"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The question really is: to be or not to be?

Over at Glory to God For All Things, Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman has a terrific post entitled Resting in God. Starting with a poem by George Herbert, one of my favorite poets, Fr. Freeman interweaves several themes like the skilled preacher he is. The one that struck me most is that "the world," meaning the once-Christian world, is "weary." Thus:

There is a weariness of a world which no longer rejoices in the birth of children, only of a child, who, alone, will bear the brunt of all a family’s hopes, if hopes there be. But now our world shrinks, as Malthusian fears triumph and children are heard less and less. And with the divorce comes the blessing, “At least they had no children.”

Children are a marvelous gift of God. My parish is beginning to flourish with children and pregnant women. It is a noise I had almost forgotten as my own children have slowly grown into quiet, thinking, mostly adults. But in Western Country after Western Country, birthrates continue to shrink. Excuses such as overpopulation and the like come easily when the truth is that children “cost too much” and they’re “ever so much bother.” Surely it cannot be that the post-Christian nations of the world are so good that they have birth-controlled themselves out of existence and yet that is the claim....

John Paul II once spoke of the “culture of death” when he described the West. We’re not so much the culture of death as the culture that isn’t living. Sure, we kill plenty of people and would kill many more if only electorates would let us. Fewer elderly and fewer unborn would somehow make things better. There would be “less suffering.” But the goodness that afflicts us is the goodness that bears no fruit. Sex that has no purpose - wealth with nothing to buy and no one to buy it for.

Some are writing today of a “clash of civilizations,” but that would presume that there are at least two civilizations involved. Ours is weary, deeply weary. We can only pray that it draws us to God’s breast and not to the yawning emptiness that we create for ourselves.

Quite so, and it sounds the same existential theme that the Pope did in his review of 2006:

The Visit to Valencia, Spain, was under the banner of the theme of marriage and the family. It was beautiful to listen, before the people assembled from all continents, to the testimonies of couples -- blessed by a numerous throng of children -- who introduced themselves to us and spoke of their respective journeys in the Sacrament of Marriage and in their large families.

They did not hide the fact that they have also had difficult days, that they have had to pass through periods of crisis. Yet, precisely through the effort of supporting one another day by day, precisely through accepting one another ever anew in the crucible of daily trials, living and suffering to the full their initial "yes", precisely on this Gospel path of "losing oneself", they had matured, rediscovered themselves and become happy. Their "yes" to one another in the patience of the journey and in the strength of the Sacrament with which Christ had bound them together, had become a great "yes" to themselves, their children, to God the Creator and to the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Thus, from the witness of these families a wave of joy reached us, not a superficial and scant gaiety that is all too soon dispelled, but a joy that developed also in suffering, a joy that reaches down to the depths and truly redeems man.

Before these families with their children, before these families in which the generations hold hands and the future is present, the problem of Europe, which it seems no longer wants to have children, penetrated my soul. To foreigners this Europe seems to be tired, indeed, it seems to be wishing to take its leave of history. Why are things like this? This is the great question. The answers are undoubtedly very complex. Before seeking these answers, it is only right to thank the many married couples in our Europe who still say "yes" to children today and accept the trials that this entails: social and financial problems, as well as worries and struggles, day after day; the dedication required to give children access to the path towards the future. In mentioning these difficulties, perhaps the reasons also become clearer why for many the risk of having children appears too great.

A child needs loving attention. This means that we must give children some of our time, the time of our life. But precisely this "raw material" of life -- time -- seems to be ever scarcer. The time we have available barely suffices for our own lives; how could we surrender it, give it to someone else? To have time and to give time - this is for us a very concrete way to learn to give oneself, to lose oneself in order to find oneself.

In addition to this problem comes the difficult calculation: what rules should we apply to ensure that the child follows the right path and in so doing, how should we respect his or her freedom? The problem has also become very difficult because we are no longer sure of the norms to transmit; because we no longer know what the correct use of freedom is, what is the correct way to live, what is morally correct and what instead is inadmissible.

The modern spirit has lost its bearings, and this lack of bearings prevents us from being indicators of the right way to others. Indeed, the problem goes even deeper. Contemporary man is insecure about the future. Is it permissible to send someone into this uncertain future? In short, is it a good thing to be a person? This deep lack of self assurance -- plus the wish to have one's whole life for oneself -- is perhaps the deepest reason why the risk of having children appears to many to be almost unsustainable. In fact, we can transmit life in a responsible way only if we are able to pass on something more than mere biological life, and that is, a meaning that prevails even in the crises of history to come and a certainty in the hope that is stronger than the clouds that obscure the future.

Unless we learn anew the foundations of life - unless we discover in a new way the certainty of faith -- it will be less and less possible for us to entrust to others the gift of life and the task of an unknown future.

The question for Europe, and for other countries where the birth rate among the native population is below replacement level, is simple: is our life, our civilization, worth passing on? The question has really become: to be or not to be? It is no longer just drama, as in Hamlet; it is no longer the preserve of bright, tortured adolescents and of philosophers safe in their tenured chairs. It concerns all of us, and we answer it by the concrete choices we make.

As of now, the existential question seems to be getting answered largely in the negative. I find that astonishing. At a time of unprecedented progress in technology, increase in wealth, and political freedom, people apparently would rather disappear than believe and live by what the Church, for two millennia, has proposed as "the foundations of life." The tragic irony of that is the most powerful bit of evidence now available in favor of what the Church proposes.
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