All the lonely people. The isolation caused by the painful restrictions of the Covid pandemic make us think about the accuracy of the Beatles’ description of a world of loneliness. But even before the present crisis, many factors have led to a mentality which is the source of loneliness: a disposition to worship the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I.
Our culture prizes autonomy, the conviction that it is my life that matters most, and I can do what I want with it. I am looking out for myself. As long as I do not obviously interfere with other people’s right to satisfy their own egos, my wishes are supreme. That disposition is clearly contrary to the Christian vision of relationships of generous love for others, based on the life of the Trinity revealed to us by the life of Jesus on earth, and particularly symbolized by the Sacred Heart, that sign of his sacrificial love on the Cross. The Christian vision is in stark contrast with the Spirit of our Age that prizes autonomy, the independence of the ego, rather than the inter-dependence of loving sacrifice.
The English poet, John Donne, wisely said, “no man is an island, entire unto himself.” We can be trapped into being islands of autonomy – “My life, my body is my own” – but that leads nowhere, except to loneliness, and even to euthanasia and other forms of suicide. And all is made worse by digital culture, and now by Covid isolation, and increasing tension caused by restrictions on our inherent human need to socialize. But the Sacred Heart is the sign of a love that reaches out, in the interdependence of relationship with others, not the sterile independence of autonomy. We find life and joy and the meaning of who we are not in icy isolation, or proud autonomy, or independence, but in the inter- relationship that is ultimately found in the Trinity and is made visible in the sacrificial love of Jesus represented by the Sacred Heart.
Both Christian communities and individual Christians are meant to make incarnate in daily life the generous, inter-personal, relational love that is found in the Trinity. If they really do so, they will also be more effective in evangelizing, especially in this lonely secular world where it is not profound personal relationship but autonomy that is prized. The communion of Trinitarian love, when made present in a Christian community, is as attractive as an oasis in a desert for secular people who have become lost in an abstract, ego-centric, and ultimately sterile exaltation of personal autonomy. We cannot truly love others, or love God, if we are absorbed in the desires of our own ego, and live in a way that is self-referential. A wise person once said: “If you are all wrapped up in yourself, you make a very small package.”
Although the exaltation of autonomy is the root of many if not most of the evils we face in these days, its very sterility provides an occasion for divine grace and an impetus to conversion. Augustine wrote so many years ago: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” His profound dissatisfaction with a way of life which exalted the ego but was devoid of true sacrificial love became like the irritating grain of sand within the oyster around which the beautiful pearl is formed. Likewise, today, the exaltation of autonomy causes great evil, but its very sterility can bring people to seek another way of life that is more fruitful, represented by the love for others symbolized by the Sacred Heart. This is a challenge that impels our pastoral zeal to reach out to the modern inhabitants of the sterile secular desert.
Although there are obviously many differences between the cultural situation of Augustine, and that in which we find ourselves, I find it intriguing that this restless man who was himself dissatisfied with the ego-absorbed autonomy which he had attained, devoted much of his life after his conversion to meditating upon the love within the Trinity, which provided him and provides us with an oasis of fruitful life in this barren earthly desert, and guidance on our journey to the promised land.
As the ancient Christian writing called the Didache says in its opening line, “There are two ways, the way to death and the way to life, and there is a great difference between them.” The way to life involves relationships of generous love, modelled on the Trinity, and made present in our world in the life of Jesus, especially in his generous love symbolized by the Sacred Heart. The
way to loneliness and spiritual death involves living autonomously, without consideration of the outreaching generous love of God and love of neighbour, which is really the only way to life, and which the Sacred Heart of Jesus signifies especially when presented, as it often is, in an image of Jesus with outstretched arms.
A helpful image for these two ways is found in two kinds of clock faces. In an analog clock face the hour hand and the minute hand advance around the dial, and we can tell what time it is by seeing the present moment in relationship to the wider context of past and future. If it is 9:30 the minute hand has gone beyond where it was at 9:25 but has not yet reached where it will be at 9:35. Where we are now is understood within the context of the relationship between past and future.
In the more modern digital type of clock face, very practical but more sterile, all we see is a succession of disconnected points, each autonomous: 9:29, then 9:30, then 9:31, and so on. Each moment succeeds the one before, with no reference to a greater pattern of relationship from which each individual moment derives its meaning. While the analog is integrated, the digital is dis-integrated, fractured.
That digital autonomy is very much the mode of our modern secular world, in which the web of relationship is shattered, and people are increasingly alienated from one another and from God. Christians are analog aliens in a digital desert, because we recognize that we are not independent, but interdependent, and draw life from our relationship with God and neighbour. And we recognize that the life-giving web of relationship is made manifest in the human love that reflects the divine personal love of the Trinity represented on earth by the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In our own country the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the law forbidding euthanasia. To some degree emotional arguments about the need to spare people from suffering pain were used to justify this decision, and were illustrated by extreme examples, even though in almost all cases modern medicine can deal with the issue of pain. Hard cases make bad law.
But the fundamental argument for euthanasia is instead: “I have the right to decide when I am no longer satisfied with the quality of my life.” People have come to reject the idea that we do not own our own lives, but that we are entrusted with life by God. They do not consider that taking one’s life affects others. Instead: “It is my life, and I can do with it what I want.” That is the sterile vision of autonomy, so different from the inter-personal love to which Jesus calls us, a generous love for others. We find ourselves by not focusing on ourselves, but on others, as Jesus shows us. That sacrificial love for others is what the Sacred Heart represents.
Similarly, those who argue for abortion do not consider the debt of love that is owed to the little child at the very beginning of life. Instead, the winning argument is that a woman has the right to do what she wants with her body, although it is forgotten that abortion most grievously affects another person. Freedom of choice is wrongly defined by autonomy.
Our society is increasingly shaped by social networks and the devices by which we access them, creating a culture of superficial interconnectivity. We speak of the “world wide web”. But these digital landscapes offer only a shallow, brittle, dry and depersonalized vision of genuine human relationship. It is abstract, not personal. We have technological relationships with people who are absent, while being absent to those who are personally present. We forget those around us as we focus on the screens of our little machines. This can lead to countless islands of loneliness, as real human relationships are replaced by virtual substitutes. We are all becoming aware of this after so much time cut off from natural, personal, human interaction during the pandemic. In the long run, a virtual world is no substitute for human relationship.
To be a friend in real life is qualitatively different from being one of countless internet “friends”. And because the technology of social media is inherently so abstract and impersonal, people regularly write things which are astonishingly harsh and cruel when composing emails, or commenting on blogs, things they would not say face to face in a real human encounter. Some wise advice: “Pause before you hit the ‘send’ button.” The richness of true human love, flowing from the generous love of God, is symbolized in the Sacred Heart – there is nothing abstract there, but a reminder of the deeply personal love of Jesus for us, shown most powerfully and concretely on the cross on Good Friday.
We are analog Christians in a digital world. We are made for relationship - we know who we are by relating to others, as an analog clock shows the time by visualizing the present moment in relationship to what has gone before and what is yet to come. This is an integrated vision of reality. But we have become dis- integrated. Divided. All alone in front of our computer screens.
The Sacred Heart is the sign of the generous, warmly affectionate and sacrificial love that we encounter in Jesus in the Gospel. In the secular desert of autonomy, with joy we will draw water from that well of salvation.