Recently I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and I have been meditating upon it ever since.
The book is a memoir of sorts describing the author’s journey from poverty to Yale Law School. What I found particularly helpful were his insights into the experience and perspective of being transplanted from Appalachia. Vance’s narrative is a fascinating account into the culture of the invisible poor of our nation — those often uncharitably dismissed as “poor white trash.”
What he attempts, however, is to offer not just a lament, but insight into how such conditions arose — and, more importantly, how the cycle of violence and poverty can be overcome. For Vance, the solution is ultimately not to be found in more programs or policies, but in taking real responsibility for one’s life. While not denying the systemic issues at work in our society that impede opportunities for many people, Vance’s contention is that the real problem facing his community of origin, and by extension others that emerge from his milieu, is a failure to hold themselves accountable for their actions. Thus for him, the assumption of responsibility is the path to hope and transformation.
I could not help but think that this is precisely the human problem and dates back to our origins. The Fathers of the Church recognized that it is in our freedom (and thus in our capacity to respond) that we find our image and likeness to God. Freedom (with its concomitant ability to be responsible) is the source of our true nobility and dignity as persons. Sin strikes us at this very level.
Our fall was the divorce between freedom and responsibility. Indeed, according to Genesis, when our first parents were confronted by God with their transgression, they immediately evaded responsibility. Adam no longer refers to Eve as “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone” but “the woman you gave me.” Thus God and “the woman”, not Adam, are made responsible for his disobedience. Eve, however, is not much better. In her mind, only the serpent is to blame. Thus the genealogy of sin and evil can be traced back to avoidance of responsibility.
By contrast, the story of the Annunciation reveals the path to salvation. The Archangel Gabriel addresses Our Lady as the one “full of grace.” What can this possibly mean? At the very least, St. Luke is telling us that grace is the power to respond. The Immaculate Virgin is free from the wound of Original Sin and thus allows grace to enter into the totality of her being. What we are presented with in the portrait of Mary is the responsible person — literally, the one who is response-able. The fullness of grace bestowed upon her gives our Blessed Mother the capacity to respond to God’s Word with her whole being. She courageously assumes responsibility for her role in the sacred drama and in so doing becomes the true Mother of the Living.
Our Lady must be our model. Like her, we Catholics have been given grace upon grace. God has given us His Son who still comes among us in Word and Sacrament. The Church can be described too as full of grace and therefore, the response-able community.
The plight Vance describes in Hillbilly Elegy will continue to curse humanity as long as men and women avoid the responsibility God entrusted to them as stewards of creation. More so now, than ever, in a culture of blame and avoidance, Catholics must take responsibility for this world. In this New Year, let us be full of grace and permit ourselves to be the responsible people of God and thus true sons and daughter of our blessed Mother.
Mary Seat of Wisdom, ora pro nobis.