“What difference does it make?” was Hillary Clinton’s frustrated retort to Congress last year when pressed about the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Putting aside legal and political issues, the former First Lady and Secretary of State captured a national mood. “What difference does it make?” is the temptation we all face. It is hard to see our actions meaning anything, particularly as we watch the world descend into chaos with the rise of ISIS, the spread of Ebola, and the interminable border battles.
And yet, our faith and the example of the saints reveal that even when the barbarians are too close for comfort our work bears great fruit. We have the witness of the martyrs, certainly, but there is also the witness of those who did not despair in the face of struggle and fear, but dug deeper and hoped in the power of the pen, the power of the word, and the power of humor.
As a graduate student, I was astounded to discover that philosopher and convert Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote his greatest work, Transformation in Christ, while atop Hitler’s list of enemies to be hunted down and killed. How could someone find the peace to contemplate something—anything—while under such pressure? I wondered. And yet, looking deeper, Von Hildebrand wasn’t the only Catholic who wrote with the threat of death hanging over his head. St. Boethius (480-525 AD), who was ultimately martyred, wrote one of the most influential philosophical treaties ever, The Consolation of Philosophy, while in jail awaiting execution.
St. Augustine, living in the aftermath of the fall of Rome and the collapse of civilization, left us with The City of God and The Confessions, among his many writings. Meanwhile, St. Benedict offered Europe a lifeline through the establishment of his Rule for the monasteries that would harbor the remnants of Western Civilization as the dark ages descended upon the continent.
More recently, the young Pole Karol Wojtyla used his gifts as an actor to further the Polish culture that the Nazis were trying to wipe from the face of the Earth during World War II. The Rhapsodic Theatre, performing at the risk of death, enacted Polish classics using only the power of words and their elocution. Wojtyla, later as Pope John Paul II, would use those rhetorical skills, honed under the crucible of the Third Reich, to bring down another diabolical system—that of the Soviet Union.
On a smaller scale, Wojtyla is said to have used his perfect German and acting abilities to trick the occupying Nazis into running the fool’s errand of registering all the cats in Krakow. Only God knows how many lives were saved by his humorous diversion of the murderous SS forces.
So what is it that these saints knew, living under such extreme pressure?
It is easy to imagine that the fruitfulness of these saints was born from a fatigue of the pressures they faced. The human heart and soul can only deal with so much. So, in the midst of chaos, these souls found Eternal Order; as everything around them was in flux, they found Divine Immutability; as they faced unthinkable evil, they found the Source of All Good. And they found Him, as the Psalmist proscribed, through the simple prayer of contemplation: “Be still and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:11). This brief prayer reminds us that God is God, and we are not. There is only so much we can do. Meanwhile God can proliferate any work, no matter how small, if performed as Mother Teresa proscribed: with great love.
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