This is the paradox that strikes me again and again when I read the lives of the saints. They were men and women who were focused on Jesus all the time. It sounds so simple.
I'm trying to write this blog post in a way that doesn't resort to platitudes, and I've been hesitating over my words. I mean something very specific here. Everyone would agree that Christians should always be focused on Jesus, but "keep your eye on the ball" is rather trite. I'm trying to convey a particular aspect of this general truth, I suppose.
Here is the best way I can think of putting it: the fall from Christianity, whether in individuals or in societies, always seems to begin by Christianity being pushed in the background and something else taking the foreground. I suppose the example we're all most familiar with is the religious order that becomes so besotted with "social justice", it eventually ceases to be Christian in any meaningful sense. But this is a peril for conservatives as well as liberals. Conservatives are in danger of making an idol of nationalism or some other conservative cause.
(I would insist, however, that there is much, much more danger to Christianity from left-wing politics today, than there is from right-wing politics. I was having this debate on Facebook recently, when someone was posting about the dangers of the Alt Right to Catholicism. I acknowledged the Alt Right were a danger, but that it was dwarfed by the danger of the left. As I said: the Alt Right has not infiltrated bishops' conferences, religious orders, Catholic charities, and Catholic universities. It would be perverse if fear of the Alt Right drove Catholics even further towards the liberal left!)
Funnily enough, this gradual drift from genuine Christian zeal can be well expressed by a passage of poetry I read today, from Idylls of the King. At this stage of the narrative, King Arthur has noticed that the idealism of Camelot has begun to fade, and complains to Sir Lancelot of his knights' increasing apathy:
That only seems half-loyal to command,—
A manner somewhat fall'n from reverence—
Or have I dream'd the bearing of our knights
Tells of a manhood ever less and lower?
I've noticed, myself, that when I'm reading about some (dead) person who was a Catholic, my question is always: "How much did their Catholicism matter to them?". Did they go to Mass? How often? Did they read the Bible? Did they often write or speak about the Faith? Was their Catholicism part of their daily life or something in the background?"
Now, I'm very well aware that someone could go to daily Mass, spend all their time participating in Catholic organisations, read five Catholic papers a week, and still be a terrible Catholic. I'm always haunted by the fear that God will tell me: "I never knew you" on the Day of Judgement.
But the opposite doesn't seem to be true. I've never heard of a saint or a great Christian for whom Jesus was simply something in the background. It always seems to be the case that Jesus is not only their motivation, but their daily and constant preoccupation.
I'm always struck that, when Jesus speaks about the seed that fell on thorny grounds in the parable of the sowers, he says: "The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity." That is, he emphasises the pleasures of life even more than its trials.
And this rings true for me. I know from my own experience that enjoyment, giddiness and good humour are even more likely than adversity to drive the thought of Jesus from my mind. Readers of this blog would probably be shocked if they knew just how bitchy, uncharitable and indecent I can be when I'm kidding around. It's one of my besetting temptations. When I get into a giddy mood, or into the right company, I find it very hard to restrain myself (though I'm getting better at it, I think). I understand why Ecclesiastes says it is better to go into the house of mourning than the house of feasting. Or why Newman preached this sermon.
If St. Elizabeth of the Trinity had to go to a party, before she entered the convent, she would spend several hours of prayer in preparation for it. That makes a lot of sense to me.
It's not just giddiness, though. It's intellectual and cultural interests, as well. Ever since I became a Christian, I realise that there have been many times when my faith was in the background, and some other preoccupation was in the foreground. Despite my daily rosary and my near-daily Mass attendance, this happens. These things are always in danger of becoming mechanical.
Most of us have to live in the world, so how do we address this problem? The approach I'm taking is to try to keep Jesus in the foreground every day. I know that keeping Jesus in the foreground every single moment should be the ideal, but if I can manage every day, I think that will be great progress. One way I'm trying to do this is to read the Bible for some non-trivial amount of time every day, but I'm also trying to do it by writing reminders to myself to read regularly. I'm hoping this will help. But I know this will remain a struggle, and no routine can replace that struggle.