Two passages struck me this past weekend, from quite disparate sources. The Old Testament reading for the first Sunday in Advent is from chapter 63 of Isaiah: “Why, Yahweh, do you let us wander from our way and let our hearts grow too hard to hear you?” The other is from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (abridged edition, of course). Describing how that republic’s strength had arisen from its citizens’ sense of public duty, Gibbon attributes its subsequent fall to the Romans’ abdication of that duty when they “insensibly sunk into the languid indifference of private life.”
We all know the answer to Isaiah’s question. God created us with free will. If we did not possess free will, we would not be free to love him. The risk of being free is we might choose not to love God and therefore “love” what isn’t good for us. How does this relate to Gibbon’s trenchant reference to the languid indifference of private life?
The public virtue and patriotism of Rome’s free citizens engendered the vitality that led to the birth of the empire. When these virtues, and the sacrifices they entailed, waned the seeds of the empire’s collapse were sewn. Free as they were, the Romans had a choice. Over time too many chose the languid indifference of private life over the invigorating valor of public commitment.
I am not equating the advance of the Kingdom of God to the expansion of the Roman Empire. However, a couple of commonalities suggest themselves. One is that to obtain success, virtue, valor and sacrifice are essential. The other is that indifference – especially that languid indifference that today smothers us in our cocoons of comfort – can be lethal or, from a societal point of view, suicidal. If we are to contribute to, or even to participate in, the advance of the Kingdom we have to be involved at some expense.
The purpose of this column, which appears with regrettable irregularity, is to bring the attention of its readers to the doers, the poets, the teachers, the healers, the industrialists and the religious, who are making that contribution which is advancing the Kingdom. We need to know about them in order to call us out of our own withdrawn cocoons and to join in the risky, uncertain, but joyful, advance of the Kingdom.
Allow me to bring your attention to the Epiphany Center in San Francisco (www.theepiphanycenter.org). This oasis of support for struggling families was founded in San Francisco in 1852 by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Seven nuns from Emmitsburg, Maryland (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton) journeyed there to set up an orphanage for children whose parents had died in a cholera epidemic. Originally called St. Joseph’s Orphanage, the center now is known as the Epiphany Center and, with the help of many dedicated volunteers, serves the most vulnerable children and families in San Francisco with holistic care. Inspired by the values of respect, compassion, inventiveness, advocacy and simplicity, the Center has as its logo two hands in the shape of a candle with the Epiphany’s star as the candle’s flame reminding us that God is the light that leads to healing and wholeness for the women, children and families the Epiphany Center serves.
Isn’t it remarkable how the impulse of seven religious sisters more than a century and a half ago has led to this mainstay institution in San Francisco today where mothers, children and families in need can find support? Many of us who ponder God’s plan for the world can only wonder: What are we doing to help the cause? The ever-actual necessity of the grace of God notwithstanding, isn’t it reasonable to suggest that the Kingdom cannot advance without some degree of “reaching out” by all of us from our private worlds of dangerously languid indifference?
Dana Robinson is chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.