I did a lot of thinking in my idealistic twenties about how I’m going to start a revolution and change the world. At times, as I contemplated one problem that plagues society, I would discover that it was really rooted in a deeper and larger problem. This in turn was rooted in another problem, and so on. Before I knew it, my well-intentioned mind was entangled in the sticky and intricate web of interconnected problems, which seemed, more importantly, to entangle the whole world. Suddenly, I felt the weight of that trapped world on my shoulders, a weight that measly little me couldn’t possibly bear. And I was right. I’m sure many of you who are reading this have felt the same way at one point or another. Understandably, the temptation is to move out from underneath that weight, walk away, and try not to think about it. Really, what can I do?
Now that I’m in my thirties, I have come to a surprisingly simple conclusion, but one that needs explanation. The good news is there is something you can do. All you need to do is be you.
“Being you” can have different meanings. It can mean the way you influence people by “setting a good example” for them to imitate. For instance, I try to recycle everything I can. I once had a roommate who drank Diet Coke. Previous to knowing me, she never even considered what she did with all those Diet Coke cans. One evening over dinner, she made the point of telling me how she had started saving the cans in her car until she got home so she could put them in our recycle bin. I was so proud of her! In this case, I was the good example, and she followed me by way of imitation. Of course being a good example is a wonderful thing, and certainly an important part of changing our little corners of the world.
But there’s more to it than this example-imitation dynamic I’ve just described. By virtue of our baptism, each Christian in the state of grace becomes, in his or her very being, a sacred sphere of influence in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit intimately and powerfully act. Regarding the beauty of a soul in the state of grace St. Teresa of Jesus commented in her spiritual masterpiece, Interior Castle. She says, “…the very fact that His Majesty says it is made in His image means that we can hardly form any conception of the soul’s great dignity and beauty.” She makes it clear that this beauty derives entirely from the Creator Himself, who is the “Son” that shines through and is reflected throughout all the rooms of the “castle.” This may seem a little (or a lot) lofty in comparison to the daily, and sometimes hourly, experience of our own many shortcomings. Yet it is no less true.
This contrast between our wretchedness and great dignity, like it or not, is the human condition, and is central to God’s plan for the whole universe. Each of us, in a real sense, is a walking paradox. Pascal dwells on this theme at length in his famous Pensées. One quote in particular poignantly describes the paradox that characterizes the human person: “Chaotic, contradictory, prodigious, judging everything, mindless worm of the earth, storehouse of truth, cesspool of uncertainty and error, glory and reject of the universe. Who will unravel this tangle?” It’s a good question. On the one hand, we are miserable, extremely limited little creatures who blunder awkwardly through our existences. On the other hand, we are graced to carry within ourselves the very presence of God Himself. Mysteriously, it is precisely and only through the littleness of the human person that He acts to change the world. Consider Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Peter, to name only a few. Now add you and me to the list.
What’s more is God does this not in the cold mechanical way that an impersonal instrument is used, but in and through all of our small talents, and even in our quirks and idiosyncrasies. And He works through them to transform the quirky and idiosyncratic, but beautiful, little corner of the world that we live in. In this particularity by which God acts, billions of times over, with no part losing its significance, the whole world is transformed.