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BY Mark Shea
Neither the fervently religious nor the militantly secular atheist will ever have lasting political power in the West, since neither side will ever be able to wrest control from the mediocre and nominally religious. The West will always be ruled by those who call themselves Christian in phone surveys, usually baptize their children and have nice church weddings, and go to a service once or twice a year, if they get around to it.
The nominally religious are those for whom neither religion nor atheism is of much interest. I’m reminded of an old friar who loved to quote St. Thomas’s comment on the Apostle Thomas when he saw the resurrected Lord. The Apostle said, “My Lord and my God,” but Aquinas says, “He saw one thing and said another,” that is, he saw one thing with his eyes and said another by the light of faith. The old friar explained that the Apostle could have just as easily said, “O, I never knew you had a twin brother” or “O, you got better quickly” or “Wow, I have no idea what is going on here.” All these responses would be much more in keeping with his skeptical nature. But the response of the mediocre religious would be something like saying, in a warmly pleasant way, “O, you’re alive!” which he would certainly say with a warm and sincere smile. After leaving the upper room and resuming his affairs, he would think about the event now and again, and bring it up as an interesting story to his friends, who would themselves smile and nod warmly and sincerely, saying, “How interesting! I always knew there was something special about him!”
...I always think of the old saying, “The average person is average.” I can’t help but wonder how the gospel resolves the fact that it calls us to extraordinary sanctity while calling the radically substandard, of whom I am the exemplar of substandardness. I think it’s one of the reasons we are told not to judge. We simply have no idea where the saints are in that statistical mix. The parables of the net and of wheat and the tares emphatically underscore that the Church is “Here comes everybody” while the sayings about the broad and narrow ways emphatically underscore that a hell of a lot is asked of that everybody.
I do sometimes fancy that, in fact, thousands of people saw the Risen Christ on that Easter morning and that the apostles are just the ones who realized what it meant instead of saying, “Huh” or “That’s odd” and going back to their blintzes in the marketplace. I’ve just finished writing a study guide about the apparitions at Fatima, which concluded with as spectacular and well-attested a miracle as modernity could possibly ask for. And yet, today, nobody in mainstream culture is particularly interested in it. We’re talking “Sun dancing in the sky before 70,000 awestruck eyewitnesses, including scoffing atheists” levels of miraculous awesomeness. Prophecies about the rise of communism, World War II, the assassination attempt on the Pope: the whole 20th century summarized in a single forecast. Really cinematic stuff that is exactly what any atheist could hope for in the whole, “If God is real, then let him do some big splashy miracle in front of a huge number of witnesses!” department.
And yet, nobody much cares about it today. It’s a little footnote to history in a civilization that no longer knows any history. It illustrates powerfully what the Church means when it says that faith is a gift and that apart from it, all the miracles in the world won’t make any difference. The Pharisees were eyewitnesses to plenty of miracles, but they just bounced off their eyeballs and fell dead to the ground because the Pharisees refused the gift of faith, sometimes with extreme prejudice (as in “What? Lazarus was raised from the dead? Then let’s kill him and Jesus!” levels of blindness to the bleedin’ obvious). Seeing a miracle, even the raising of Lazarus, won’t save you any more than seeing a sign that says “Seattle 10 miles” will get you to Seattle if you refuse to go. What our age needs desperately is the faith to see what is in front of our noses. For we do not suffer for lack of signs from Jesus, but from our own refusal to read them.
And so, it behooves us, like the man said, to “Repent and believe in the gospel!” Lent is all about giving up mediocrity and it’s never too late to start. As Leon Bloy said, “In the end of life there exists only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.”