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Does a past-less present mean a hopeless future?

FAMILY
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Let us overcome our amnesia, for the love of God.

How much time do you spend thinking about or worrying about time? There are endless books on time management. You could spend several lifetimes learning about how to manage better the time of your one lifetime.

How much time do you spend evaluating your time? What do you count as good time, bad time, wasted time? Perhaps more importantly—how do you evaluate our times? Is this the best of times or the worst of times? Are we about to start World War III? Or are we about to enter a new age of progress?

How much time do you spend evaluating the time of the Church? Are we in a new springtime, or are we in the worst time of crisis since …?

Before discussing a Catholic way of understanding time, let’s be clear: Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, there’s never been a truly golden era, no truly “good old days.” We’re fallen men living in fallen world. Sin has darkened our intellects and weakened our wills. Yet I must insist that God is sovereign over all of history and eternity.

For faithful Catholics, what may be a distinguishing mark of our time is the common habit of seeing time in an un-Catholic way. I would formulate the problem thus: “We are living in a past-less present; consequently, we face a hopeless future.” What’s the essence of that error, and how can we overcome it?

By a past-less present I mean this: Many heirs of Catholic heritage have little or no sense of that heritage—a heritage that saints, heroes, and martyrs offered their lives to generate and to pass on. We might rightly mourn the common ignorance of Catholic arts, history, culture, etc. We should mourn even more the ignorance of God’s Providence, Fidelity, Mercy and Justice that our cultural ignorance entails. When a “celebration” of Christmas is more about consumption than worship of the Word-Made-Flesh, when it is more about gorging ourselves rather than prostrating ourselves before Emmanuel (God-with-us), then we have proof that our cultural and theological amnesia—that is, our past-less present—must lead to a hopeless future.

Let’s look at the West, which has lived in relative peace and unparalleled prosperity since the end of World War II, 75 years ago. One might think that such people would see themselves as blessed, and would want to hand on those blessings (as well as knowledge and love of the source of those blessings) to their posterity. Instead, the West finds itself facing a “birth dearth,” a “demographic winter,” the result of a birth rate far below mere replacement level. Not seeing themselves as blessed, the devotees of the culture of consumption see themselves with nothing and no one to give to the future. These are people who do not echo the words of the Psalmist: “What shall I return to the Lord for his bounty to me?” (Psalm 116:12) For such people, heedless both of God and the Church founded by the Christ of God, there is literally nothing and no one to look forward to. Living in a past-less present, they can only see a hopeless future—and then act accordingly.

What is the Catholic alternative to passing through time so mindlessly and heartlessly, a life without gratitude or hope?

Let’s baptize this philosophical observation from Dr. Rein Staal of William Jewell College: “Tradition anchors our experience of time in memory, and projects it into the future through hope.” In other words, there is a thread that links us in the present to past and future. Without that thread, each moment is just a series of unrelated “nows,” leading to us eventually crying out in desperation, “Now what?”

We can begin by establishing the habit of rummaging through our day, looking for fingerprints of God that we were too busy or distracted to notice at the time of God’s contact. We can delve into the history of the Church, and see that there are riches of culture and wisdom waiting to be rediscovered. And we must immerse ourselves in Sacred Scripture, so that we see that God never fails to be faithful.

Overcoming our amnesia will enable us to see who we are and whose we are. Such people can recognize as true for us this divine promise: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.” (Jeremiah 29:11-12) Secure in our past, we can live with confidence in the present, with hope for the future.

When I write next, I’ll speak of a Catholic way of keeping the Sabbath. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

 

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