Want to Change the World? Start by Changing Your Heart

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This quote by St. Josemaria Escriva is one that challenges me often:

You are constantly talking about the need to change and reform things. Good…REFORM YOURSELF! For you need it badly, and already you will have begun the great reform.

In the meantime, I shall not be putting to much in your proclamations of reform. — “The Furrow,” p. 636

It is easy to look into the life of this great saint and to see the battles he fought, and then to see this quote as applying to these circumstances. He lived through the Spanish Civil War under Franco, and worked tirelessly to see to the foundation, formation, and sanctification of the prelature he founded, Opus Dei. Yet, no matter how extraordinary these struggles or his personal sanctity may seem to us, let us not forget the chief insight granted to us by St. Josemaria: the life of sanctity can only mature and take hold in a true, deep, and stable way in and through the ordinary means of an ordinary life.

This insight is by no means original to him–Sts. Francis de Sales and Therese of Liseux, for example, came before him. St. Josemaria’s contribution is in bringing this insight to the most technologically, politically, and socially dynamic century yet to be seen in human history. The 20th Century was a century of “greatness,” however prodigious or terrible. Never before had so many people taken an active role in politics at once global, regional, reactionary, and revolutionary; never before had so many people grasped for power or clutched greedily to it. In the midst of this century of “greatness,” human nature had yet to change. The wisdom taught and lived by those both great and small in centuries preceding remained valid, even if more scandalous than ever. This is why Providence granted us the wisdom, sanctity, and witness of St. Josemaria Escriva, referred to by John Paul II at his canonization as “the saint of ordinary life.”

The Church teaches that an individual should remain loyal to his social ties: family, community, country, Church, and that of these, the most basic functional unit is the family. Therefore, a high premium exists on an “ordinary” life, a life of “hidden holiness.” Yet, simple human nature would look at the way the Church teaches “ordinary” holiness as being a mechanism of social control, as a way of keeping the masses in line in order to direct their behavior more manipulatively. In an individualistic age where the global community plays a more important role, and where human opportunities have expanded dramatically, this seems like an affront to personal potential. “Don’t step out of line!” is what our culture hears, with its constant background chorus of, “Make something of yourself!” and “Go out and change the world!” In other words, in our culture, we can no longer distinguish between ambition and magnanimity: between the desire for personal gain, and for the desire for authentic and personal greatness.

Within this teaching, we find a surprising and paradoxical truth: authentic greatness depends on the ordinariness of life, whereas ambition is degrading, and a most dehumanizing form of slavery. While Marxism, Socialism, and also the far-right ideologies saw in Catholic morality a subjugating form of social control (the Marxists wanted to overthrow it; the Fascists and National Socialists wanted to supplant it), the Catholic social vision–morality and all–represents the truest form of human freedom imaginable in this life.

St. Josemaria’s wisdom counts on this as being true. It also has a range of application that goes far beyond the great “political” contexts where we could so easily restrict it. Being the saint of ordinary life, this piece of wisdom must also have an ordinary life application, one with which, I think, we can all relate.

What is “reform,” after all? Beyond its political usage, where do we see need of “reform” in our lives? Perhaps we see it in our workplaces, in our schools, our jobs, our families; I know several people who see it in their parish communities and in the Church as a whole. When we see the need for reform, we more often than not have in mind what is truly termed “revolution”: instead of wanting to change something from within, we want to change it from without. Maybe if the bishop sacked Father Flannel and gave us an orthodox priest, we would all be better off; likewise, if only that annoying coworker would get herself in trouble and be moved to a different department or…you know. Thus we rail against, and embitter ourselves needlessly over the things over which we have no control.

Ah, but we do have some level of control! I have control over the one thing that is most rightfully mine, most given to my faculties of stewardship and responsibility: my own heart.

I am to understand that the problem is not liberals destroying the Church, or fussy ultra-conservatives making life miserable for the rest of us, but pure and simply that I am not as holy as I need to be. While political maneuvering may be tearing the country or the globe apart, my own sin is tearing the Body of Christ apart. Though my parish may be afflicted with a heterodox priest (thankfully, I do not have that problem–in fact, I love my priest!), as long as I still sin, I am still a part of the problem.

This does not mean that we cannot take measures to remedy human evils when and where we see them–in fact, such is a requirement. But do we not understand the expansive liberation and freedom that such a perspective gives us? No longer am I bound by the actions of another; no longer does the sin of another give me cause to fall into the sins of wrath, hatred, or any such vices. No matter how terrible things may be politically, or within the community, family, workplace, or even parish, I have not lost control of that over which I am the most responsible and accountable.

I believe the man who said the following while discussing stewardship to be a truly great man: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones” (Luke 16:10).

If you desire greatness, do not change the things outside of you. Do not seek to reform the outside world. Work, instead, to change the only thing you can, and in so doing, you will have a greater impact on the world than you can imagine. The world will change, not through vast political or religious movements, nor through a mass reorganization and change in the current powers, but heart by heart, life by life. Be a part of this change, for you have already been given the power to do so.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nathan Kennedy

Nathan Kennedy

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3 thoughts on “Want to Change the World? Start by Changing Your Heart”

  1. Avatar

    I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said that the greatest political act was conversion. It is not enough to merely convince someone that this or that policy is good for them, it is more important that you tend to your own conversion and through that be an example to others that they too may be converted and once they have reached out to Christ and He has taken their hand, the reform will come, through the conversion of hearts. “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be yours besides.”

  2. Avatar

    I have realized over the last few years that C.S. Lewis said, well, a lot of things! He’s one of the most quotable figures of the 20th Century. There’s a reason so many people like Peter Kreeft like him!

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