On Keeping Faith In Dark Times...
by Noel E. Bordador
I just turned 56, and I find myself shedding my naiveté that we- that is, humanity- are ever on a march towards spiritual and moral progress. I used to think that we’re becoming a better species. I’m not so sure anymore. A few examples. Where I am currently living, 30,000 people have been killed in the last four years in the Philippine government’s War on Drugs, and the killings continue daily. The young democracy the nation fought for in the late 1980s when it overthrew the dictatorship is turning into a fascist state. People seem not to care about human rights, or human liberties. There is silence among the people about the atrocities committed. If polls are to be believed, it seems that 80% agree with what the government is doing.
In the United States, where I am a citizen, President Trump seems bent on weakening, if not destroying, the institutions of our democracy. How did we get to the point where the elected President appears to engage in illegal and unethical behaviors, and gets away with it? How did we as a nation of immigrants come to a point of building concentration camps for those seeking refuge and asylum? How did we get to the point where political survival and fake news- and not science- determine our approach to the pandemic, resulting to more than 200,000 deaths? A Canadian mayor of a town bordering Michigan recently remarked that he feels that he is “watching the decline of the Roman Empire.”
I’ve been an activist for most of my adult life. Yeah, I believe in what Gandhi said (I still do): “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Because of my experience of homophobia, racism and xenophobia, I’ve been trying to change the world, fighting for people’s rights: LGBTQ rights, gender equality, racial justice, immigrants rights, rights for people with HIV/AIDS, or even fighting for victims of America’s wars. Hubris?
I used to think that as a nation we were progressing and will continue to progress in our journey towards justice. But I’m not so sure anymore. God, I hope I’m not right.
Frankly, there is a part of me that is exhausted. Maybe it’s my age that has worn down the idealism of my youth. It’s too heavy a burden to carry this work of changing the world for the better. I can detect a certain creeping self-protective temptation to retire and withdraw into a cocoon and say, “Alright, I’ve done all that I can, let the younger generation take over.” I find myself fantasizing of building a hermitage by a beach far away from people- just by myself, my God and my books.
Recently, I’ve been reading the story of an Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), an Anglo-Catholic lesbian and Christian ‘socialist’. Though she was an Episcopalian, I doubt that many in the Episcopal Church (and outside of it) know of her even though of late she has recently made it to the Episcopal ‘calendar of saints.’ I wasn’t planning to read about her. She’s not on my top authors to read. But I am sure God led me to it.
I was despairing of all the bad political news I’ve been hearing both here and in the USA. I was feeling depressed. I didn’t know what to do except what I usually do- pray! I was praying, and was bringing to God my sadness, hopelessness and exhaustion. After my poor and distracted prayer, I just randomly picked up from my bookshelf an unread used book I purchased a couple of years and it led me to read a section on Scudder.
As a Christian social reformer, Scudder spent most of her adult life in activism. She started her activism deeply imbued with optimism for humanity and the world. But as she got older, she realized that things were not getting any better. And even as she tried harder, she felt progress in social justice was beyond reach. She became frustrated, and disillusioned. She felt a huge guilt, felt like failure, and exhausted, her moral vision began to dim. All these led to a physical and mental collapse and she had to take a break from her activism in order to recover. She left America temporarily to recuperate in Europe.
While in Florence, Italy, Scudder became acquainted with the life of the 14th century Saint Catherine of Siena. Catherine- proclaimed Doctor of the Church in 1970- was a great Christian contemplative who was also an activist. Catherine worked tirelessly for church and social reforms because she had a vision of a renewed world based on Christian ideals. But her mission eventually was not successful. Some even would say her mission ended up in catastrophe because despite of all her efforts, nothing changed. The church and politics remained mired in conflict and corruption. But Catherine was not destroyed. Oh sure she terribly agonized about the state of her world, but her faith and hope did not diminish her spiritual vision of a renewed world and renewed humanity that she carried with her to her grave.
In Catherine, Scudder found consolation. No, Scudder did not find the optimism she had lost and sorely missed, nor did she find a promise of a future filled with success. Rather, in Catherine she found that failure and defeat are a fate of activists, reformers and saints. With Catherine, she found a companion in failure and defeat. Scudder realized that she did not have to feel guilty about her failures and defeats. She did what she could with all her might, and now she needed to trust that God was in all that! The biographer of Scudder said that in Catherine, Scudder realized that “God did not require that [she] create a new earth; her desire for it was sufficient.”1 In fact, “…[t]he God of infinite love was less demanding than her own conscience.”2
Can we forgive ourselves for our failures? Can we forgive ourselves for our defeats? We must, for the God of infinite love is less demanding that the tyranny of our conscience. As we face our own defeats and failures despite our zeal for justice and our fervor to bring heaven down on earth, we must have, in the darkness of faith, trust that our desires and efforts are an acceptable sacrifice pleasing to God- regardless of the results or even if the result is defeat.
Eventually, Scudder wrote a biographical novel on the life of Saint Catherine. In reflecting on the unfinished work of Catherine, she reflected on her own unfinished work in light of the Cross. Failure and defeat must be accepted yet radically interpreted to have meaning in light of the Cross. Our failure, our defeat are a participation in the Cross of Christ. Our failure and defeats are a participation in the redeeming love of Jesus whose earthly life also ended in failure and defeat of the Cross. In the words of Scudder,
Christ [is] forever lifted up upon the Cross, that He may draw all men unto Him. Nails would not have held Him there had not love held Him; and they who love are nailed there by his side. Still His sacrifice endures, and still His faithful feed on it, that they may be one with it. Where is sacrifice, there is the Church…I say that they who are one with Christ through the Sacrament of Unity, who with him lay down their lives for the healing of the peoples, shall never perish from off the face of the earth. Their sacrifice is their Eucharist, their failure is victory, their dying is the life of the world.3
There is a story that one day, Catherine, after receiving Communion, saw a Crucifix coming alive, and rays shot out from the Cross and pierced her. She received the wounds of Christ.
Maybe we won’t see rays coming off the Crucifix that hang on our wall. But why shouldn’t we receive the same ray of defeat and failure of the Cross?
What drives us to go on even when we lose is none other than love. The love of Christ manifested in our love of neighbor through our works of justice and mercy is what holds us fastened to the Cross- not the promise of success, not power, not glory. We nail ourselves to the Cross through love that gives, love that sacrifices, love that nourishes, love that heals and love that gives life.
Without such love, the world is truly doomed, and who can stand to live in a world that is devoid of love? … Not me.
Yes, if we must rest for a moment, let us take the time. If we must take a break, let us do so. If we need a respite, slow down, take some time off. But not a permanent time off because…
Love is what the world needs…
Love is what give beauty to the world…and
Love will save the world…
1 Bernard Markwell (1991). The Anglican Left. New York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 203.
©2020 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Episcopal priest in the Philippines. He runs Nazareth House, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for persons with HIV/AIDS in Manila.
Art: Saint Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata by Domenico Beccafumi c.1514
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