With each passing day, I find myself more willing to consider a shocking, unexpected, counter-intuitive possibility. Gentle reader must indulge me on this point. Incredible as this may seem, reckless as I may sound, we should review the matter calmly. The evidence, for all we know, may be all around us. Consider, for example, this uncanny fact. Everyone is anticipating the end of days. Everyone — from the most materialist environmentalists to the most spiritualist collectors of “signs of the times” — and throughout the media, and even among the Commentariat on this website — everyone, including the present writer, is using apocalyptic language, rather casually. The weather forecasters have been using it through this winter, on both sides of the Atlantic. Specific schemes, derived from or inspired by biblical prophesy, are a commonplace among the Catholic devotes with whom I pray; and right across the Christian spectrum from most Evangelical and farthest Western to most Orthodox and farthest Eastern, it presents as at least a mild fever. We find some version of this resounding through Islam, too, and still farther to the East; likewise across Africa and the Americas, where catastrophes seem most often to occur. Those who look at the rapidity of change around them, the nature of the change, and its direction — although they may disagree entirely on each item of evidence — seem alike convinced of the conclusion, that the end of our world is at hand.
That is why I think it might not be. For in my experience, if there is a large majority for any point of view, we can know with near certainty that it is either false, or trite. (“The earth is round” is an example of a view that has been universally held, for some thousands of years by almost all educated persons, and it is, I confess, true enough; but it is also quite trite.)
Now to be fair to the purveyors of amateur eschatology, much of what they say is understated. For instance, just today I was reading a prediction that the United States would collapse and disintegrate by the end of fiscal 2015. But so what? We have seen innumerable other countries collapse and disintegrate over the centuries; that can hardly be the standard for the end of the world. And as for little things, like raising the world’s sea level by a few hundred metres — yawn. (So we move uphill; downhill if it lowers.)
Up here in the High Doganate, we maintain Augustinian views on prophecy, on biblical interpretation, and especially on the apocalyptic writings. A minority of our personae are superstitious by disposition (the majority almost too sceptical); not one persona is a biblical literalist, except with respect to those Bible passages which offer factual report, or wherein the hairsplitting appears to be intentional. However, which passages those might be may also be subject to some dispute. A general rule in discussions among my personae is: do not feign certainty of things you do not know, and could not possibly know except on authority. Also: consult the authorities, sometimes. Also: do not obsess on matters that cannot be necessary to salvation.
I’m sure that is all perfectly clear.
Augustine, and by extension I would say the whole Catholic Church, is what we call “amillennialist.” That is, he wasn’t mesmerized by such an expression as “a thousand years,” and did not immediately enter it on his abacus. He could remember how the expression had been used in, say, II Peter — “One day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” — and how indeed anticipated in the Psalms and elsewhere. More broadly, he has no inclination to play number games, or engage in other forms of calculation which become inevitable when symbols are interpreted as counters instead. He could see a larger structure of apocalyptic teaching running through the length of the Bible, that was not pitched entirely beyond human understanding, and would be dangerous to take beyond. And thus he put the highly symbolic Apocalypse of Saint John in its rightful place at the tail (and thinnest) end. As a literary master himself, he could understand not only what a symbol is, but also, what is a “conceit.”
The world began (as Christians and Jews always knew, through many centuries when scientists did not also know it). Therefore, it will end. We could deduce each from the other revelation. Necessarily, it begins and ends in a certain way. It began when God began it, and it will end, as each of us will end in respect to this world, and within an easily foreseeable period:
“Thou who hast foretold that Thou wilt come to judgement in a day when we look not for Thee, and at an hour when we are unaware: make us prepared every day and every hour to be ready for thine advent; and save us.”
When people look through news events, or even social trends to descry patterns of prognostic prophecy, I lose interest in what they are saying. This on the basis of a theological hunch. How is it possible that God would require us to be keeping up with newspapers and websites, in order to discern “the signs of the times”? I do not myself think we can discern even “the points of the compass” by such means. I am moreover increasingly aware, from my readings in history, that while not all generations are equal, all have been perceptibly going to Hell; and that a plausible argument could have foretold the End Time, in every recorded moment.
There is a rather deeper objection to be made, not only to End Time calculations, but to every other form of what I call “Catholic fortune-telling,” and “the spirituality of the Ouija board.” (How many young ladies have grown tired of hearing me use such expressions!)
It is my view that Our Lord and Our Lady, alike, do not prattle. That they do not play Twenty Questions, or other parlour games. That they give no replies to questionnaires or surveys, do no interviews, and will not engage in chit-chat on the weather. The miracles we have seen, through Scripture and through history, were not especially subtle. Each seems to have come as a surprise. If you were there, you saw it; if you weren’t you did not.
And I am not being irreverent, incidentally. Those who think our relationship with the divine can be set on such a level of familiarity are the irreverent ones.
A Christian is surrounded at all times by little coincidences that wink at him, and to which he may prayerfully wink back; the world itself seems designed to be “knowing” in that way. But on my understanding it would be unlike God, or any of the angelic forces working for Him, to suggest action should be taken on the basis of a nice coincidence or three. For if it were, we would be saying that the Creator of the Universe made us to be easy dupes; that He created an order of things in which credulity trumps faith.
And, that is the very thing that separates the Catholic Christian faith (which is taken to include her Hebrew antecedents) from the Oriental mystery cults she unambiguously rejected. It is at the heart of our differences over the nature of human destiny — for by the same mental action we reject the fatalism of all gnostic cults, and replace it with the triumphant theological virtue of Hope. Our whole idea of human freedom arrived with Christ as something revolutionary. It had been formed in the detachment of the ancient Hebrews from the idolatries of other ancient peoples — as Christ taught, Christ was always there — but was brought into blazing clarity by Christ, at a certain demonstrable moment in history, with demonstrable consequences throughout this world.
Much else could be said, but here is enough excitement. At the core level of Judaeo-Christian teaching — breaking the chains of fatalism — we were freed from our bondage to ancient gods and goddesses, witches, goblins, spooks, and idols; and we were beckoned to rise and walk in a sunlight that provides, indeed confirms, the light of a reason also naturally endowed. The Catholic Christian teaching is self-consistent. Odd and peculiar as it may first appear, I believe it finally makes sense, in the course of providing the most articulate, and also moving account of human freedom and destiny. I wouldn’t have joined up if it didn’t.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta comes into my view. Those who have studied her life — among the most famous and accessible of the last century — will be aware that most of it was lived in spiritual desolation. As an intelligent and well-educated young woman she had a calling to become a nun and go abroad (at first from Albania to Ireland), was sceptical of its validity, sought advice from intelligent Catholic religious, and tested it very carefully. (She was an extremely intelligent woman, in the plainest worldly sense: I can report that at first hand.) Everything she did for the long remainder of her life was premised on that one personal revelation.
As a character she was gentle as mercy, and hard as nails. She prayed, and prayed for answers to her prayers, in a condition of sincerity few have mastered. She asked repeatedly and explicitly for signs, and for instructions, to direct her through all the many hard passages and decisions she ever had to make. As she herself directly reported, she never received answers. Apparently, God had so high an opinion of her judgement, that He left her to make decisions for herself.
This I contrast with certain young ladies, and young men much like them in being rather girlish, whom I count as my sisters and brothers in daily prayer. They are not in any common sense bad people; rather they are often among the kindest and most thoughtful, especially among the young. But they have bought into nonsense, and sooner or later it must cost them.
I’m thinking of one in particular with whom I had awkward dealings some years ago. She seemed to receive (by her own ebullient reckonings) the equivalent of emails from Our Lady, twenty times a day, along with numerous forwards through myriad saints from the Persons of the Trinity, and divine assignations for Harlequin romance. Had I been her spiritual director (an unwelcome task, for she’d drop them as a high school princess dumps boyfriends), I would have instructed her to give up entirely on petitionary prayer for the duration of Lent, or maybe never again to say a novena.
An extreme case, but I became aware of many lesser cases, and a contagion in the Church, curiously more afflicting the traditional end, where sanity is under extra pressure. The ways of the old pagan world are being smuggled back in, as cute pets, and dolled up in sweet Traddy costume. (Well, there is worse to see at the non-traditional end.)
I think it is a mistake to leap to any conclusion — including that most rare apprehension of a truly miraculous “gift from God” — without serious contemplation, and patient testing, which requires time. (And the question is not only whether the gift is real, but what does it mean, and what does it require by way of thank you; divine gifts need opening very carefully.) The Church herself has always believed in testing, and one might add, paid a premium over any other institution for her lapses.
A truly Catholic life is in constant formation, and re-formation: and to be sure Christ must work both from without and within. We are creatures now operating in time, and need time and discernment to take His most genuine and precious teachings in. To my mind, we should pray in a spirit quite opposite to throwing the dice, or flipping a coin, or begging for the lottery number; we should never expect to receive quick answers to anything at all. On the contrary, we should expect to work for them. For the answers will emerge, over time, and in ways that can actually be tested — in our lives, and often through painful experience when getting it wrong. The answers are not delivered by Fedex, as it were. (It is more like the questions that arrive in that way.) If they did, human beings would have no freedom, nor Hell nor Purgatory nor Heaven any serious meaning; and there would be no real and teaching drama in our lives.
But I am no priest. Gentle reader should consult the great manuals of Christian instruction, written by the attested saints, and form his judgement from those. The limit of my claim is to have dipped into some of them, and found similar warnings scattered all through: sober cautions against the human propensity to leap, to believe what we want to believe, to accept just those answers we were looking for, to seek instant gratification at every turn, and take persistently the easy way out — all methods to evade personal responsibility and commitment.
And if this is the case in our own tiny lives, how much more must it be when it comes to discernment of events vastly beyond the scope of our personal capacity to see, let alone comprehend. Therefore let us attend to our business, and leave God to His.