Broken Dreams

The people of Thailand awoke this morning to find that they are under martial law, although the Army has denied anything as definite as a military coup. The situation in Ukraine seems ever more desperate; and if we look at the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, the ‘Arab Spring’ that so excited Western journalists has turned, by and large, to a bleak and unpromising winter. Not so long ago, the economic ‘growth miracles’ being hailed in Europe and the U.S.A. proved they were no such thing and ushered in a long and dreary period of financial failure and business collapse. Yet still we dream of a better tomorrow. The shape our dream takes is determined by our own ambitions, fears, desires, but the common element is always that the future will be an improvement on the present.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it can make us complacent or unappreciative of the present. Christians are not immune. As we look forward with hope to eternal life, we can ignore or pay too little attention to what is happening here and now. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ is one we must all learn to celebrate. We cannot live in the past nor in the future: now is all we have, so we must make sure it is a good ‘now’ — not in any self-indulgent, vapid way, but as the time given us for a reason and a purpose.

St Benedict, as you might expect, has quite a lot to say on this subject. Today, for example, in RB 4. 22–43, he lists among the tools of good works several that concern inner and outer truthfulness and control over one’s appetites. We cannot put off doing good till tomorrow: our salvation must be worked out today. There is an urgency about his insistence on living virtuously because it affects not just us but everyone with whom we come into contact. His prayer towards the end of the Rule is that we may all be brought to everlasting life (RB 72.12). All, without exception. That is a big dream to have, and one that, please God, will not end as broken.

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Dying to Self and Unassuming Holiness

Most of us will have heard, at some time or other, uplifting little talks about the importance of dying to self in order to follow Christ. Today the Church celebrates someone who did just that, and so completely that he remains a somewhat shadowy figure: St Joseph, husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus, patron of the dying and pattern of unassuming holiness. In the Middle Ages he was often treated as a figure of fun, but from the seventeenth century onwards his greatness has been more generally recognized. Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph was a man of dreams and singular purity of life whose mission was to hear and obey the word of God and to protect the family entrusted to his care. His kind of holiness is one we can all aspire to. It is the holiness of everyday life, of family and work, and lets us see being a ‘background person’ for what it truly is: a way of allowing Christ to take centre stage so that he may be all in all.

I think there is a close connection between Joseph’s role as a father and his role as patron of the dying. Fatherhood isn’t easy, nor is dying. Joseph had to lay aside all his own dreams of happiness when he accepted the role God had marked out for him. He taught Jesus how to be a man; how to conduct himself in the company of others; how to be tender towards women and children; how to stand up for what was right in the face of opposition; and ultimately, how to die. When Jesus hung upon the Cross and turned to his heavenly Father, it was with the honesty and trust he had learned from Joseph. He did not hide his pain, nor did he seek a way out. He surrendered his life as, many years earlier, Joseph had surrendered his, that the Father’s will might be done. We have much to thank Joseph for, and much to learn from him, too.

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