By Father Casey

A few weeks ago I came across a long essay in The Atlantic with the provocative title, “How America Got Mean.”1 It’s an insightful piece by David Brooks that I highly recommend, but in case you don’t have a subscription or the time, here’s a simple summary: the problems facing our nation are rooted in the disappearance of intentional, deliberate moral development. The effort our society makes today to nurture people of character is eclipsed by the much greater effort to maximize skills for future profitability. “In a healthy society,” Brooks writes, “a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another.” In contrast, our society “has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein.”

Brooks examines history for ways in which previous generations worked harder at moral formation. (Not that our ancestors always got it right, by any stretch. We should always be cautious when people raise up the past as the “good old days,” that if reclaimed would help everything be great again.) I was especially interested in his description of a movement in the late 19th century called Bildung, which roughly means “spiritual formation.” Schools in this tradition focused on blending academic rigor with emotional and spiritual growth to help form the sort of complex, mature adults modern society requires. The philosophy of schools in the Bildung tradition was: start with the soul and move outward. Strong inner character enables lives of virtue and meaning. One of my favorite examples of this educational ethos comes from the headmaster of the Stowe School, in England, who wrote in 1930 that the purpose of his institution was to turn out young men who were “acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.”

Today, we are much more likely to be encouraged to “follow our passion” and “do what feels good.” Instead of inner reflection and growth leading us to maturity and selflessness, we are increasingly turning inward and just staying there. We are told in countless ways all day long to “do what makes us happy,” whether or not what makes us happy is good for anyone other than ourselves. For too many, whatever feels good must be moral.

This is what makes our particular Christian witness that much more important. We are called to lives of meaning and purpose, and not for our own sake, but for the sake of others. We are called to wrestle with what is right, and to do all we can to pursue it, though it may be costly. We are called to a greater source of motivation than what feels good; we are called by Jesus to the hard, beautiful work of loving every person. We do not get it right all or even most of the time, but still we strive to follow a Lord whose way is the cross, and who teaches that the path to greatness is through humble service.

Moral formation is a lifelong process. When I think I’ve made it, that I’ve arrived, that I am a fully formed follower of Christ…that’s when I’m in trouble. That’s when I am in danger of being invaluable at a dance, but acceptable in a shipwreck, rather than the other way around. I have to continue to read my Scriptures, say my prayers, listen to others, give sacrificially, forgive and seek forgiveness. Hopefully, God willing, until the day I die.

This weekend, I hope you’ll listen carefully the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:9-21). It’s like a masterclass in moral formation, so if you’re wondering where to begin, or how to continue, in this lifelong process of growing into the stature of Christ, I commend it to you. I want to share it with you in advance, and in the version by Eugene Peterson called The Message. May it be our prayer and our aspiration.

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

Father Casey +

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