Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Test of Adversity

A very familiar passage from St. Augustine also found in the 2nd Reading of the Office of Readings for Wednesday of the 8th Week in Ordinary Time caught me off guard this morning:

“Is not human life on earth a time of testing? Who would choose troubles and hardships? You command us to endure them, but not to love them. No-one loves what he has to endure, even if he loves the endurance, for although he may rejoice in his power to endure, he would prefer to have nothing that demands endurance. In adverse circumstances I long for prosperity, and in times of prosperity I dread adversity. What middle ground is there, between these two, where human life might be free from trial? Woe betide worldly prosperity, and woe again, from fear of disaster and evanescent joy! But woe, woe, and woe again upon worldly adversity, from envy of better fortune, the hardship of adversity itself, and the fear that endurance may falter. Is not human life on earth a time of testing without respite?”  (The Confessions of St Augustine)

It is indeed enough for most of us to have to face the regular challenges of life, little adversities, let alone contend with genuine hardship or the treachery of others, isn't it? If in the presence of the great doctor, St. Augustine, a person would have replied to his words citing the old adage, "Yes, into every life a little rain must fall", the saintly Bishop of Hippo might have shot that person an exasperated glance as if to say, "You haven't understood at all, have you?" Would it not be fair to say that we don't reflect nearly or often enough upon "...human life on earth a time of testing without respite"? 

We're not that different from Job's close friends who couldn't get beyond the thought that this man must have done something to provoke God's displeasure, that he must in some way have deserved the misfortune which had come his way. Most of us are not far from being adherents to some version of the "prosperity gospel", expecting, if we are good and righteous, then really no more than a little rain to fall into our lives.

No small number of films today go out of their way to avoid what St. Augustine would describe as the Christian life quite essentially. The "dream-makers" of Hollywood and elsewhere try insistently, almost desperately to point out the drama which can exist even in virtual living, letting your "avatar" do the walking or flying if you will. The attraction to the possibilities offered us by a radioactive spider's bite or some other sort of morphing in order to allow the impossible victory captures more than the thoughts of little boys. Spiderman! We seem unwilling to face at all and with dread the hardship of adversity, let alone worry about whether we might falter under trial. Maybe that explains the high instance of alcoholism and drug abuse in society today? 

In principle, no one truly of good will would deny others their integral and inalienable human dignity, but a refusal to accept any share in life's adversity in this our broken world more often than not leads to acts or reactions which go beyond legitimate self-defense and amount to something akin to the famous preemptive strike of modern warfare. Add a dash of retaliatory action for good measure and we have war of one kind or another and in any case the kind of poisoned atmosphere which leaves little room for hope. I really cannot see how it is possible to establish justice in a world without people ready to give their very best to endure adversity.

“Is not human life on earth a time of testing?"

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