Flowers and signs are seen at the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, in a makeshift memorial March 18, 2019. Such memorials and prayer services could be found across the country and abroad after two mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15 that left at least 50 people dead and 20 seriously injured. CNS photo/Edgar Su, Reuters

Glen Argan: Violence breeds in a world of indifference

By 
  • March 26, 2019

The mirage that mass shootings — such as the massacre of 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand — are isolated incidents long ago vaporized. While mass killings are performed by deranged individuals whose behaviour falls well outside social norms, they are societal phenomena with societal roots.

These slaughters are both diverse in whom they target and numerous enough that their roots extend deep into the soil of society. This is no mirage. While we are not a world of potential mass murderers, the disease underlying such violence affects the vast majority, if not all, of us.

The religion of personal autonomy which leads to the isolation, the power of technology which also isolates, the instability of familial relationships and the rejection of the transcendent ultimate dimension of life are all symptoms of this disease.

A 1999 document from the Vatican’s Council of Culture, “Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture,” pointed out that today’s “cultural rootlessness” has many causes. This rootlessness “contributes to the loss of people’s social and cultural identity and dignity.” Nevertheless, every society draws its shape from a core religious myth, whether that myth be secularism or one oriented toward transcendence. Spirituality, the council asserted, is “the living core of culture.”

To be sure, one feature of current Western society is the straining toward spirituality. While traditional Christian churches attract a decreasing segment of the population, large numbers seek transcendence elsewhere.

The Catholic Church itself is in crisis, due not only to the clergy sexual abuse crisis and related coverups, but also to the clericalism and patriarchy which are unpalatable in our age. Our Church’s credibility is in shreds. Further, she has been unable to connect with the new spiritual desires.

This whole spectrum — from the growing number of mass murders to the Church’s self-immolation and resulting cultural impotence — should be named for what it is: diabolical. Although economic systems play a major role in the malaise, no worldly conspiracy can destabilize the Church and its influence on society.

Today, Western society needs an exorcism combined with a new infusion of participation in divine life mediated to us through Jesus Christ. This, too, is not a mirage.

Our society suffers from the deadly sin ancient monks called “acedia,” loosely defined as sloth, but better understood as indifference to God and things of the spirit. Ultimately, acedia is indifference to one’s eternal salvation. In the one suffering from acedia, joy is non-existent. Alienation is complete when one experiences no connection with God or other people.

In his book, The Noonday Devil, Benedictine Abbot Jean-Charles Nault calls acedia “the unnamed evil of our times.” It creeps through society leaving us not so much atheistic as indifferent.

Characterizing our society as suffering from acedia seems odd as ours may be the most action-oriented society of all time. But too often action is superficial, lacking any effort to stand in God’s presence. Thus acedia should not be identified with laziness — one may be busy 18 hours a day but still suffer from spiritual torpor. In fact, those people are even more likely to be spiritually sluggish.

To see our society — and ourselves — as stricken with acedia is to see ourselves as lacking in the central dimension of being human, the yearning to live in God’s image. To a greater or lesser extent, we see ourselves and others as objects bereft of an in-built relationality with other persons. If persons are objects, society as a communion of love is impossible. We are imprisoned in isolation.

For many, it is not so dire. We do have loving relationships, and many love God. But the tendency to acedia is present in the air we breathe and the desires that soak our hearts. In others, the tendency is desperate. Their acedia grows into hatred, anger and violence. They are the canaries in the coal mine who reveal the pollution that besets us all. The disease is not unique to them, just more pronounced.

The road to sanity and balance requires a commitment to a higher power. To lead meaningful lives, we face a relentless quest to live in God’s presence. Our lives must be marked by unceasing prayer. Whatever such prayer might mean for us, it is the way to put the noonday devil to flight and to respect the dignity of God and the dignity of being human.

(Glen Argan writes from Edmonton.)


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Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.