What Sort of Story Are We In?
Joy, said Chesterton, is the small publicity of the pagan, but the gigantic secret of the Christian. This somewhat mysterious remark was brought into sharp clarity for me by, of all things, the memory of a Twilight Zone episode I saw long ago. A two-bit thieving murderer gets gunned down in a back alley after a heist and wakes up in some snazzy place resembling Las Vegas, full of glitter, girls and gold. He is informed by his impeccably dressed host that he has come into his eternal reward, so he proceeds to make it with the ladies, gamble to his heart's content, and generally live the high life. However, he begins to notice something: he's bored. The chicks all swoon for him, the dice all come up lucky sevens, everything is perfect... and he hates it. Finally, he complains to the host that if this Heaven, he'd rather go to "the other place." The host laughs mockingly and informs the man, "This is the other place."
In short, little pleasures don't mean diddly if the story ends badly. We learned that when we snitched from the cookie jar and got a tummy ache. It's the tragedy Adam and Eve lived when they snitched from the cookie jar of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and discovered that the goodness of the cookies did not help the badness of their distrust of God.
But, of course, that primordial catastrophe is not the end of the story, only the thickening of the plot. As Catholics, we know that the story will take many twists and turns from there, get very rough in patches, and not resemble at all a trip to a casino where all the bets are sure, all the girls are babes, all the men are hunks and everything tastes like chocolate. On the contrary, we are guaranteed things like persecution, crucifixion, suffering and the normal human lot. But we are also guaranteed something else if we endure with Christ to the end: eternal joy.
In short, the Christian story is the opposite sort of story from that of the unfortunate Twilight Zone thief. It is the story of a race--the all-too-human race--who endure tragedy after tragedy and yet find out at the end of the story that they are in Heaven. Instead of being a catastrophe as it seemed to be, the Christian story is what J.R.R. Tolkien called a Eucatastrophe or "good catastrophe." It is a story which, for all its plot complications and intervening calamities, begins and ends in joy.
This grasp of "how the story ends" is essential for understanding what we ought to put our hope in. At the beginning of this century, everything looked as rosy as a snazzy casino in Hell. Science, the State and Progress would, we were assured, create a heaven on earth in just a few short years. This caused Pope Leo XIII to regard the coming 20th Century with dread. The whole world was living, not in hope of Christ, but in certainty of Progress, Science, and the Future. We had lost sight of what sort of world we live in and, thinking we could make it Heaven, succeeded in making it a Hell of war, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, gulags, killing fields, ecological calamity, hunger, plague and social disaster to an unprecedented degree.
We no longer believe so confidently in Science, Progress and so forth. As one wag said, "The future ain't what it used to be." And indeed, we are faced with a rising generation who talk a great deal about having no future and who no longer believe in "onward, upward, better and better."
Many people see in this nothing but despair. But John Paul II, with counter-cultural insight like his predecessor Leo, saw rather the seedbed for a "springtime of evangelization". Why? Because recognition that there never was any true hope to pin on in this world is, in its way, a step toward wisdom which our great-grandparents foolishly did not take. It can be a very good prelude to asking, "Where then is hope?"
The Catholic Faith has an answer to that question. "Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth. where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be."