Apathy Can Feel Like Energy from the Inside [Pope Francis Bookclub]

Apathy Can Feel Like Energy from the Inside [Pope Francis Bookclub] January 27, 2014

In 2014, I’m reading and blogging through Pope Francis/Cardinal Bergoglio’s Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus.  Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the next meditation in the book, so you’re welcome to peruse them all and/or read along.

I’m reading this book one chapter at a time, so I keep being surprised every week to find out that the latest chapter is still on joy.  This chapter is grounded in his own experience as a priest, and the opportunities to welcome or reject joy that his vocation affords him.  The everyday demands of the parishioners are his apostolic responsibility, and he discusses the importance of responding to all of them with deliberate joy, not resignation or rote action:

The people are demanding in matters that relate to religion.  Just as they are generally faithful in fulfilling their promises, so they expect those who are responsible for providing pastoral care to be faithful in fulfilling their duties.  The priest does not belong to himself.  He may sometimes try to escape to other things, but all those “other things” count for little in comparison with the mother who makes him walk many blocks to bless her house.  Constancy in our apostolic work will create foundations.  I don’t think the hands of a priest should simply go through routine gestures when baptizing; rather, they should tremble with emotion because at that moment he is performing decisive gestures that become a foundation.

This is one of the reasons I’m particularly glad to be back in D.C. and back near the Dominican House of Studies.  I like meeting and talking to the friars in residence and the nuns at school because there’s a sense that consecrated religious are people upon whom you can totally rely.  They’ve chosen to make an absolute gift of themselves to the church and the people who comprise the body of Christ.  Like the parishioners that Pope Francis serves, I tend to be demanding when I talk to them.  (As you may recall, I first met on of the Dominicans at an AAAS meeting and finagled my way into a book club).

But it’s not only professed religious that “do not belong to themselves.”  That’s part and parcel of the vocation that belongs to every Christian — to be a saint.  Unfortunately, I recognize myself a lot more in the subsequent paragraph from Pope Francis:

I would like to spend a moment trying to describe the anti-apostolic vice called apathy.  It is a failing that eats away at the apostolic perseverance required in our mission as pastors of God’s faithful people.  What characterizes every form of apathy is a sort of utopian vision that refuses to take seriously the times, the places, and the persons among whom we carry out our pastoral mission.  A philosopher might say that such a person seeks to exist outside space and time.

I wouldn’t normally think of myself as apathetic, since I’m high energy and tend to fill up my schedule.  But I’m not always giving my energy and my joy to the task that is actually before me.  In Pope Francis’s description, apathy is the result of us absenting ourselves from our lives and our vocation.  That could be a consequence of just general listlessness or of turning our back on the world we actually live in in favor of an imagined one, where our responsibilities are more to our liking.

For example, at some point in the last month, I was riding the metro and ran into a person I’ve met before on the platform.  I really didn’t want to talk to them, not because I have any particular antipathy, but because I was on my way back from the library and I preferred to read the novel I’d just picked up.  So, when we did start chatting, I was hardly “trembl[ing] with emotion, performing decisive gestures that become a foundation.”  I was just generically cheery, feeling all the time as though my time was being stolen from me.

That possessiveness of my time and attention would be correct if I were living in a different world, where my primary purpose was, say, reading as much fantasy and science fiction as possible.  But I’m actually supposed to be Christ to others.  I’m not obligated to give up all of my “me” time — after all, I’m also one of the daughters of God I want to do right by — but when people offer me the chance to live out my vocation, I don’t want to view it as irrelevant or a distraction from other things that I’ve made into an idol.

I think it would be fine to brush someone off by saying honestly, “Do you mind if I’m unsociable?  I’d love to chat a different time, but I’m really excited to read this and I just got it.”  In that case, I’m giving the other person the chance to do me a kindness and removing any barrier of deception or distance by making my need known.  I also could still talk to my friend, but with less of a spirit of resignation, and more recognition that I’ve been handed a gift of time, not had my time docked.

Overall, I really like the framing of apathy as misapplied joy or perseverance.  That way, I have to check I’m doing the right thing well, not just doing the thing I’ve chosen well.

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