George Santayana (1863-1952) lived in Boston for 40 years and taught philosophy at Harvard for 23 of those years. He had, however, been born in Spain, never gave up his Spanish citizenship and spent the last four decades of his life in Oxford and Rome. No surprise, therefore, that his comments on the United States had the tone of an ironic outsider. In 1911, for example, he wrote in The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy: “If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved, he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is. He is convinced that he always has been, and always will be, victorious and blameless.”
That judgment has long been out of date. As the year 2004 begins, few Americans who have been paying attention are inclined, no matter how well they may think of themselves, to think of the United States as either victorious or blameless.
Not victorious—the Iraqi war has made that clear. On May 1 last year, President Bush flew to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast to announce “victory” in the war against Iraq. On Oct. 29, in a Rose Garden press conference, he sharply revised that estimate: “I cannot put it any more plainly,” he said. “Iraq is a dangerous place.”
So it is. As of mid-December, 455 U.S. service personnel had been killed in Iraq—many since May—and approximately 2,600 had been seriously wounded. Iraqi insurgents also killed Red Cross relief workers, U.N. civilian staff members and Iraqis cooperating with Americans.
Victory is equally elusive in other campaigns, social as well as military—in the war against terrorism, in the international effort to control AIDS, in domestic strategies for replacing the millions of jobs that have migrated to Asia and Latin America and for rescuing the millions of families stuck below the poverty line.
Nor is the United States blameless—at least not in the judgment of others, even of its allies. After 9/11, Americans had the sympathy of most people everywhere, but that good feeling was dissipated by the pre-emptive strike against Iraq. Americans living abroad report that the United States is now thought of rather as the Roman Empire was thought of by its uneasy neighbors.
Surely many Americans are finding fulfillment in their work and in their family lives, but even the most self-absorbed may be briefly troubled when they look beyond their horizon. For a moment they might understand the mood of James Peck, a civil rights activist who in 1962 said he was contemptuous of “happy” people: “It’s like a blindness to be happy.”
Christians may respect that view but it is not theirs. They are people who do not think it fatuous to wish others a happy New Year. Writing to the Philippians, St. Paul said: “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord.”
Of course, the happiness Paul had in mind is not the carefree joy that children have when the summer vacation begins. Nor is it the negative happiness for which most adults settle—freedom from pain and poverty. Happiness in the Lord is a spiritual joy that can coexist with hardship because it is based on the belief that sorrow and death are not the whole story and will not have the last word.
The renewal of the world has already begun in Christ, said the Second Vatican Council in its “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (1964), and it cannot be revoked. All the same, how can the multitude of Christians whose names will never be known to history contribute to this renovation? The Lord’s Prayer teaches them the basic practical principle: Seek to know God’s will for you and then fulfill it.
The divine will, however, is not handed down in news bulletins. It has to be discovered in the events and circumstances of daily life, in what the spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J., (d. 1751) called “the sacrament of the present moment.” Fix your attention successively, Caussade said, on the duty of the present moment and fulfill that faithfully.
This principle was put more succinctly by the British-born Geoffrey Clayton, who became the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and a pioneering opponent of apartheid. In an essay in 1947, the archbishop asked himself how one should live in a race-caste society at variance with the Gospel and resistant to change. “Do the next right thing,” he said, adding, “We generally know what that is.”
St. Augustine advised Christians to be cheerful as well as faithful. Part of one of his sermons is the second reading in the Liturgy of the Hours on the last day of the liturgical year—set there like a guidepost for the new year. To lighten your labors, he told his hearers, sing God’s praises in hope: “You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey.”