Many of us are familiar with Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities. (Perhaps you were forced to read the book by some conscientious high school English teacher—like me!) The book opens with those memorable words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens was describing 18th Century France. In one way it was the best of times, for the “Rights of Man” had just been promulgated. But in another way it was the worst of times, for the French Revolution was marked by terror, death, and destruction.
How would you describe our own times? Is it the best of times or the worst of times? I think there is a tendency in many of us to think we are living in the worst of times. We point to things like war, terrorism, economic disparity, corruption in business and politics, natural disasters of all kinds, the destruction of our environment, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. But there is a danger in thinking we are living in the worst of times. Such thinking can quickly lead to paralysis and/or despair.
That’s why a knowledge of history is so important. History can give us a healthier perspective on our own age. With that in mind, let’s go back to 14th Century Italy and look at a fascinating woman, St. Catherine of Siena, a tertiary of the Dominican Order, and see how she dealt with her times. First, what were her times like? In the 14th Century, the Black Death raged throughout Europe, killing an estimated 50 million people or up to 30% to 60% of Europe’s entire population. In addition, mercenary armies prowled the countryside waging war everywhere and wreaking havoc. As for the Church, Pope Gregory XI had fled to Avignon, France, leaving the administration of the Church in the hands of corrupt legates. In one way, Catherine lived in the worst of times.
But Catherine did not bemoan her times. She did not say, “If only the Black Death would go away… If only the world were at peace… If only we had perfect political and church leaders, then I could really live my Christian faith.” No, Catherine became a great saint precisely because she accepted her times as the context in which God was calling her to live her faith. She did not run away from the critical issues of her day. Rather, she actively engaged herself with them. She wrote hundreds of letters, served the destitute, counseled prisoners, reconciled individuals who were at odds with one another, helped reform the Church, wrote extensively on the spiritual life, and still found time for personal prayer and contemplation.
Sometimes we are too quick to bemoan our own times. We imagine that the world used to be a kinder and gentler place or that previous generations had it much easier than we do. But a quick perusal of history would dispel such a view. In fact, every age could be called the worst of times for one reason or another, for every age has its serious challenges and problems—just as ours does.
But, as Christians, we believe that the times we live in are exactly where God is calling us to live out our faith. We are called to engage ourselves with the serious issues of our day—poverty, abortion, racism, sexism, ageism, health care, human trafficking, immigration, destruction of our environment, to name a few. We cannot engage with every serious issue, of course. But can we choose at least one critical issue that somehow touches our heart? Can we become involved with that issue by devoting some of our time, energy, talents, and financial support to it?
God is calling us to respond to our times in the same way that Catherine did: with attentiveness, compassion, courage, persistence, hope and great faith in Jesus.
How are you personally engaged with one of the serious challenges or issues of our day?
Can you think of some ways that our times are also the best of times?
Reprinted with Sr. Melannie's permission
Sunflower Seeds: Celebrating Everyday Spirituality
What did you think of this reflection and/or the song? Did anything touch your heart?