Saints Alive


I cope with these anxious and overscheduled times in my own way: I’m two years behind in my magazine reading. So I didn’t get to the Atlantic article about our peculiar contemporary anxiety (November 2012) until this week.

The Gnawing Sense of Anxiety of life, according to productivity expert David Allen, happens when the mounting demands of emails, texts and daily decisions make you worry that whatever you’re doing right now is not as important as something else you should be doing.

“You’re at work worrying about home, and you’re at home worrying about work, and you’re in neither place psychologically when you’re there physically,” he says.

To this I’d add other emotional conditions that are stealing wellbeing and happiness – a sense of isolation despite our connectivity, distrust of institutions and each other, and an insomnia-inducing hunch that dark forces are taking over (previously it was communism – now it’s globalization, Ebola or ESPN).

I don’t know what it will take to reverse these intensities. But All Saints Day (Nov. 1) is upon us, reminding everyone that there are other ways to respond to the stresses of the present.

All Saints Day recognizes the witnesses and wisdom-bearers of the church story, past and present, known and unknown, official and unofficial. Robert Ellsberg, author of The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, says it’s a mistake to regard saints as stern, miserable or otherworldly. They generally had a zest for life, a capacity for sympathy and suffering, a sense of humor and beauty and vocation – whether it’s St. Vitus, patron of dancers, or St. Gereon, patron of migraines, or St. Martin de Porres, patron of racial harmony, or St. Honoratus, patron of horses.

Saints single-mindedly do what anyone might do: learn to let go and sit still, learn to see and love the world afresh and do the one necessary thing. They find a “spirit of peace and freedom in the face of obstacles and adversities,” says Ellsberg. They are “prodigies of the spiritual life.”

Even if most of humanity isn’t prodigy material, real people in their own circumstances can defy the burdened spirit of the moment. A little serenity, good will and self-forgetfulness can help. “In walking this path, worn smooth by the steps of so many other saints, we find ourselves on the way of happiness,” Ellsberg writes.

Maybe our anxieties are as impressive and unique as advertised. But I suspect they’re just the latest version of garden-variety human discontent, an old, old story. All Saints Day points to a confidence in something bigger and more enduring than an ever-demanding inbox.

How Was Your Day?

Research has identified the most boring day on earth since 1900: April 11, 1954. Nothing much happened that day. No catastrophes, no huge headlines. Belgium held an election. A noted Turkish scholar was born. That’s about it. Scientists created a search engine that can organize 300 million newsworthy facts, and that day turned up as the big underachiever.

This news gives the impression that we should gang up on April 11, 1954, ridicule it, delete it as an epic waste of time.

Not so fast. I wasn’t around then, but the case could be made that April 11 in the Year of Our Lord ’54 wasn’t boring at all. Strange dramas happened that day that no one even now can account for. The sun rose. Springtime bloomed. The night stars churned. The web of life infiltrated every hour. People stirred, some were born, others died. Destinies were decided, others were closed off. That day sent out unstoppable ripples. We haven’t been the same since.

You might protest: But April 11, 1954, was boring from a political, social point of view, not from the standpoint of nature or cosmos.

But there’s no use sending the natural world and the human one to their separate corners. They can’t be sharply divided.

“We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time,” Thomas Merton once said. The sharp details of creation glow and flow and quiet the mind, revealing divine fingerprints, even on the least eventful day in modern history, even the most boring day in the history of your life.

So I salute the most monotonous day of the last 114 years. We could use a day like that now and then here in the 21st century, where every day seems determined to be furiously interesting, worrisome, madcap and overscheduled.

I found out something else about April 11, 1954. It was a Sunday. Maybe there was no newsworthy mischief that day because it was the last Sabbath in history where the world actually still rested.

For Whom the Bells Keep Tolling

Modern life was roaring as I sat out back the other day, cracking pecans, That is, I could hear the rush of cars and trucks on the nearby interstate – our 21st-century soundtrack of mobility, speed, heedless consumption, convenience, progress. It is ruthless, exuberant, lethal. Nothing stands in its way.

I heard another force in the backyard. Birds were busy at their chortling routine. Squirrels pounded on the roof. A breeze picked up in the maples. Nature was stirring: lyrical, volatile, incessant. Nothing stands in its way either.

These two forces, one of asphalt, one of earth, vie for dominance. Each has its loyal following.

Then I noticed a third sound, arriving from a few blocks away: the chiming of a church bell tower. It rang out gently with a hymn to mark the midafternoon hour.

It refused to do the hard sell. It seemed to say: We’re not going to annoy you with lots of noise. Just know the church is here. The news is here if you need it.

In medieval towns, life was regulated by the peal of the parish bells. They announced the worship hour and shooed away evil. Now the bells are mostly a novelty, just one sound among many in the postmodern medley.

Yet neither wind nor industry can replicate them. In their understated way, the neighborhood bells are a reminder of the great rolling debate about science and belief. Are we alone in our thoughts, or does a larger force abide? Must we figure out the universe on our own, or will all be revealed one day?

I like reading the writer Martin Amis as he follows the latest wrinkles in modern cosmology. He used to be an atheist. Now he finds agnosticism the more logical position, more in keeping with our ignorance.

“We’re about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe,” he once told Bill Moyers. “But why is the universe so incredibly complicated? That makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence.”

The church bells give their answer: We can’t deduce the whole truth on our own. Divine revelation completes the picture.

This is no justification for spiritual arrogance. The hostilities committed in religion’s name every day threaten to ruin religion and everything else.

The neighborhood bells sing a view of belief that I hold close – melodious not bullying, steady not abusive, a real sound tolling in the real world of raging weather and anxious economy, outlasting both.