On a visit to the National Gallery of Art in DC the other day, I ended up in the same exhibit room as two middle-aged women. Looking at a painting of a man clothed in red and blue and holding an open book, one woman read the title out loud and dropped a tragic remark: “Salvator Mundi,” she said, squinting to read the placard. “That must be his name.”
I wanted to weep. Yes, Salvator Mundi is his name: the man in the picture is Savior of the World indeed. But here she was, looking him in the face, and she did not know him.
Riding a very crowded metro home, I looked around at my fellow travelers. Whenever I ride the metro I have the irrational urge to say to the nearest people, “Who are you? Where are you going?” I’m not asking for their names and their metro stops; I want to know their identities, their roots, their goals. Their intended destinations.
Yet how could I give a compelling answer to my own questions? “I’m Anna, I’m a sinner whom Jesus Christ died to save, I’m a member of the Catholic Church, and I hope I’m on my way to Heaven.” It’s all true, but the words are now almost devoid of meaning. For the average metro-rider, there is no such thing as sin; the name of Our Lord is a swear word; the Catholic Church is a reactionary, crumbling institution run by old men; and Heaven is an imaginary place where a benevolent, cartoonish old man sits in the clouds surrounded by white-clad angels with wings and harps.
How do we even begin?
This isn’t a brand-new problem, unique to this decade. I guess it could be as hard to absorb/describe/preach the reality of the Incarnation when everybody believed it (and nobody cared) as when (relatively) nobody believes it. Flannery O’Connor felt the same problem in writing fiction:
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.
To convey good and evil, sin and grace, salvation and damnation to her blind and deaf audience, she couldn’t just write about everyday people doing everyday things. She had to write about freaks, cripples, lunatics, and murderers.
Or take G.K. Chesterton’s character (Innocent Smith of Manalive), who has discovered the quickest way to reveal the miraculousness of existence to the most apathetic people: “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him — only to bring him to life.”
Thought-provoking as those writers always are, I doubt we can bring their fictional prophets into real-world evangelization. So what have we got?
If the words of the Gospel won’t be understood by your listener, the only way to evangelize is in action, right? One line that always haunts me: “You may be the only Jesus your neighbor will ever meet.” I’m trying to figure out what this means in everyday life. (Pardon the cliche; I really am trying to figure it out. Please also pardon the preachiness of the rest of this post — it’s aimed at myself as well as everyone else.) Maybe we can start by reviving a few virtues that are conspicuously absent from the public square:
1. Humility. As Catholics, we have all the answers, and we want to share them. Such confidence (or arrogance, some would say) is vastly irritating to non-Catholics, and especially to relativists. But you can possess and share the truth without being prideful or obnoxious about it. If someone asks what the Catholic Church teaches (or starts a conversation that could lead to it), find out what they think first, and why they think it. The media world is so strident and impatient these days that merely listening to someone shows a great deal of respect. Even if they’re wrong, you can learn from them. And everyone’s right about something; find some common ground and go from there. (This attitude should apply especially to politics and other realms where good people can come to different conclusions, but where everyone tends to demonize the other side.) Then if someone wants to listen to you explain yourself and your beliefs, speak the truth in love. The truth is supposed to save them and set them free; try to preach it in such a way that they would want to hear and believe it.
2. Joy. If we believe that Christ died to save us and that He offers us eternal bliss in Heaven, we should radiate joy. Easy for (comfortable-young-pampered-American) me to say, I know, but I think it’s an important witness to a very tired, indifferent, impatient, depressed world. I knew a girl in college whose first step toward conversion to Catholicism was noticing how happy her Christian friend was. She wanted to know the source of her joy and peace. And since her friend was “prepared to give a reason for the hope that was in her,” the girl was led to Christ. If you struggle with acting joyful, here’s some Mother Teresa for you to keep in mind:
When I see someone sad, I always think she is refusing something to Jesus. Cheerfulness is a sign of a generous and mortified person who forgetting all things, even herself, tries to please her God in all she does for souls. Cheerfulness is often a cloak which hides a life of sacrifice, continual union with God, fervor and generosity. A person who has this fight of cheerfulness very often reaches a great height of perfection. For God loves a cheerful giver and He takes close to His heart the religious He loves.
It’s still hard to communicate with the rest of the world; at least, it feels that way for me. But humility and joy are universal, and they’re now so rare that they might attract the right kind of attention.