There once reigned harmony between nature, man and God. The kingdom of God, in a word, reigned upon the earth as it does in heaven. All things have been changed. There reigns everywhere now antagonism and discord. The earth is undergoing a revolution in its climate and features. One species of plant is pushed off by another. One race of animals takes the place of another by their destruction. The same law reigns over men. The stronger race conquers and exterminates the weaker one. The intelligent take advantage of the ignorant, the rich increase their wealth from the scanty earnings of the poor, the powerful oppress the weak. The laws of society and legislation favor the privileged over the downtrodden. A battle is waging.
You object and say that life is to you not a trial or a struggle. Could it be that you are living in the unconscious innocence of your childhood? It may be that you have never asked yourself what is life’s meaning or why are you here? If you possess reason, you will find that there is a task imposed on you that will tax your energies to fulfill. Be a man! Resolve to tell the truth, restrain your eagerness for riches, fame or pleasure; deal honestly with others, make restitution, restrain your appetites and keep away from sin.
Do one these things for not a year, or a month or a week, but just for one single day, and you will find that you are at war with yourself and if you come off with victory it will only be after a severe battle. Be a Christian and your life will be warfare. In the histories of great men, you will learn that it was in their conquest of self, their struggle to do right and in keep God’s holy law, in their high trust in God that made them great in the sight of both God and man. Solitude, fasting and prayer feed the soul with supernatural energy, enabling it to do great things without effort. Christ has pointed out the way.
RESPONSE: FR. FRANK DESIANO, CSP
Servant of God Father Isaac Hecker was usually positive about nature and creation (remember his 1862 work Aspirations of Nature). In this sermon we see Hecker’s clear acknowledgement of conflict built into human existence. He paints a natural world of struggle, quite the opposite of Isaiah’s vision of lions lying next lambs, ranging from weather to international conflict. He further argues that if his listeners do not see life as a struggle, then perhaps they haven’t engaged the greatest projects of life—personal integrity, true charity, and peace with God and all.
Try it, Hecker says, for one day—try to live with the values you should live with, and you will find plenty of trial, plenty of struggle. This is quite a sober message to our modern culture which avoids all discontent at any cost, and sees the existence of stress as itself a problem to be solved or a condition to be medicated.
A world that is comfortable has a hard time seeing the need for salvation and, therefore, the need for a savior. Notice how Hecker does not resort to the strategy that many churches use today to highlight the need for salvation—guilt. No, for Hecker the need for salvation comes from the very ideals we pursue in the deepest parts of our spirits, and our inability to really attain those ideals on our own. This reminds me of the thought of a famous Paulist philosophy professor who spent weeks having his students ask, “Is it better to be a happy pig, or an unhappy human?” Only humans, true humans, live for the highest ideals; only humans, then, experience conflict and frustration.
Hecker finally moves his listeners to the inner life, where he felt most at home. It’s in our personal discipline, our inner integrity, our acceptance of the fundamentals of asceticism, that people find the resources for victory. Of course, Hecker would insist that it’s the Holy Spirit who works exactly in this area, in our hearts, helping us experience the Victory of Christ in our lives.
Rev. Frank Desiano, CSP is President of Paulist Evangelization Ministries, based in Washington, DC.