It doesn’t take much for one to be countercultural these days. In the 1960s and ’70s, the term “countercultural” typically referred to the rebellious, anarchical, feminist, do-as-I-please type; today, however, the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction: one who is counter-cultural rejects society’s view of who and who is not valuable in this world, one who embraces eternal vitality and lives each day attempting heroic virtue with the assistance of Divine Grace.
It seems those of us who consider ourselves to be countercultural desire to remain “close to the Vine;” in other words, to be faithful to God through a life of vibrancy and effervescence, a life of love.
It saddens my heart deeply as I hear of people whom I’ve known for years who decide to leave the Catholic Church and “pursue their own happiness.” Some have overtly explained this to me, while others have implied it with their lifestyle choices. At times I am overwhelmed with the sorrow in my heart from learning that more and more people are rejecting truth and instead adopting the fallacies of secular society.
What does it mean to “pursue one’s own happiness,” anyway?
At one point in my young life, I attempted to live according to secular society’s standards – at least, for a short time. I never ceased my Mass attendance, but my heart was in a place far away from the beauty of eternity: outside of Mass, I did things my way, and I convinced myself that I was free, happy, and unbridled by rules. Of course, guilt was a constant companion that, ironically and thankfully, kept my conscience in check, but otherwise I decided to try out the world’s vision of temporal happiness.
And I was left feeling lost, empty, alone, my life devoid of any fulfillment or deep meaning. As a child, I pined for purpose in my life; I wanted to make a mark on the world, to make a difference in the lives of other people. I wanted to leave a legacy. But I knew that, in order to do this, I had to strive for the acquisition of great virtue, which I knew was so uncommon, even then. Even so, I couldn’t imagine a life of superficial pursuits; it didn’t make sense until I hit late adolescence, and I decided then that living a virtuous life was simply too difficult.
Certainly it is difficult! But as an adult into my thirties, it is clear to me that nothing that is truly valuable can be attained without great sacrifice, discipline, and temperance. My heart, once deluded as a caged criminal, is now longing for eternal unity. And I realize this often requires a lifetime of total surrender and abandonment to God’s Holy Will. Even as an adult who has sought truth, rejected it at times, and yet is now living in the midst of a holy darkness, it is evident that my heart often still resembles one that is daft, puerile, inexperienced, narcissistic and pursues folly.
There are moments when the fleeting thought or image of worldly pleasures fills my heart and entices it with the promise of freedom, of happiness, of laud and honor. These are temptations that frequent my interior life, and as I face them with the reality of where my life is, where I know the Lord is leading me, and where I long to eventually end up (e.g., Heaven), my heart is struck simultaneously with sorrow, grief, strength and hope.
This is often the piercing I experience in my heart when I see or hear of those whom I’ve been privileged and honored to know through decades past: people from all walks of life, from varying socioeconomic statuses, ages, races, religions. I have invested my interests in the life of people, a passion I do not deny. I love getting to know people: their stories, their thoughts, their feelings and experiences, their struggles and accomplishments, their goals and dreams. It may sound corny, but all my life I have enjoyed learning about another person’s journey, and in so doing, I have met many amazing souls who have shared very intimate parts of their hearts with me.
And so when I see these people choose a wayward path, one that seems so incongruent with who they are on a very spiritual level, that bittersweet irony once again strikes my heart: the grief mingled with a hope in the promise of each new day that presents myriad opportunities to change.
It seems to be part of the human condition: to define one’s happiness according to pleasure or ambition, to erode the conscience slowly and steadily over time without being privy to it, to be swept away with the world’s frenzied antics that promises more of everything. No one is exempt from these temptations, and yet what exactly is it that sets those apart who deliberately reject them, time and time again?
The more I see the fallen majority, the more obvious are the remnant few. Make no mistake: I do not exempt myself from fallen nature, nor do I view myself as one set apart from the rest of humanity. Quite the contrary: I see more and more each day my failures, my weaknesses, sins, deep-seated vices, fears, and foibles. I see them like the plank they are in my eye. But I also see the splinters and planks in my neighbor’s eye, and my heart asks the age-old question, Why?
Why is the path I trod so incredibly divergent from the rest of the world’s? What is it that distinguishes the dwindling few who start over, day after day, to make things new, to pursue greatness, holiness?
I am no different than my fellow neighbor in what I am capable of achieving or failing. What sets us apart is those who are complicit with Divine Grace, and those who are not.
It is as simple as that: we are each offered a plethora of opportunities each day to accept the grace given freely to us by God, or to reject it – knowingly or unknowingly.
And that is what makes us counter-cultural: to wear the glasses with a defining lens, one that sees truth clearly and rejects the many fallacies, delusions, and heresies that are cleverly disguised in many alluring forms. It means we stand at the crossroads on our life’s odyssey, and we turn to the Lord before making our decisions, asking Him, Lord, which way do I go? He directs our paths; He guides our every step – when we ask Him.
Being counter-cultural these days means we take a deep breath when the Lord answers us with a nod or gesture, a smile or a glance at that crossroads, because we notice that the chosen path is one that is narrow. It is a path of certain struggles and unimaginable turmoil at times, but one that leads to eternal joy. That is the promise that awaits us if we trust His Word.
And it is what makes pursuing secular happiness so empty and fruitless: happiness is fleeting and is based on emotions. Our emotions are as fickle as human nature, swaying with the breeze and changing with the tides. But joy is constant, steady, unwavering. Joy stands firm in the midst of trials; it draws upon the strength of God Himself when one’s heart is rendered weary and wary.
This is why I choose to be counter-cultural, and it is why I hope that others may choose it, as well: this life is worth nothing if we have not mastered our senses and passions, if we have not developed an emotional maturity and spiritual depth that will withstand the ever-transitory milieu, but it is worth the potential strife and struggle if we accept and comply with Divine Grace every step of the way.
Copyright 2014 Jeannie Ewing