If you live in the Midwest of the United States, over the past week or so you have been somewhat uncomfortable. The snow has made ordinary tasks just a bit too difficult, the cold has made leaving your house catastrophic and the omnipresent clouds have chased any inspiration into hibernation.
The common response to these kinds of storms, at least in the Western world, is to maintain a certain level of convenience and comfort. We must keep everything in order so that we can still eat and drink what we want, watch what we want, and spend time with those we want to be with. On a certain level, that seems a proper response to a storm. Surely, life must go on. But it also exposes the over-inflated comfort level in our culture.
As clever human beings, we have invented and crafted a myriad of tools, toys and techniques to make our lives easier—more convenient and comfortable. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But in a postmodern culture where the atheistic and nihilistic anthems of Nietzsche and Sartre contaminate our water, comfort becomes our bitter Master, quick to turn its subjects into slaves. Without the horizon of the eternal and transcendent, our only purpose in life is to maintain this baseline comfort level. We bow down to it like starved minions. If there is no meaning to life, what is our life’s aim except the daily toil of minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure? Perhaps this is a slice of the carrion comfort that disgusted Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Too often these toxins can contaminate us as disciples and we backslide into living for our physical, emotional and situational comfort. We want just enough of this and that, avoiding pain and suffering at all costs and increasing pleasure to give us a serene, prosperous, tranquil, fun, enjoyable life. Isn’t this basically “the American dream” that assaults us through the media at every turn? Isn’t that what the West now offers the rest of the world? But is this dutiful preservation of perpetual comfort and convenience a healthy state?
This should give us pause:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:24-25)
Does that sound comfortable? To deny yourself, lose your life, and take up your cross sounds like the antithesis of “comfortable”, yet it is the job description of a disciple of Jesus Christ. Moreover, look at Jesus’ very life! What about it – down to his very occupation – was comfortable? And century after century His closest friends, whom the Church honors and reveres, without exception lived lives in which comfort wasn’t the rudder guiding their ship, but the chain they deliberately severed, because it kept them moored to the dock.
One could go so far as declaring the tagline for a Christian disciple to be “Jesus of Nazareth – making people uncomfortable since the year zero”.
But, here is the paradox: that tagline is actually really, really, really Good News.
Peter Kreeft has said that the two worst things in the world, that humans can’t help but resist, are loneliness and boredom. Well, if living for comfort rings with a dark dissonance, it’s because it is boring – and we aren’t meant to live in boredom. So says Benedict XVI:
“This world will offer you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
Comfort tries to make a home out of our temporal lives here on Earth. And that simply doesn’t cut it for us! We want more. We want glory (Romans 8). We want radiant, unmitigated joy (John 15:11). We want all things made new (Rev. 21:5). We want to be heroes in a great story – in The Great Story – and what heroes that you know of surrounded themselves with comfort? We want, as two different Irishmen put it, to go “further up and further in” “where the streets have no name”. So we should live like missionary pilgrims “seeking a homeland” (Heb. 11:14) who “still haven’t found what [they’re] looking for”, not fearfully and fancifully settle for less – for mere comfort amidst a storm.For this reason we are told to “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (James 1:2), and, taking our guidance from the Lord and our cue from the weather around us this winter, to resist our culture’s comfort fetish and “rage, rage against the dying of the light” in our souls and in our society.
I know a woman who hasn’t had a real night’s sleep in decades. She is an 86 year old, hunched-over nun who runs an orphanage in Mexico City. She began her vocation teaching in a prosperous school in the city. Yet when she encountered abandoned, suffering children on the street, she relinquished her own comfort to be Christ to those who literally had no one else to love and care for them. She set up a tarp for shelter and “took in” the forgotten, unwanted children. Today, housed in a simple building, she almost single-handedly cares for more than 230 children. Most are mentally handicapped and some are quite young, disabled and in such a fragile state that they often need critical help at any moment. So, during the night, as these infants sleep in their cribs, Madre Inez dozes intermittently in a nearby broken down chair so that she can respond to their needs.
This is a woman who has purposely chosen the life of a disciple: a life of love.
Does it sound comfortable? Absolutely not. But, my Word, is it great.