A woman told me she thought a Marian apparition was just about due.
Others in the room nodded their heads, agreeing that was starting to feel pretty apocalyptic around here. Maybe now would be a good time for Mary to stop in and give us our final warnings.
I couldn’t bring myself to disagree. Events and ideas that would have scrambled our brains with horror thirty years ago are now part of yesterday’s news cycle, and therefore unworthy of comment. So we can all agree: things are terrible. Truly terrible.
But are they worse than they have ever been — so bad that we’re clearly ramping up to end times? I don’t think so. I think that misery ebbs and flows.
Things get better in some ways and worse in others. Some peoples suffer while other prosper, and that’s how it always has been since the fall. It’s like the water cycle, except for wretchedness: Sometimes it’s flowing fiercely, sometimes it’s silently condensing around you; sometimes it’s held in escrow in the clouds, and sometimes it’s a downpour, or a gentle mist, or a driving hail.
But throughout the course of human history, the overall volume of awfulness is constant, if not always equally pressing.
So I hold back on predictions that the end of the world is right around the corner. The apostles thought Jesus was coming back any minute, too, and so have countless other believers ever since, in and out of thousands of years.
They weren’t wrong, exactly. The signs were all there, and still are, and always have been. Insert cosmic shrug here.
There’s another reason I don’t spend much time wondering if the world is winding down or not, and that reason is: It doesn’t matter. If the world is ending, what will it change? When I die, that’s the end of my world, and my soul is the only soul I can repent with.
So yes, the apocalypse is coming: It’s coming for each of us, individually, inescapably, because we are mortal. But we can become so preoccupied with the spiritual state of the entire world, we forget that its only our own personal spiritual state that we’ll be called to account for.
Or maybe we’re not fascinated by end times prophesies, but there’s a sort of companion distraction that’s very prevalent in these hyperpolarised times: We become fascinated by everyone else’s personal apocalypse, and allow that to preoccupy us. We become so engaged in condemning the sins that surround us that we forget to condemn our own sin.
I recently wrote an essay about how important it is to take stock of the effect your friends are having on you and your spiritual health. I said:
Social media, for all its benefits, has made it all too easy to find a group of people who will take your lowest impulses and hoist them on high, praising and burnishing them until they look like something fine and heroic. As you form relationships in the group and come to know and trust your new friends, and as the group rewards each other for holding fast to its ideals, the thing that used to make you feel a little uneasy about yourself slowly becomes your identity, the thing that fills you with pride.
This is how alt-right groups function. This is how terrorist groups function. This is how abusively rigid traditionalist groups function. And this is how dissenting groups function. Dissent comes to feel normal, even heroic. The subject matter in each group is different, but the psychological dynamics are the same.
A friend read it and asked me if I really thought that being a religious dissenter — on the matter of contraception, for instance — was really as bad as being a terrorist or an abuser.
A brilliant dodge, which nicely illustrates the point I was trying to make: We will do anything possible to avoid looking hard at our own selves in the mirror.
Who cares if someone else’s mortal sin is worse than ours, if our goal is to be freed of sin? And that is our goal, isn’t it? That’s where we’re hoping to end up before we stop breathing?
The only sins that matter for our personal salvation is the sins we personally commit. The only penitence we are responsible for is our own personal penitence. The only apocalypse that we should have our eye on is our own, personal apocalypse.
God doesn’t judge on a curve. He came to save us, personally, individually, specifically, and He will judge us personally, individually, and specifically.
He knows us better than we know ourselves — the wrongs we don’t want to admit to, the flaws we jealously protect, and also the virtues we don’t give ourselves proper credit for, and the pressures we don’t even recognise.
He knows the gifts we have been given, and how well we have put them to use; and He knows the trials we have endured, and how much they have hindered us.
So if you find yourself pondering a lot on the state of the world, and circling around and around the question of whether these are end times, or if you spend a lot of time contemplating the shocking state of other people’s souls, and circling around and around the question of which sins are worse …why? What answer could possibly be useful to your salvation?
It’s personal, ladies and gentlemen. When we die, time stops, and it doesn’t matter where we are in history.
It doesn’t matter where we fall on the spectrum compared to our enemies and peers. All that matters is who we are, and what we have allowed God to make of us.
Anything else, no matter how well it’s disguised as piety or righteous indignation, is just a distraction. And when the end is nigh, the last thing you need is distractions.