A passage from JRR Tolkien has always stuck out in my mind since I remember encountering it:
“The Hobbits named it the Shire, as the region of the authority of their Thain, and a district of well-ordered business; and there in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living, and they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved, until they came to think that peace and plenty were the rule in Middle-earth and the right of all sensible folk. They forgot or ignored what little they had ever known of the Guardians, and of the labours of those that made possible the long peace of the Shire. They were, in fact, sheltered, but they had ceased to remember it.” (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring)
I am a 21st-Century American. I imagine that most of people who read these articles are the same (though perhaps I have a few international readers). My generation has been blessed to be like the Hobbits of the Shire, who have lived in relative peace and prosperity. That is not to downplay all of the serious troubles that we have experienced, nor the outrages of events like 9/11.
But events in the last few months remind us how so many people around the world do share in the stability that we have in our country. All of us, I’m sure, were horrified as people of Afghanistan surrounded the airports hoping to flee the Taliban. And that same horror resurfaced as we witness the invasion of Ukraine. In the latter, someone pointed out that this was the largest deployment of troops since World War II.
For the first time this year, I have been employed to teach a world history course. I have long been a student of history, so this has been a dream come true. Trying to distill the human experience into a single school year has been a challenge. But one of the things that I have noticed and my students have picked up on is how utterly violent and dark much of human history is.
The story of the human history is mostly one of war, repression, poverty, and violence. One war leads into another, which leads into another, into a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence. I am not saying this to be fatalistic. History is also filled with people who bring love, peace and reform, like Our Lord or St. Francis of Assisi, or Pope St. John Paul II. Yet most people in the world live in an instability caused by the looming threat of violence. It is difficult to imagine having to take up arms to repel a foreign invading army in our streets.
This week we will be coming upon Ash Wednesday. This day is an important time to remember that this world is often a place of scarcity and pain. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust and we will return to the dust. This means that ultimately, the things of the world are dust. As St. Paul writes, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…” (Phil 3:8). If the things of this world do not someone how bring us closer to God and to each other, then they too are dust.
CS Lewis once said that “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.” Our relative prosperity and peace in the US may act a spiritual lullaby to make us drowsy to the business of the soul and dream only of the business of our own comfort.
This is one of the reasons that the holy season of Lent is so important. We may have ready access to food, but voluntarily sacrifice. We may many material blessings, but we choose not to indulge. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is to remind us that peace and prosperity are not the norm. Most of the rest of the world still lives in violence and want.
Hopefully, this concrete feeling of deprivation will help us remember those who will not eat tonight, those who have no indulgences like internet or television, and those who are deprived not by choice, but by circumstances. When we can take a moment and have a very, very small taste of their suffering, it will hopefully fill us with compassion. This can spur us to action in the name of Christ to remember them in our prayers and perform acts of charity for them.
In this way, we can take up a small part of the Cross of Christ, we may all enter into His glory.
Copyright 2022, WL Grayson