The Better Angels of Our Nature

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Consider your ways!  You have sown much, but have brought in little; you have eaten, but have not been satisfied; you have drunk, but have not been exhilarated; have clothed yourselves, but not been warmed; and whoever earned wages earned them for a bag with holes in it.

Haggai 1: 5-7

For twenty minutes each morning, I watch the morning news to catch up on the major events of the day. Given the habit of watching the same newscasters each day, their modes of presence and expression have become familiar to me — a certain somewhat forced congeniality with each other and ostensibly with their audience, combined with a somewhat cynical distance from the situations and persons they are reporting on. Yesterday morning, there was an almost startling difference in their demeanor. The smiles were authentic and, instead of distance, there was a palpable enthusiasm and warmth in their expression regarding the events they were not only reporting on but participating in. The events, of course, were those of Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, DC. In fact, as the Pope arrived at the White House in the back seat of his humble Fiat, the reporter expressed that she was “feeling goosebumps” as the crowd surged toward the area which the Pope’s vehicle was approaching.

Perhaps it is but for a moment, but something extraordinary is occurring in our nation’s capital. The words from Haggai, so descriptive of much of the bored, tedious, and cynical tone of our public life, stand in stark contrast to the experience of these hours of the Pope’s presence among us. For a brief time, the presence of such an authentic witness to the gospel and to the love of God in Jesus for all of us has evoked, in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, “the better angels of our nature.”

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Haggai describes a life of survival, of eating without being satisfied, of clothing ourselves without feeling warmth, of drinking without celebrating, of earning money without love and enjoyment. It sounds very much like our lives to the degree that they are motivated by a fear that reduces our hearts’ desires to those of merely survival and consumption rather than the love that responds to our aspirations for communion, peace, and joy. Yet, our deeper desires and possibilities are never all that far away. When a reporter whose typical presence to the situations and persons on which she is reporting is suspicious and cynical now reports “feeling goosebumps,” we well might ask what precisely has happened. One who usually stands distant from the experience seems to have been drawn into and transformed by it. Perhaps one way to understand this is to recognize how the presence of a truly authentic and loving person summons in us our own authenticity and the childlikeness that is its expression.

All along the route of Pope Francis’ travels, we have witnessed, and participated in, the overflow of the love and the hope that lie deeply, and often obscurely, in the human heart. We have witnessed in each other and recognized in ourselves the longing to believe: to believe that human life is so much more than the impoverished version we live out in our daily experience, and to dare to “be in love” with each other, our world, and God in accord with the deepest and truest desire of our hearts. These hours are, to be sure, but a moment in time. Yet, they remind us of the power that lies within each of us to evoke the love and authenticity in those around us that is longing to burst forth. What is asked of us is not “to settle” for a life that is so much less than the gift we have been given. It is, rather, to live our ordinary but blessed day to day life with the kind of authenticity and love that we might serve that time when, as Lincoln hoped, “The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, “in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith”. This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.

Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that the Church’s moral teaching has its own “hierarchy”, in the virtues and in the acts which proceed from them. What counts above all else is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Works of love directed to one’s neighbour are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: “The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love”. Thomas thus explains that, as far as external works are concerned, mercy is the greatest of all the virtues: “In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree”.

It is important to draw out the pastoral consequences of the Council’s teaching, which reflects an ancient conviction of the Church. First, it needs to be said that in preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained. This would be seen in the frequency with which certain themes are brought up and in the emphasis given to them in preaching. For example, if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catechesis are overlooked. The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.

Pope Francis, Evangelli Gaudium, 36-38

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