In times of turmoil remember — ‘only one thing is necessary’

By Brad Torline.

Becoming a parent for the first time is an intimidating experience for most people even under normal circumstances. Imagine what it’s been like in the year 2020.

I had finally mustered up the courage to dive into marriage and fatherhood and then, less than three months after announcing our first pregnancy, a “once-in-a-life-time” pandemic hit.

The ensuing political and economic instability, the surge in race tensions, and, of course, the most contentious presidential race in living memory were all just cherries on top of this nerve-wracking scenario.

I’ve always thought it was a little tiresome and melodramatic when people say things like “What kind of a world have I brought a child into?!” The world has always been in a bad way and we could always use another good person. And yet, I have definitely caught myself looking down at my tiny beautiful new daughter this year and wondering just what kind of world she will grow up in.

All of this had me pondering and praying — what are we as Christians called to do in the face of all this? What am I personally called to do?

“You are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary.” (Luke 10:42)

If you turned your phone or computer on at all during 2020 you were probably immediately berated by a host of political movements, causes and activists — each demanding your attention, focus and support. If you failed to respond, at once you were made to feel complicit in systematic evil, worthy of condemnation and exclusion, etc. etc.

But as the verse above reminds us, anxiety and hyper-activity are antithetical to the Gospel.

I’m not saying that Catholics don’t have social and political responsibilities. We do. They comprise what tradition calls our “active life.”

The simple point I want to make here (and the point that has brought me peace during these times) is the reminder that the Church has always prioritized what she calls the “interior life” over the active life.

I think remembering this can give us focus and peace during these tumultuous times. There are many crises going on in society and in the Church right now. Sometimes it feels we are losing ground on all sides, making us feel the obligation to run this way and that trying to do something about it all.

But remember that, in the end, there is really only one thing for which we will ultimately be held responsible. Remember that, in Christ’s words, “Only one thing is necessary,” and that is our interior life, what Pope Benedict described as our “personal search for the face of the Lord.”  It is our personal striving to discover the Truth and to live in accordance as best as we can — first and foremost in our own lives and then we can strive to help those in our immediate sphere of influence as well. Only then should we strive to do something bigger.

I’m reminded of an old story my friend’s Ukrainian Catholic pastor would tell:

“Once there was young man who sought to become a priest thinking, ‘Perhaps, I can save the world.’ He thought he would climb to the highest ranks of the Church, fix her systems, and launch worldwide movements to renew entire societies. But after being ordained he realized that he could not save the world unless he could first save his own diocese. So with joy he accepted his first assignment to the Curia and served under his Bishop for 20 years only to realize, in the end, that he did not have the abilities to save his own diocese. He grew tired and was happy when the bishop reassigned him to a small parish. He devoted himself with fervor for another 20 years, thinking ‘I could not save my diocese, but perhaps I can save this little parish.’ But as the years passed, he realized that he could not save his little parish either. In old age, humbled by many years of hard work, he thought to himself ‘I cannot save this little parish, after all, but perhaps I can save myself.’ So he dedicated himself to eradicating his bad habits and the wicked thoughts he held secret in his heart.

“On his deathbed he realized that he could not even do this. He could not save even himself! And he was able to simply offer himself over to the Lord.”

We have a tendency of going about things backwards, don’t we? In youthful zeal we think we can fix and rework entire systems. We think we could run the entire world better if only we were in charge. We think we can save the world even though our families are a mess and we don’t know how to help them, and even though we cannot solve our own problems.

Here is the truth: We cannot save the world. We cannot save our community. We cannot save our family. We cannot even save ourselves — only Christ can. The sooner we realize this the better.

Scripture says that all of creation is groaning for the revelation of the sons of God. (Romans 8:22) Translation: The only true way to help the world is to become a saint.

If we fill our life with activism but do not become a saint, we have failed and everything we have will come to nothing. But if we concentrate on holiness first and foremost, above all else, then we will accomplish more than we ever imagined in our lifetime because it will not be us doing the accomplishing — but Christ in and through us. As He promised us, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matt 6:33)

Brad Torline is associate director for the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization, Diocese of Covington, Ky.