Archive for December 10th, 2012

Photo of window with wreathDoomsday is Just Around the Corner, Maybe

Just about the time you thought the Mayan calendar scare had gone away, it popped up again in the most unlikely of places. I’m not referring to the Australian prime minister, who solemnly announced on television last week that “the Mayans were right.” That was meant to be a joke. But I’m curious to know how many took her seriously, and what exactly they propose to do about it.

No, I’m referring to the myriad of Russians who are scared to death that the world will end in a couple of weeks — just as the Mayans have predicted. The hysteria has been sufficiently great that the Russian government has intervened to calm public nerves, which has likely compounded the problem. After all, who has ever believed the Russian/Soviet/Tsarist government authorities?

I have no idea why the hoopla died away in the United States, but hardly anyone discusses this topic anymore. Perhaps we couldn’t sustain the attention needed to span those extra weeks until the end came. Or maybe it was boredom with a topic that just couldn’t compete after a month in the marketplace of the news media.

For my part, I’d like to think that I took the rational approach in dealing with the Mayan prediction. Surely I’m not the only one to ask who put the Mayans in charge of deciding when the world would end. Surely I cannot be the only one who has wondered if the Mayans might have been wrong. After all, if they were so smart, why didn’t they predict the end of their own civilization? They should have seen it coming, you’d think.

Monastic Gazebo edAs bizarre as the Mayan affair may be, the human reaction comes as no surprise. We’ve always had a fascination with powers beyond our control, and to appease them we’ve offered bulls and goats and lambs. To get an edge on the future we’ve read the entrails of animals and divined the flights of birds in the sky. We’ve consulted astrologers and fortune-tellers, read horoscopes and palms, and practiced white and black magic. And we all have our private superstitions, which have an infallibility beyond anything the pope has ever claimed. But behind it all is the nagging fear that we have very little power to change the cosmos or alter the course of destiny. To use the frightening title of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, we are “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” And to buy our way out from under that God we will do most anything — anything except change our inner selves.

IMG_1305copy[1]As much as we might try to appease the gods, it’s never really brought much peace of mind. Historians have written of the age of anxiety — the centuries on either side of Jesus — when people sought to placate the gods, but could never be sure of success. Had they done enough? Had they performed the rituals exactly as prescribed? Had they inadvertently offended the deity? When you consider all that, no wonder people were anxious. And that scenario still drives the scrupulous person today — and not a few of the rest of us as well.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus rejected such an approach, and therein is the import of their message. Both taught that at the end of the day no bull or goat on the altar could do much of anything to appease God. Nor would any magic formula compel God to forgive us and leave us alone. None of that cause-and-effect religious system mattered, because what God wants is a pure heart. All God wants is repentance and a willingness to turn to God. And all we get in return is love.

Breuer ResidenceUltimately the apostles carried that message to the ends of the earth. And the message of repentance and love allayed the anxieties of an awful lot of people who had wondered what they could ever do to appease an irascible and unpredictable God. “Nothing” was the answer. “God saves you for free” was their consoling message. It’s still a challenge to believe that all God wants from us is a pure heart. It’s so much easier to try and strike a bargain with God. It’s so much more rational to make promises that we will keep, if God will only grant our wishes. But God must be chuckling as our proposals come wafting up to heaven. “Who do they think I am?”

Snow in the Church Cloister GardenOn the second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist urges people to make a path for the Lord to enter into their lives. That’s easier said than done, until you realize the futility of negotiating with God. God is not going to cede to us control of the cosmos, no matter what we offer in return. But in the meantime God is willing to love us, and therein is the path to true stability in our lives.

In some respects the Mayan scare comes as a refreshing break from the modern prophets of doom that crop up with boring regularity. Still, even if I did believe that the world was going to end on a set day, I’m not sure what I would do differently — other than try to believe God loves me. In fact, there’s little I would do proactively, though there might be a few things I wouldn’t do. On the outside chance that the Mayans accidentally got it right, I’m tempted not to do my Christmas cards until after their deadline. Other than that, I don’t know.

Emmaus Hall ed+Personal notes

On December 6th I and Dr. Michael Hemesath, president of Saint John’s University, were in Scottsdale, AZ, to attend a reception for friends and alumni of the University. It was a fine evening, with some sixty-five guests in attendance.

On that same day the Abbey church was the scene of the funeral for Officer Thomas Decker, of nearby Cold Spring, MN, who had been killed in the line of duty a few days before. He was a member of Saint Boniface Parish, where our confrere Fr. Cletus Connors serves as pastor. Because of the huge crowds that were expected, Fr. Cletus presided at the funeral Mass in the much larger Abbey church. In addition to the governor and one of our U.S. Senators, some 3,000+ people attended the service.

Quad Tower edOn December 5th His Beatitude Ignatius Hazim IV, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, died at the age of 92. Ten years ago I had the privilege of visiting with the Patriarch at his home in Beirut, and on the wall in my office hangs a wonderful photo of the two of us, taken that day. Through the years the Patriarch was very helpful and supportive of the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, which has now completed projects in Lebanon and Syria. In the course of those projects he visited Saint John’s to receive the Pax Christi Award.

On Saturday December 8th I had the opportunity to go and see the movie “Lincoln.” I found the first half of the film mesmerizing, and I recommend it highly. I cannot say as much for the second half, largely because the power in the theater went out and everyone finally gave up and went home. I am hoping that Lincoln succeeded in abolishing slavery and that the Civil War finally came to an end. But I don’t know for sure, since people have been kind enough not to tell me the ending.

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