Threading the needle

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Despite a tense political landscape that can be overwhelming at times, two overriding facts of life should draw us back from an emotional precipice. The first is that much of the world has faced enormous challenges for most of human history — from disease to war, crop failures to degrading human conditions, corruption, instability, and any number of corrosive sins. A century of relative peace within our borders has inured us to the fact that most of those who read the Psalms have had a profound first-hand understanding of their darkest images, which relate to all of these topics. 

The second fact is that Christians, of all people, should be entirely familiar with a life of tension, and if this doesn’t ring true, you might be doing it wrong. We could begin with those desires of the body that often conflict with our rational good, not to mention our thought processes often running amok — derailed daily by pride, vanity, envy, and myriad other sins. 

Moreover, there is the tension between comfort and complacency, holy fear and despair, legitimate material needs and the temptation to think in material terms alone. Our proper and necessary judgements easily become entangled with inappropriate judgements both frivolous and mean, and even our serious concern for Spiritual goods can choke off a healthy interaction with the very world through which we must prove our devotion to God. With no easy answers, we must pray our way through the daily shadows, weighing vice, virtue, and prudence — and pondering just when to add those dashes of courage and holy boldness. 

In this regard, I am delighted about the upcoming canonization of John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), a convert from Anglicanism who spent his life pondering the universal call to holiness, and sharing with the world his profound insights on the matter. If you wish to acquaint yourself with his work, an excellent place to start would be his “Plain and Parochial Sermons,” which can be found online or in print. (The entire collection published by Ignatius would make an excellent gift!)

What Newman offers is a simple (and simply elegant) unpacking of the admittedly complex work of Christians in the modern world — be they home with children, in the workplace, or in mission territory — with every page threading the difficult needle between tempting extremes. As a proven pastor of souls, he is understanding but exacting, precise in this explanation, and serious about the faith whose firm boundaries safeguard the life of joy. Each topic is offered from the perspective of one who has slogged through these trenches, catalogued the dangers, and believes his reader, though perhaps distracted or confused, to be entirely capable of profitably putting his hand to the plow. 

October is already a fine month for celebrating many great saints, and after his planned elevation on the 13th — a day already richly blessed by being the feast of the Holy Rosary — Newman’s own commemoration will henceforth be established on October 9, reminding us that there is more than just his words to be read, but his intercession to be claimed. 

Thus, as we return to the tribulations arrayed before us, and which no doubt include our own crippling fears and private disappointments, Newman’s calming advice is to consider how they will seem a year from now or as we lie on our deathbed. Surely, he suggests, that by then “they will be as the faded flowers of a banquet, which do but mock us.” He reminds us that Christians should employ a “dispassionate eye” for these passing events — so many of which are beyond our control. Our response must be founded on the narrow path of virtue, the rigourous standard in all things, for it alone, filtered through these very trials, will set the stage for eternity.

Anchor columnist Genevieve Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at feminine-genius.typepad.com.


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