Month: December 2012

Not Waving But Drowning

–a version of my article was also published at Catholic Exchange today.

British author Stevie Smith (1902-1971) once penned a striking poem called “Not Waving But Drowning.” The poem retells a real-life incident in which a man swimming at a beach began to drown; when his friends on the shore saw him gesticulating wildly, they misinterpreted his signals for help as cheerful waving at them:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving, but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
 . . .
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always  
 . . .
I was much too far out all my life  
And not waving but drowning.
Smith’s poem hints at the unhappy truth that human perception is flawed; that there is too often a disparity between the way we perceive someone and the reality about them. In fact, frequently what we see of another person’s life is not merely different from but totally opposed to the real story.
It was exactly this grim poem about misperception that came to my mind when I opened my Facebook page and contemplated a sickening social ill splattered like a headline across the top of my news feed.
A woman I know in her 20s was bombarding Facebook with pictures of herself kissing her boyfriend, bragging about how happy she is shacking up with this year’s bedmate. How she’s so much in love. How nothing on earth could make her happier than being the live-in girlfriend of this hottie hunk of man—unless a cure could be found for the cramps her contraception gave her from time to time.
My heart ached at this depressing situation, and yet this was only one example of an all-too-common problem: that many young people I’ve encountered appear happy and content to live on a strange level of unreality: the world of sexual license and self-serving materialism. Some have dived so deep into this secular worldview it seems unlikely they’ll ever resurface to sanity. Atheism, agnosticism, and anti-religious sentiments are prevalent in my generation. Getting drunk is a good time; sexual sins are not sins to them; hook-ups, contraception, and gay marriage are the norm of “love”; and anyone who objects to these things is a narrow-minded bigot.  They seem satisfied that their notions of true happiness apparently reach no higher than owning the newest iPhone, beating the latest video game, or achieving a romantic relationship that resembles the Twilight series.
I realized, however, that, just like the people on the shore in Stevie Smith’s poem, my perception of this situation is not quite accurate. External signs of happiness, “wavings” in which the obstinately-secular flaunt before the world what they profess makes them happy (such as the hooked-up couple whose “love” is not grounded in a life-long commitment before God, or the college student who denies the existence of God and seems overjoyed at purchasing a newer piece of technology or attending the midnight premiere of the latest blockbuster)—these external trappings of happiness and high emotions are signs not of flourishing but of failing; of empty souls slowly drowning in a world flooded by materialism.
People who have plunged into this secular mindset aren’t really doing what will leave them satisfied. Alcohol, drugs, and extra-marital sex can’t actually give lasting happiness or lead to human fulfillment; they just effect a cheap imitation of joy for a very short time. And people who seek nothing higher will ultimately find themselves lost, unhappy, and restless, with bitter hearts and broken lives. The material pleasures with which they surround themselves are not happiness, but only empty replacements for the deeper joy of vocation and virtue—and will leave the souls who embrace them still floundering for something real to cling to.
The contracepting couple without the grace of the sacrament of Marriage to keep them going in tough times probably won’t still be together when they’re middle-aged, let alone next year.  The young atheists in times of suffering will fumble for some humanitarian meaning to life that will eventually leave them cold and seeking satisfaction elsewhere. Even if at the moment they seem quite content with their situation, that’s not the whole story.  We don’t see the damage they’re doing to their own hearts; hearts flailing for help because they’re not yet in the right place. The tragedy is that, unlike the poet’s dead man, they don’t seem to realize it. They’ve been much too far out all their lives; and they are not waving, but drowning.  


Roman Reflections

By the grace of God, I just returned from three blessed months studying in Rome, Italy. It was an incredible experience, to say the least, and no doubt a single post could never encapsulate how amazing and life-changing this special semester was for me.  I walked through St. Peter’s Square everyday to go to class. I attended Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica multiple times; I saw the ins and outs of every major church, many minor churches, and the cramped, vendor-filled streets in Rome, got a taste of European culture, and made some incredible memories with my friends. (It wasn’t all fun and games by any means. We had a rigorous academic schedule to challenge us while we were there that sometimes felt a bit overwhelming, but ultimately made our European experience that much more amazing). 

What made it so special, though, was not that we were traveling about Italy and enjoying ourselves. Not at all. What made it special was that we were there with a purpose; and that made it a pilgrimage. Our first week was spent on pilgrimage together in Assisi and Siena, and our chaplain encouraged us to keep the spirit of pilgrims the whole semester, in our studies and in all the sightseeing and new experiences.

 It was a stirring challenge, directed not only to our time in Italy but to our attitude towards our whole lives on earth.  How does one be a pilgrim in a three-month long “semester” without a definite final destination? What makes it a pilgrimage? Christians often speak of this life as a pilgrimage, as our journey towards heaven. But often it can feel like we’re not “going” anywhere, but simply “living” day to day. What makes it a journey, if we’re simply gong about our daily business of working, praying, studying, buying groceries, riding the subway? How are we pilgrims?

Hilaire Belloc once wrote eloquently of the meaning and purpose of a pilgrimage. He said: “A man that goes on a pilgrimage does best of all if he starts out  . . . with the heart of a wanderer, eager for the world as it is, forgetful of maps or descriptions, but hungry for real colours and men and the seeming of things. This desire for reality and contact is a kind of humility, this pleasure in it a kind of charity.”

 Being on a pilgrimage, as Belloc explains, means moving toward your goal with eyes open to the path around you. And when a pilgrimage is a search for God, then that search that encompasses your vision of life and your attitude toward all you encounter: you seek for God everywhere and always.  That first week in Assisi, I came across a quote that helped me understand how the vision of a pilgrim could direct both my time in Rome and my time on earth; a quote from the earliest biographer of St. Francis, who wrote:  “In beautiful things, Francis saw Beauty Itself.”

In the beautiful things around us, we should see a glimpse of the beauty of God. That vision which seeks and sees God in all around us coincides exactly with Belloc’s notion of a pilgrim–who knows how to take joy in the journey by seeking his final end in all that he encounters along the way.   In every place we went this semester, we were seeking God, seeking to find him wherever we were; not only in every glorious church we entered (and there were many), but in every train station and crowded street, in the classroom and at the little Italian cafes. From the Baroque, golden glory of St. Peter’s Basilica, to the sweet simplicity of St. Francis’ hermitage chapel, we sought Him . . . and found Him, because we went with eyes and hearts open to His presence.

Thou has said, “Seek ye my face.” 
My heart says to thee, 
“Thy face, LORD, do I seek.”
–Psalm 27:8  

St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican

The chapel at the mountain hermitage of St. Francis in Assisi