Most of the liturgical year is comprised of “Ordinary Time”, when the Gospels follow the earthly ministry of Christ. This does not mean that the time is humdrum or nondescript; rather, it refers to ordinal numbers – first, second, third, and so on.
Humans have a compulsion to order things, and Catholics are no exception – we have ordered time according to the Gregorian calendar, constructed by Aloysius Lilius and Christopher Clavius SJ, and introduced by Pope Gregory XIII so that we could celebrate Easter in accordance with the seasons. Monks invented our system of timekeeping in order to pray the Divine Office. Catholics have formed healthcare, charity, school and art patronage systems throughout the ages, ordering human society according to Christian conceptions of what is good, true and beautiful.
Why do we do this? Watching the news is often depressing, because we are constantly reminded of the terrible suffering and disorder throughout the world. A friend asked me, “Can there be a world which is completely good?” We are used to living with contrasts: good and bad, better and worse.
Even just looking at ourselves and our loved ones can be a sobering process. We are so full of faults! Fr. Edmund Campion wrote in A Place in the City: “All attempts to live a religious life are partial, for to be human is to be a failure.”1
Why, then, do we strive so hard for excellence or even perfection?
The word primordial comes from primus ordiri, “first” and “to begin”. In the beginning, God created a perfectly good, orderly world; Adam and Eve lived in harmony with God, each other, and creation, in a state of grace. The Greek word kósmos literally means “order”. With sin, humankind’s friendship with God was broken; suffering and chaos entered the world. Sin occurs when we act against our human nature, bringing harm to ourselves or to others.
Most ancient creation myths have the gods creating order out of chaos. The Judeo-Christian tradition is unique in positing creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. It is from this tradition that the Belgian priest and astronomer Msgr. Georges Lemaître formulated the “Big Bang Theory”, or hypothesis of the primeval atom.
Thus, in the Christian tradition, we do not subscribe to dualism. In the beginning, everything was good. Evil is a corruption or absence of goodness; it is not an equal force, but a parasite that distorts the goodness of creation.
Our entire lives are strivings toward things we perceive to be good. The drug addict or chain smoker did not start off the habit of substance abuse simply by deciding to harm themselves thereby – even in a decision to self-harm, there is a perceived good of relief from emotional pain, or destroying what one thinks is irrevocably bad.
People who form cults generally seek some good, based on an ideal. The historian Ian Breward wrote in his book Australia: The Most Godless Place Under Heaven?:
“The desire to experience new kinds of community led a number of thoughtful and idealistic people to reject the patterns of vocation, family life and religion with which they had grown up. Their attempt to establish new patterns of social bonding in uncontaminated rural retreats can be seen as a secular monasticism, but they often discovered that to abolish the boundaries of authority, family and property created a whole series of problems which they did not have the spiritual and personal resources to solve. At their best, such groups have opened up new horizons of discipleship, but they have often learned some hard lessons about the intractable sinfulness and selfishness of partly-redeemed human nature.”2
We are tasked with proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand; at the same time, we are faced with the reality of living out the Gospel in a world wracked by sin, and have to accept the limitations and sufferings which come with it. It is out of these very sufferings that God recreates the world, restoring it according to His divine plan. We were made in the image and likeness of God, but we are marred by concupiscence and sin; we are wonky compasses which need to be realigned with the magnet of the Gospel, so that we may point accurately to Christ, and lead others to Him.
Discord would not offend our ears if there were not a standard of perfect harmony against which to judge all sounds. In the same way the existence of evil is an argument for the existence of God. We should not recognize imperfections as such unless there were a Perfect which they opposed. The world cannot be rationally explained without God; its very complexity forces the mind to believe that there must be something beyond all this, to have put it together. When we see a painting inside a frame, we know that someone has joined the two together. When we see a watch, we know that some intelligence has assembled it. Matter does not form itself into patterns without intelligence to guide it. The whole material universe is an argument for God.
— Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Crisis in History
Image: Amsterdam (via Joy-Sorrow).
1 A Place in the City, p. 107. [Penguin Books Australia (Sydney, 1994)].
2 Australia: The Most Godless Place Under Heaven?, pp. 79-80 [Beacon Hill Books (Melbourne, 1988)].