As my spiritual directee described what she called “a meltdown” in talking with her husband, she sighed, “I just don’t care anymore.” Things were not going well at the parish where she is on staff. She was fatigued; her husband was not recovering well from an injury; she saw little that was positive in church leadership. But she then went on to tell how she recovered her usual zest during a weekend retreat led by a Capuchin friar and a secular Franciscan woman. She came to the realization that she truly does care—about the parish, about the wider church, about her call to minister to God’s people. I stressed how important it is that she keep her focus on “the deep-down things,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it: on the lordship of Jesus, on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, on the unfailing, unconditional love of God and on the simple beauties of nature, just as Francis of Assisi would have us do.
“Rebuild My Church”
The woman’s cry found an echo in my own heart. Sometimes I am tempted to say (though it is more of an under-the-breath whimper than a full-throated cry), “I don’t care any more, either.” On Easter Sunday the church where I offered Mass was filled to the rafters. The next Sunday the music was just as uplifting, and I preached with the same enthusiasm—but the church was back to its usual half-fullness. “Where is everybody?” Every survey I read paints the same dismal picture. Catholics are divided; they no longer believe many church teachings; they are angry and hurt by the sexual abuse scandals and by the closing of parishes; they have little confidence in their leaders.
Yet the words “I don’t care” stick in my throat. I cannot say them, because I do not really mean them. I am haunted by the words of Jesus to Francis of Assisi: “Go and rebuild my church, which you see is falling into ruins.” I hear those words not as a “should” but as a gentle, loving invitation. They make me want to give my best, even though I may never see much in the way of measurable “rebuilding.” For that matter, I wonder if Francis did. At first he took Christ’s words literally and began physically repairing the little, broken-down church of San Damiano. Only later did he understand what Jesus really meant: Go and rebuild my church spiritually. And, God knows, he tried. But he met opposition, not only from the faithful, who expressed indifference, not only from the institutional church, but also (and especially) from his own friars. This was discouraging.
What Really Matters?
I have often been touched by the ending of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday”: “Teach us to care and not to care/ teach us to sit still/ Even among these rocks.” Yes, there are things we ought to care about, and others that we ought not. How are we to distinguish, to separate them? That is the function of discernment, of contemplation. Hence we need to “sit still,” to make time, to pray. Wasn’t that the impetus behind St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the contemporary retreat movement? Our consumer-driven, success-oriented culture dismisses the act of sitting still and the practice of prayer. Good heavens, we might miss something!
So, what should we care about? Briefly: what God cares about. I do not think God cares who wins the Academy Awards, or the N.B.A. championship or the next “American Idol” competition. God does care about the protection of human life, the safeguarding of human rights and dignity for all people, economic justice and adequate health care for everyone, the protection of children from violence and exploitation, equal opportunities for women and about the ending of war as a means of settling disputes and the commitment of all nations to live in peace.
“Teach us to care and not to care/.../ even among these rocks.” Yes, the rocks are there, and some of them are huge, like the stone rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb. What are my rocks? What are yours? Probably nearly the same things: the divisions in the church, the lack of dialogue, the clash of egos, the insistence on adherence to rules over sound pastoral judgment and the direction of resources to rebuild the physical rather than the spiritual church.
But even among these rocks, we must learn to care and not to care. So we must stop trying to please everybody, stop being paralyzed by fear of criticism, stop caring about who gets credit and focus only on getting the job done. And with genuine passion and even joy, we continue to give our best efforts, even when they appear fruitless. We detach ourselves from results, and ask only if we are being faithful to the Gospel vision that Jesus left us.
St. Paul had another way of putting this. “My prayer for you,” he wrote, “is that your love may more and more abound…so that…you may learn to value the things that really matter” (Phil 1:9-10). A good discernment question we should often ask ourselves is, “At the end of the day, in the long view of life, does this really matter?” If the answer is yes, then we stand firm and take whatever heat may come. But if the answer is no, we let it go. Sometimes it is wiser to lose the battle if it means winning the war. And then we trust that our humble yielding will be blessed by God. As Paul said in another place, “Your work is never in vain when it is done in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58). That is really comforting. After all, it is not we who can rebuild the church; that is the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit whom he sent to guide it till the end of time. Yet in a mysterious divine economy, our “work” is needed to bring about God’s purposes.
“I don’t care any more.” We need not be afraid if those words well up in our minds at various times in our spiritual journey. They can represent a moment of truth, a warning light that there is a malfunction in our spiritual system. Rather than deny or repress it, let it come into the light—where it can be honored, examined and brought into dialogue with the part of us that still does care. We pray, “Teach us to sit still...even among these rocks.” Then, whether in a retreat, or in spiritual direction, or in prayer to the Holy Spirit, we reclaim our power to care deeply about “the things that really matter.”
Toward the end of his life, when Francis saw that many of his brothers were no longer following the way of poverty and humility that he had passed on to them, he was distressed in spirit and cried out in prayer, “Lord, I give you back the family you gave me!” (read: “I don’t care any more!”). But then he “sat still” and heard the Lord say to him: “Tell me, brother, why are you sad about this? Who converts men and calls them to enter the order? Who gives them the grace to persevere? Is it not I? Therefore, I say to you: don’t be saddened about this. Do what you have to do, and do it well. I have planted the order of brothers in an everlasting charity.”
“Do what you have to do, and do it well.” Each one of us is able to do that, even among our rocks. That is the only way to rebuild the church and to extend the reign of God in our world.