“There is a need for heralds of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, who have a profound knowledge of the heart of present day man, participating in his joys and hopes, anguish and sadness, and who are at the same time contemplatives in love with God.”
Pope John Paul II, Discourse to the Sixth Symposium of European Bishops, October 1985
About 3.00pm one day last year I was foolish enough to toot a van which had cut in front of me at a roundabout. The driver promptly blocked me in and treated me to a tirade which ended with the plea that he had been on the road since 5.00 that morning and didn’t need any more hassle. Apart from relief at not actually being hit, my main reaction was one of compassion for the pressure he was under.
What lies behind the rudeness and aggression which are so common in today’s Britain and so widely lamented? One clue is given by the title of a fascinating book by the (Catholic) journalist, Madeleine Bunting: “Willing Slaves”. In frightening detail she exposes the extent to which many Britons, especially professionals, work inhuman hours and lead inhuman lives, slumping asleep on the sofa when they finally arrive home and with little quality time to give to family and recreation. What makes this extra shocking is that the very technology (e-mail, mobile phone, etc.) that was supposed to free us for lives of greater leisure is part of the enslaving mechanism.
The reaction we call postmodernism is fuelled by this ambivalence to the benefits of modernity. Along with the undoubted benefits of health care, cheap flights, and communications and media our ancestors could never have dreamt of, there is a deep frustration that modernity has not delivered what it promised. Films such as The Matrix and The Truman Show illustrate other aspects of this slavery which Bunting describes, so that it permeates both work and leisure.
What make it worse is that we cannot easily grasp the forces driving it. A hilarious column in a weekend paper recently described a journalist’s envy of the very basic mobile phone his daughter used, in contrast to his own top of the range model, for which he pays a huge monthly tariff, only to discover that what he really needs it for – making and receiving calls while abroad – cost extra anyway. How on earth had he been persuaded such a model was necessary?
Small wonder, then, that alternative spiritualities which stress enjoying the present moment are attractive. A mobile phone advert urges us to make the most of the present – by using our mobiles constantly, which is actually the very opposite of being present to the reality around us. One family I heard of became friends with a Tibetan Buddhist monk, who would always insist on washing up when he came for a meal, on the grounds that for them it was a chore, whereas he had learned to enjoy everything he did. How many Christians know how to contemplate the presence of God in everything, or know the difference between evangelical fruitfulness, which liberates, and the slavery of efficiency?
Mgr Keith Barltrop