Why do we crave the End? What sends shivers up our spines at the prophecy of St. Malachy that we’re running low on popes, the prospect of Mayan apocalypse, the threat of Three Days of Darkness, or the predicted crash of every computer in the world? I’m not sure, but I think if we trawl through the “Send” box of disappointed prophecies we might just stumble upon an answer.
Those of you in your 20s and up might remember Y2K. I know a Catholic author who is still trying to finish all the canned food he stockpiled, and unload the rural compound he bought “to be prepared.” A part of me was afraid straight through Jan. 1, 2000, that all the Russian missiles would accidentally fire at once. When it didn’t happen, as all the folks around me at the New Year’s eve party in Greenwich Village (I too wanted to be prepared) chanted “We’re still alive!” they seemed a tad … disappointed at the dawn of just one more frog-flippin’ day.
A publishing giant I worked with stoutly insisted that Bill Clinton would engineer a “state of emergency” and refuse to leave the White House except in a body bag. I knew a lot of otherwise upbeat Evangelicals—stout allies in the prolife movement, and really pious Christians—who spent a decade or so hoping they wouldn’t be “left behind.” A sweet old church lady from my parish (her son is a priest) still believes that environmentalist scientists are planning to reduce the world population by 90%, and turn the rest of the earth into a nature park. “How will they do it?” I asked. She had an answer: “By cloning dinosaurs and turning them loose on us.”
Such people’s daily lives are much more dramatic than yours and mine. Perhaps the greatest prophecy let down in recent history came when the Vatican finally revealed the Third Secret of Fatima.
What a buzzkill: a seemingly accurate prediction of the wounding of Pope John Paul II, and a vague tale of how the Church would be persecuted. There are Catholics who still insist that the “real” secret was suppressed, and is yellowing in a Vatican vault somewhere. Others claim that the “real” seer Sr. Lucy was replaced with an imposter. Little old ladies in Minnesota will apparently pay big money for such news, because the people telling it via mail order catalogs have not gone out of business.
The way the Church handled the secret didn’t help: Its reading aloud had been delayed for decades past the date (1960) when the seer Lucy had instructed the pope to unveil it—a hold-up which the grand master of Catholic conspiracy theorists, Malachi Martin, cited as the source of all the chaos in the Church since Vatican II. I sat through a talk in which the voluble ex-Jesuit (woman troubles) explained to a room full of wide-eyed Latin Massers like me that:
"Pope John XXIII, in an act of unparalleled hubris and pride, defied Our Lady’s command, and instead of revealing that darksome secret, he claimed that the Holy Spirit had inspired him to summon a Council of the Church. That Council, convened in the highest of hopes, ended in an almost general apostasy from the Faith—and why? I believe it was because Our Lady has been punishing us, and her Son has withheld all actual graces from the Church."
That seemed a little bit rough for loving God to inflict on the whole human race for the decision of just one man—but then I have read in a recent book from a mainstream Catholic publisher that the French Revolution’s sole cause was… Louis XIV’s failure, a century before, to consecrate France to the Sacred Heart. (Houp–là!)
Malachi Martin told me another time, over lunch on Lexington Avenue, that the formula for ordaining bishops that the Church has used since Vatican II is “completely invalid. So every priest you know, except for those ordained by the Society of St. Pius X, is almost certainly a layman.” As the sex abuse crisis has dragged on and on, I have almost begun to hope that Malarkey Martin was right….
Good times. No one ever went broke by claiming to have some secret insight, suppressed information, lists of Masonic cardinals, documentary proof that Cardinal Siri was the “true pope” elected in 1964, or evidence that the human race has been controlled since 30,000 B.C. by a race of alien lizard men.
To all of which I say: Dream on.
If only things were so dramatic and exciting, the stakes so high and sides so clear. Were the package labeled “Life” affixed with a clear expiration date, many worries we face would fade into insignificance. Knowing that the world would end in the next 666 days, I wouldn’t be quite so bitter about what 2008 did to my 401k, or concerned about the cancer stats in my family. Because, lucky me, I would perish with the rest of the world in a cosmic fireball—or be raptured up to Jesus. Either way, I’d never end up on a morphine drip like my mom and dad.
One of the reasons we crave a sudden, radical snap in the thread of history is because it would make things simpler—cutting the Gordian knot of good intentions and evil outcomes with a swift blow from above. A similar hopeful spirit is what moves conspiracy theorists, who really believe that 13 guys (be they rabbis or reptiles or Opus Dei operatives) are to blame for all the evils in the world. What great news that would be! All we would need to do would be to set a trap for those guys—tell each one he’d won a new Range Rover, to be picked up at the same dealership—then lock them up, and then the planet’s problems would melt away.
There’s another, sadder reason why we crave signs and wonders, skipping lightly over works of mercy or Eucharistic adoration to go visit some dubious site of the Blessed Virgin’s Twitter account: We aren’t sure God exists. We don’t fully believe in the afterlife, or spiritual beings, and we’d really like some proof in the form of a miracle that we aren’t deluding ourselves. The ex-Catholic William Alexander Percy (uncle of the great author Walker) recounted in Lanterns on the Levee how his father reacted to a ghost story. The old man said that he would crawl on his hands and knees through the desert for the chance to meet a ghost.
When we line up alongside the Telemundo trucks to see the quesadilla with Jesus’ face, each of us is doing the same: Begging for evidence that the spiritual world exists, that the life we are slogging through is not a “snuff” farce whose curtain drops with the grave. When we really go off the rails, we might find ourselves sneaking into séances, or asking young women from California to teach us how to “channel.” In search of the shadow of God, we can plunge into a darkness that’s all too real.
A Trad seminarian I knew from New York City became convinced by an autodidact in biblical prophecy and apparitions. The “prophet,” whom I’ll call “Ed,” spoke in an almost constant stream of profanities like a Martin Scorcese character, but he wore a full-body scapular sewn with hundreds of first-class relics, so he was clearly on to something. Ed swore, among other things, that the Third Secret of Fatima was a save-the-date note predicting the Second Coming… on Oct. 13, 1994. “Our Lady’s gonna let her divine Son tear this planet a new one,” Ed said with an equable smile. His disciple, my friend, dropped out of the seminary and moved back in with his mother to wait for the End. I waited too—for Oct. 14, 1994, on which date I phoned this seminarian at the office to point out, “That was subtle.”
And that’s the point, really. Life is subtle. And muddled, and often tiresome and dull. So we look for a little pizzaz, some special effects from heaven, in the hope that some god or machine will step in and wrap it all up for us in a shiny, dramatic bow. Which really does miss the point: Each one of us faces an unavoidable Apocalypse and Judgment within (at most) the next 70 years. Do we really need a stronger goad than that?