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Promising Too Much

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With the U.S. presidential election, which finally takes place this week, we have heard a lot from politicians. And what politicians spend much of their time doing is promising to solve problems. Politicians offer solutions. Sometimes they offer themselves as the solution, sometimes certain policies, more often a combination of both.

And we the people, we want solutions. We want solutions to what ails us, to what worries us, and to whatever holds us back from our unrealized goals. Can politicians provide the solutions to all these things? No, of course not. And yet, there is a real danger of thinking or acting as if they can.

In fact, we run this risk not only with politicians. After all, not only politicians offer us solutions. How many self-help books promise to solve our problems and make us happy at last? Or commercials: they advertise products as the solution to this or that problem. They want us to think: if I only had the advertised product, I’d be at peace. Just look at the people in the commercials: they have the product and they are perfect pictures of happiness.

Sometimes we ourselves promise to have the solutions to the really important problems. We say things such as, “You know what the problem is with the world today?” Whatever is the rest of the statement, it promises to have the solution to what is really wrong with the world. It is as if to say: if only people did this or that, then all would be well.

Now, I am not saying that no policies, ideas, or ways of acting are important. Nor am I denying that these things can offer solutions to certain problems. But I am saying that such things are not the solution to our deepest problem. Our deepest problem has to do with our fallen condition caused by sin.

To put it precisely, what most ails the human heart is our estrangement from God due to sin. Our estrangement from God due to sin—that’s our biggest problem. Nothing in the world can solve this problem—no politician, no ideas (no matter how profound, subtle, or insightful), and no ways of acting (no matter how noble-minded or difficult). The only one who can solve this estrangement from God is God himself.

It is similar to other personal relationships, when you have wronged the other. You cannot by yourself just make things right. The other has to say something, to break the silence and offer an opening for reconciliation.

So, what, then, is the verdict in our relationship with God? Does God break the silence and say something to us? Or does he remain silent and distant? The Good News that we celebrate is that God has spoken. God has spoken and offers a way back to friendship with him through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, in other words, is the solution to our deepest problem, our estrangement from God.

This is the context for today’s second reading, which is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. In the letter, a few lines before the passage we have today, St. Paul cautions the Colossians about being deceived by “specious arguments” (Col 2:4). He says not to be carried away by empty, yet seductive philosophies. They promise mere human solutions or solutions rooted in earthly things rather than in the divine power at work in Christ (see Col 2:8).

St. Paul is saying that these other things cannot save us—only Christ can. Christ is our solution. So, St. Paul writes: “As . . . you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him, rooted and built up in him. . .” (Col 2:6–7). Again and again in this letter, St. Paul stresses that we must “live in [Christ],” and be “rooted and built up in him.

St. Patrick understood this when he prayed the prayer sometimes known as his Breastplate. He prayed: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left. . .” (Lorica of Saint Patrick). As this prayer shows, we are to be completely immersed in Christ.

We must go to Christ, for he is the solution to what most ails our hearts. This means not being carried away by mere human solutions, both during this political season and at all other times. Nothing else will save us—only Christ, and Christ alone.

The Catholic Church therefore presents us with Christ, in whom we must remain rooted. The Church presents him not as an idea, but as a living person. Through the Church’s teachings, Jesus is still at work, teaching us. Through the Church’s sacraments, he is still present, engaging us and healing us. Through the Scriptures, which the Church transmits to us, Christ continually speaks to us. For instance, in today’s Gospel, he talks to us and shows us how to pray.

So, we must be on guard against mere human solutions that promise too much. We must always turn to Christ and remain in him. In Christ, God has brought us to life again, having forgiven all our transgressions (see Col 2:13).

Abbot Austin Murphy, O.S.B. is the 10th Abbot of St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, IL. He received his doctorate, specializing in the thought of St. Augustine, in June of 2016.