As a city dweller, sirens make up my ambience. They’re simultaneously the din of modernity and the comfort of civilizational protection, depending largely on whether we’re the person who called them.
When we do surrender to make that call, it’s with desperation, at a moment when time crawls and we’re faced with how alone we are. We are more conscious in this moment of our own vulnerabilities and limitations than we are as we glide through our lives from one distraction to another, never pausing to reflect upon our greater duties.
Modern society is built around avoiding silence. There’s no time for solitude, is there? There’s certainly no desire for it. When the frenetic pace of the day draws to a close, then is the time to sleep. But sleep and rest are not the same.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The modern man cannot remember the last time he sat alone with his thoughts. One would have to power down the cell phone to halt the constant flurry of beeps that clamor for our attention, turn off the TV, and separate briefly from other members of the household. It requires conscious choice in the contemporary world, effort even.
But why choose time in solitude at all? Is it even something to be desired? It’s surely easier to allow the constant seesaw between interruptions to consume our lives. But then we can’t hear God. We can’t evaluate our lives, or let Him show us our errors. If we don’t reflect, are we growing, are we maturing, or are we just aging?
Catholics are supposed to be growing in the Lord. Said differently, we should be growing into whom He would have us be. That requires a willingness to listen and the silence that enables us to hear His voice. The pace and volume of typical modern lives don’t facilitate the stillness that’s required to understand who we are supposed to be, or in which direction we should be going. This is not to say that some scheduled prayer will tell anyone what his life should look like in its entirety, but it can tell us what we should do differently tomorrow. That’s a starting point, and it’s about as much as any of us can manage anyway.
In today’s world, most of the battles that beleaguer our finite time aren’t going to matter to us when, on our deathbed, we reflect upon our lives one last time before meeting God face-to-face. Most likely, in our final moments, we will struggle to remember how our daily battles started, who lost or who won, or whether the battle was worth fighting at all. Aren’t we more likely to reflect on the good we left undone as we wonder where the time of our lives went?
Instead of living and laboring mindfully now, so as to forestall insuperable regrets on our deathbed, we tend rather to labor in a kind of timeless middle, trying to fight the crisis of today “one day at a time,” neither examining yesterday nor preparing for tomorrow. Are we sure that this is the best that we can do? So sure that we will bet our mortal and eternal life upon that certainty?
Fr. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., wrote that,
The grace of God which comes like a seed in the liturgy of the word and in the eucharistic sacrament, or in a session of shared prayer, or in spiritual conversation, produces its richest fruits only in quiet reflection and silent interior prayer.
It is after this solitary reflection that one is best equipped to join with those dear to us and share our plans, thoughts, and our very selves. It is only after such prayer and solitude that we are able to grow, which is essential if we are to be all that we are supposed to be for our loved ones, and to reflect God to them, which is our duty.
While there has never been a utopian period, there were things of the past that are gone now and which we rightly lament. There were more occasions of quiet. Families read real books, and told stories, and wrote poetry of their own. These times required thought and, to borrow a modern phrase, “self-understanding”—not as a synonym for self-admiration, as it’s often used, but in the more literal sense.
So many of us don’t fully know what we believe and why because we rarely stop to organize our thoughts so that we might articulate and evaluate them better. Discussing contrasting ideas is actively discouraged in the modern world, which means that argument (not to be confused with quarreling) is a lost art. Our society suffers as a consequence. It’s normal now to scream in catchphrases that one has heard on television and which resonated with us for their pithiness; but that’s not thinking. It’s not even arguing. It’s regurgitation.
We have all seen people break down, especially college students, when they encounter unexpected alternative viewpoints. Their reactions are often visceral, almost primal. Videos of such people screeching in the streets are not uncommon. It’s a reaction that is born from an inability to articulate their stances outside of slogan-hurling. They weren’t taught to think but merely to repeat. When that fails, they lose control.
When we spend time in thought, away from the crowds that activate our defensive egos, we may be able to spot areas that we don’t understand well, identify holes in the logic that we have heard, and reassess perspectives. We might find that we are wrong about something; and if we are, we should want to know.
The late Antonin Scalia once told a graduating high school class during a commencement address,
I am here to tell you that it is much less important how committed you are than what you are committed to. If I have to choose, I will undoubtedly take the less dynamic, indeed even the lazy person, who knows what’s right, than the zealot in the cause of error. He may move slower, but he’s headed in the right direction.
Simply believing in something is not enough. One must embrace what is true—and making sure that we are doing so requires thought, examination, and challenge. While passion is nowadays lauded as a virtue, passion in the form of misguided emotionalism helps no one. The 20th century would have been better if Joseph Stalin had been a little less passionate. Yet, our society excels at and thrives on fomenting unreasoned and unbounded passions, on emotions. Emotions without reason are dangerous. Irrational emotionalism results in vengeance instead of justice, hubris over truth. It’s the elevation of man’s ego over God’s righteousness.
Restoring truth to its proper pride of place, thereby dethroning vacuous catchphrases, will not happen in a day, but it must happen. We cannot demand that the world adjust to what needs to be done and expect it to do so, but we can begin by fixing ourselves. We can commit to time in silence, spend time evaluating ourselves in prayer, and think through the important issues of the day. Then, having exercised the time and effort in striving for the truth, we will be most prepared to join with others in searching for it. Real arguments are the joining together with other minds in the hunt for whatever the truth is, on any topic, not an ego wrestle. It’s this that we have lost.
If we do not take this time in solitude and prayer, if we do not join with others in re-learning what conversation and argument are, then an intelligent man of the modern age has no benefit over a simpleton, and an heir of the West (as we all are) has no advantage over the primitive tribesman. In such a case, we deny our duty as the stewards of our God-given gifts and inheritance.