The Word Embodied
Wastelands of Discontent
Comfort, give comfort to my people. (Is 40:1)
A few years ago, Forbes magazine, that font of capitalist wisdom, entitled its seventy-fifth anniversary issue “Why We Feel so Bad When We Have It so Good.” It sported articles by some of the media luminaries of our time: Peggy Noonan, writer for Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Dan Rather; the brilliant novelist John Updike, who reminded us of lawyers’ gorgeous fees, “like a black hole at the center of the business world, sucking dollars into it,” and the greed of corporate heads “who with giant salaries and rigged deals looted their companies as shamelessly as Third World dictators looted their impoverished countries”; the Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, writing of the disillusionment that comes from our cultural fascination with affluence; and the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, warning us of the weary discontent haunting a nation surprised to discover that “economic and material goods are no compensation for social and moral ills.”
In so many ways we are a disconsolate people, members of a “joyless” economy whose models of fashion and rock stare with sullen eyes and false rage. We turn on ourselves in violence. Witness the geometric rises in homicide and suicide rates, the murder of our unborn by the millions and the moral disenfranchisement of our young.
Our very lives seem so externalized, so bereft of intrinsic value, that the technology of ending them has become alluring. The prospect of a Dr. Kevorkian to extinguish the pain or a Derek Humphry to ease our “final exit” is a deadly theme of half-serious jokes.
We may be an attractive people, Peggy Noonan mused, but we are somehow terribly sad. We have been formed as a people to expect happiness endlessly, but the search has caused only more misery. She links this to a deep cultural belief that this world is the only existence there is, our only chance to be happy, and “If that is what you believe, then you are not disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.”
It is the despair of exile—from one’s homeland and one’s self—that is addressed in Second Isaiah’s “Book of Consolation.” And if the prophet’s is a living word, it speaks not only to a people over twenty-five centuries ago. It confronts us. This is what it means to appropriate holy scripture as our own: not a disembodied historical text, but a message that penetrates our own reality.
Certainly this encounter is appropriate for a community of faith bearing the very name of the Word made flesh and inhabiting countries whose national spirits were once influenced by the God of Moses and the prophets as well as the Father of Jesus.
We let voices cry out in our own wastelands: Isaiah calling us to prepare a way for the Lord, the writer of 2 Peter asking us to come to repentance, John the Baptizer proclaiming “a baptism which led to the forgiveness of sins.”
The happy paradox of it all is that repentance itself is the beginning of hope. The moment we recognize our insufficiency and failure, we can own up to our exiled condition, from which we long to return. Sin’s acknowledgment is the birth of renewal.
Even more, as men and women of faith, we affirm that the longing born of repentance will not go unanswered by a God who would have us “fear not,” who would shepherd us, carry us, gather us into loving arms. God wants none of us to perish, no good of us to be lost. As the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous reveals, the admission of our unmanageable exile invites us to hope for “one more powerful yet to come.”
Thus we cannot save ourselves. We know we are not the Messiah. But in the promise that has been given, in the covenant that has been offered, we can find our voice and speak once again the truth that the great ones before us like Isaiah and the Baptizer have given to our ancestors.
It was Lee Atwater, maker of presidents, inventor of “kicking butt” and Willie Horton campaigns, hobnobber with rock stars, who—finally brought low by the ravages of brain cancer—spoke most forcefully to a people that had given itself over to the illusions of power, wealth, and prestige.
In “Lee Atwater’s Last Campaign” (Life, February 1991), he revealed his anguish, not over his own fate but over the fate of our age—our moral decay, our exile from love, our loss of compassion and friendship. He seemed to search for voices that would be raised in hope despite our own wilderness. “I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.”
Who will do this, if not those who know their own vulnerability and sinfulness? Who, if not those who have hope in the providence of God and the possibility of reform in the human heart? Who, if not us
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University