“Midway in the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”
So begins Dante’s “Inferno,” the first part of his “Divine Comedy” and a poem that didn’t really begin to resonate with me until a few years ago.
I will turn 45 this year, but the midlife crisis got underway quite some time ago. No fast cars, extreme sports, or flings with younger women for me – I’m much too boring for that stuff.
Instead, I sank into a deep depression. Then one day, I woke up. Or, rather, I was shaken awake. That was 26 months ago.
What exactly roused me I’m not at liberty to say. But it was clear I needed to change my life in a radical way.
So I did what most people do in this postmodern, materialistic world of ours. I went on a diet and joined a gym. Found a good therapist, then found a better one.
Still, something was missing. Part of me knew what it was, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it. To do so would require sacrifices I was afraid to make.
I am a baptized and confirmed Catholic who attended a terrific Catholic high school and married in the Church. But from the get-go, I was a lukewarm believer who rarely attended Mass. It just wasn’t something my family did, not even on holidays.
For a long time, I called myself agnostic. There were stretches when I even considered myself an atheist.
But that was a lie. A “still, small voice” was always present, even if faint and far off.
If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that I’m very good at second-guessing my better judgment. My body may be stronger and my mind more resilient. But when faced with a genuine crisis, I found myself to be utterly powerless and alone.
I lacked faith.
So in a moment of hopelessness and defeat, I surrendered. With nowhere left to turn, I turned to God. The truth is, I needed the Truth. And if I was going to suffer, at least I wouldn’t suffer alone.
Suffering gets short shrift in our affluent society, which is one reason why religion seems so bland nowadays. We’re big on eliminating any semblance of suffering in our lives, but we’re not so good at harnessing it, coping with it or understanding it.
Christianity isn’t masochism. But it does acknowledge that suffering is part of life and seeks to give it meaning.
How? Pope St. John Paul II, who suffered plenty, explained it this way: “Love is … the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the cross of Jesus Christ.”
Love is the key.
Many non-Catholics – and many Catholics for that matter – think the Church is all about the thou-shalt-nots. You can’t use birth control. You can’t have an abortion. Divorced people can’t take Communion. How terribly unfair!
But if you think the shalt-nots are tough, try the thou-shalts. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love is hard. It’s easy for us to get love wrong. Dante in his “Purgatorio” describes sin as “disordered” or “misdirected” love. Just as you could love the wrong things, you could also love the right things the wrong way or too much.
You hear about Catholic guilt, and it’s real. My priest once told me there’s a lot of guilt, sure, but there’s also hope – along with the possibility of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. Mercy is love. Forgiveness is love. Reconciliation is love. God is love. Surrendering to faith first – that’s the challenge.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.