A friend of mine tells this story: As a young boy in the 1950s he was struck down with pneumonia. His family lived in a small town that had neither a hospital nor a doctor. His father had a job that had taken him away from the family for that week. His mother was home alone with no phone and no car. Frightened and completely without resources, she came to his sickbed, knelt beside it, pinned a medal of St. Therese of Lisieux to his pajamas, and prayed to St. Therese in words to this effect: “I’m trusting you to make my child better. I’m going to remain kneeling here until his fever breaks.”
Both my friend and his mother eventually fell asleep, he in his sickbed and she kneeling beside it. When they woke, his fever had broken.
My friend shares this story, not to claim some kind of miracle took place (though who is to judge?). He tells it to make different point, namely, how his mother, in a situation of fragility and helplessness, dropped to her knees and turned to God as if by natural instinct and how, today, that kind of a response is no longer our own natural instinct. Very few of us today, faced with this kind of situation, would do what his mother did.
Why not? Because our personalities have changed. Charles Taylor, in an outstanding book, A Secular Age, traces out how, as our world has grown more secular, we have moved more and more from being porous personalities to becoming buffered personalities.
We have a porous personality when our everyday consciousness stands in anxiety and fear before threats that can come to us from nature or elsewhere (illnesses, death, epidemics, storms, droughts, earthquakes, lightening strikes, wars, evil spirits from other worlds, curses from malevolent persons, ill chance, threats of all kinds) for which our main and often only defence is power from the other world (God, angels, saints, dead ancestors, benign spirits, fairies, genies). Our personalities are porous when they are made fragile by threats that only powers beyond us can ultimately appease. All human resources within us and around us are seen as inadequate and helpless in securing our lives. Part of that belief too is that the natural world itself is far from only natural. Instead it is an enchanted world within which, beneath the surface, lurk spirits of all kinds, good and bad; and thus coping with life means not just dealing with the physical things of our world but also with spirits, good and bad, who, hidden inside and behind things, interfere with life and can bless or curse us. I remember as a child sprinkling myself with holy water for safety during lightening storms. I had a porous personality.
A buffered personality, on the other hand, is one within which everyday consciousness lives inside of what Taylor calls “a self-sufficient humanism”. Self-sufficient humanism believes that we are essentially adequate to handle the darkness and the threats within life and that there are no ghosts and spirits, good or bad, lurking beneath the surface of things. There is only what we see and that’s all – and that’s also enough. We don’t need help from another world. In self-sufficient humanism you don’t sprinkle yourself with holy water during lightening storms; you stand securely behind a safe window and enjoy the free fire-works.
And that lack of fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an illusion of course, but, even so, God doesn’t want us to live dominated by fear. The word “Gospel” after all means “good news”, not threat. Jesus came into this world to rid us of false fear.
But, with that being said, the belief that we are self-sufficient is still a dangerous illusion and a crippling immaturity. In the end, we are not safe from lightening and disease, no matter how safe our windows or good our doctors. To think of ourselves as self-sufficient is naïve, an illusion, a living under a pall-of-enchantment. We are not in control. Moreover, there is an immaturity in the belief that we are so much more advanced and freer than were our grandparents who were afraid of lightening and pinned religious medals on sick children. Their fear inspired an important virtue. That virtue may have been conscriptive, but it was real. What was that virtue?
Robert Bellah once looked at how community and religion tend to thrive inside of immigrant communities and challenged us, post-immigrants, to become “inner-immigrants”. That’s also true here. We need to get in touch with our “inner porous self”, namely, our deep down fragility, helplessness, insubstantiality, and lack of self-sufficiency.
And the purpose of that is not to instil fear, but gratitude. It is only when we realize that we are not in control and that our lives and our safety are in the hands of a great and loving power beyond us that we will bend our knees in gratitude, both when we are joyous and when we are afraid.