“We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.” – Pope Francis
Perhaps it is the particular season of life that I find myself, but I seem increasingly aware of how many insubstantial things our modern world obsesses about. It is as if we are all worried by precisely those things that should not worry us, and recklessly negligent of those things that are most central to who we are. At some point a deep pathology has invaded our culture and affected our process of prioritization. For now let us call this disease “All Things Secondary” or ATS if you like. The effects of ATS lead us to live under the impression that by focusing on secondary things we will somehow rightly order those things most essential in our lives. If our social status is attended to, if we consume a sufficient quantity of things, if we maintain a comparative advantage to our peers, if we participate in the social malaise, then who we are, how we serve others, how we provide for ourselves and how we use our gifts and talents to contribute to this world will somehow mysteriously fall into place. How foolish we are! All of the secondary things find their deepest value when they are contingent upon and rightly ordered to those things which are essential.
So when did our culture contract ATS what is its prognosis and treatment?
Contrary to what one might believe from the increasing array of good books that rightly identify the pathology and its effects on modern society, the truth is that it is not just modern society that has suffered in this way. In the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions, the origin of this suffering is the Fall. Other traditions assign different names and narratives all but describe a similar dis-integration of the unity that is supposed to amalgamate man’s heart, mind and soul.
Since the moment of the fall our principal relationships with God, with each other, and with the land have been disordered. The effects of the fall are immediate in the Genesis narrative. Eve and Adam use that which makes them most like God, their will and rational intellect, to choose against God. The result is instantaneous, they no longer gaze upon each other without shame, they are “naked and afraid.” Adam and Eve’s right ordered relationship is now distorted, so too is their relationship with God from whom they hide, and with the land from which they no longer recognize its fecundity. The great Christian proclamation is that God wills to put it all back together again, and invites us to participate in the reunification of our heart, mind and soul. He does this by evoking our desire for all things primary. For that which is good, beautiful and true. He does this through the teaching of Christ and His paschal mystery which unites our suffering to His and who reestablishes, in a real way, the possibility to be in right relationship with God, with each other and with the land. St. Paul reminds us “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
The goal of every religion and political system since the dawn of civilization is to put it all back together again, to confront the problem of sin, stupidity, avarice, pride, violence, etc. This is where the similarities end. People of good will can all recognize that there is a problem, and all assign it to some failure of the past, but the solutions to this problem are varied, and what it means to be “put back together” and to live an “integrated life” are as disparate today as they have ever been. This is where I find the greatest sense of urgency. Today ATS is no longer treated, the inoculations provided in the past no longer funded. No political system can put it all back together, a pundit cannot save your soul. No secret or hidden knowledge can put it all back together, alas every generation has its Manichees.
The universal vocation of everyone, both Christian and otherwise, is to be holy. To be unified, integrated, and in right relationships both vertically—with God above and His creation under our feet—and horizontally with each other. Consider the words of Christ, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?…Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” The thesis of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and in fact His entire earthly life and ministry, was to redirect our hearts, minds and souls towards all things primary. This is the only known treatment for ATS.
Post Script: At The Melon Stand:
I do not lament this modern world, God made it much too good for that. But I am increasingly concerned, maybe bordering on jaded, about the systematic willingness to ignore all things primary and obsess about all things secondary. I am aghast by how ATS effects those within and outside of the faith, and I find myself with an increasing desire to strike large objects against my head. 38 is too early for a mid-life crisis—unless of course I die at 74 in which case my timing is uncharacteristically impeccable—but something has got to change. Something has to change in me! Too much of my identity is connected to what I do, rather than to who I am—a beloved son of the father, a husband to an amazing wife, a father to eight children who give me way more than I could ever give them, a Catholic called to live in this age, and a member of the species that God chose to breathe His essence into). Who I am should inform and define what I do, not the other way around. I admit I am as man at the melon stand described in St. Frances de Sales’ masterpiece Intro to the Devout Life. “They are like a sick man who abstains from eating melon when the doctor says it would kill him, but who all the while longs for it, talks about it, bargains when he may have it, would at least like just to sniff the perfume, and thinks those who are free to eat of it very fortunate.” I too am infected with ATS, learning how to participate with God’s grace to focus on all things primary.
“Let any man who reads this ask himself whether he would rather be where he is in London on this August day (for it is August), or where I am, which is up in Los Altos, the very high Pyrenees, very far from every sort of derivative and secondary thing and close to all the things primary?” (Hilaire Belloc Hills and the Sea).
About the Author: Ryan is a teacher, scholar, aspiring farmer and a father joyfully aware of his ineptitude to respond to all the variable demands of family life. A professor of Theology and Catholic studies, he has a PhD from Liverpool Hope University Maryvale Institute and has taught college students for over 15 years . He and his wife Rebecca, along with their 8 kids, attempt to live a rural lifestyle in the middle of suburbia, endeavoring to rightly order their relationship with God, each other, and the land.