Have you ever had someone tell you how easy your job was? Didn’t you just feel so weary after that?
Is seems common to think that something we’ve never done, something we’ve only seen from the outside, is much easier than it looks.
Those who look at the shortcomings of our American system and want to tear it down, perhaps believing that they can build something better from scratch. What if they are underestimating how hard it is to build things? What if they were geniuses who built something truly amazing? What if people tear down the system, but what they put in place is a thousand times worse because they didn’t realize how hard it to accomplish what they hoped? I will agree when this country was founded, there were shortcomings of how the ideals were put into practice, but the ideals themselves were a continual tug to grow to live up to them better. That was part of the genius.
Some people say that you are a hypocrite if you espouse ideals and don’t live up to them. I say that if we can regularly live up to our ideals, our ideals are not high enough, and we are holding ourselves back. If we are to become what we were meant to be, we need a constant tug from our ideals to pull us forward. I would think a better understanding of hypocrisy is holding ourselves to a lower standard than we hold others, being more attentive to others’ shortcomings than our own, and pretending to be better than we are. That prevents us from improving as we could.
Some things are easy, and one of them is to say we would have done better in their place, when we are not in danger of being in their place. It is easy to say that if we had been in the founding fathers’ positions, we could have done a better job. But if we had had the same experiences, the same education, lived under the same circumstances, might we see things differently? A lot of ideas that we think are obvious and common sense took many centuries to develop.
I had a philosophy teacher who said, “There are many people walking around today feeling so superior to Ptolemy because they know that the earth revolves around the sun and he didn’t, but if you sat them down with a pencil and paper to write out sufficient grounds based on observation why to believe the earth revolves around the sun, they would be lost.” As Isaac Newton famous observed, he saw so far because he stood “on the shoulders of giants.” We have received so much. We may be frustrated by the shortcomings of people in the past, we might remember that some of them moved society forward so that more steps could be taken, and we can see from our current perspective.
I suggest that we are always being called to grow and become better. Feeling morally superior is easy; becoming better is hard. It is my observation that if you really want to do good, you will find that you have to work harder than you thought for longer than you expected to accomplish less than you hoped. The prize belongs to those who do not then give up.
There’s something Teddy Roosevelt said that keeps coming to my mind:
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
St. Benedict was born about 1500 years ago, just after the fall of the Roman Empire. Bishop Robert Barron recently streamed the story of St. Benedict in his “Pivotal Players” series and calls him “the most pivotal of all the pivotal players.” We remember St. Anthony of the Desert as the one who pioneered desert spirituality. St. Benedict made monasticism a workable system so that it would be strong enough to hold together civilization when civilization was literally collapsed around them. He wrote a rule that is still in use today, and that enabled monasteries to be great centers of learning, evangelization and service for centuries to come.
There were some characteristics of the rule that I think made it so successful:
Prayer: most important thing they did and nothing interfered
Work: not just a practical necessity, but a way of glorifying God Colossians 1:23 “Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others…”
Hospitality: kept them from becoming self-absorbed
Learning: preserved books, non-Christian and Christian
Stability: temptation always to be looking for something preferable, and whenever things get uncomfortable, run away.
Practical: though dedicated to eternal realities, must not neglect day to day issues. Though they dedicated themselves to eternal realities, they had to deal with practical problems.
While civilization fell down around them, they kept it going, and enabled human knowledge that would be preserved in the midst of the upheaval. They copied books that would otherwise be lost. They became innovators in agriculture, health care, and other areas. I would recommend “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” for a fuller description of their contributions. This would not happen without the work of St. Benedict.
He is often portrayed with a cup that has a demon in it, and a raven with bread in his beak. This is from two stories about him. Once, monks who didn’t like his discipline put poison in his wine, but when he said the blessing, the cup shattered, and the Holy Spirit made him know what happened. Another time a wicked priest gave him some poisoned bread. He realized it, so he commanded his pet raven to take the bread and put it where no one would find it (sort of an inverse of 1 Kings 17:6). Whether these stories are true or not, they convey that he had to deal, not only with barbarians outside, but dysfunction in the Church inside.
As we look at the challenges we face today, outside and within the Church, I think we can draw some inspiration from St. Benedict.
We celebrate his feast day July 11.
As we celebrate the forming of our nation, I’ve been reflecting over the principles upon which we were founded. One of the underlying ideas is the limited wisdom and trustworthiness of any one person. This is why we were set up with checks and balances, and freedom to express ourselves, even if our ideas are unpopular. This allows there to be a free exchange of ideas, and if we are wrong, there are countervoices to help bring us, or perhaps the community, closer to the truth. It is hard work. It requires patience and persistence. It require enough humility to accept that we do not see all truth ourselves, and some people we can’t stand might even have something to teach us. These virtues are key to the American way of life. This tug of war of ideas can lead to deeper truth and understanding than we can achieve on our own.
In 1924 the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the lawn of St. Charles’ church. They couldn’t be bothered going through the process of sharing their concerns and debating ideas, seeking to shift thought in their direction. They sought to terrorize and intimidate. I think of that when I think of mobs destroying statues of the saints and of Jesus. I think of people getting fired, doxed, harassed, and attacked for having opinions that others disapprove of. This is fundamentally un-American, and fundamentally contrary to what it means to be human.
I watched a documentary on the American Revolution and it mentioned the Boston Massacre. The British soldiers who shot the American protestors were put on trial. John Adams was their defense attorney. He, of course, was one of the strongest voices for rebellion, but he believed it was critical that they uphold the principle of due process for the accused. He didn’t do a half-hearted job, either.
I think of the old quote (attributed to Voltaire, but some say was written by Beatrice Evelyn Hall): “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
How we debate, deliberate, share ideas and handle disagreements will say a lot about how we honor what is best about America.