick L. said...

Acknowledgements are due to Eric: the title of this article was derived from a term created by him in reference to another trend we are seeing now in Catholic culture.

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