I like to watch old movies. Over the past several months, I’ve watched (or re-visited) a number of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, some screwball comedies from the thirties and forties, and a couple of film-noir classics. Last week, over the course of three evenings, I managed to get through the three hours and forty minutes (yes, you read that correctly) of the Charlton Heston version of the Ten Commandments from 1956. With delight, I took in the still marvelous technicolor, the over-the-top costumes, the wonderfully corny faux-Shakespearean dialogue, and the hammy acting that is, one might say, so bad that it’s good. But what especially struck me was the sheer length of the film. Knowing that it required a rather extraordinary act of attention on the part of its audience, it is astonishing to remember that it was wildly popular, easily the most successful movie of its time. It is estimated that, adjusted for inflation, it earned a box office of roughly two billion dollars. Would moviegoers today, I wondered, ever be able to muster the patience required to make a film like the Ten Commandments equally popular today? I think the question answers itself.
The coming together of daunting length and popularity then put me in mind of a number of other examples of this combination from cultural history. In the nineteenth-century, the novels of Charles Dickens were so sought after that ordinary Londoners waited in long lines for chapters as they were published in serial form. And let’s face it: not a lot happens in Dickens novels, by which I mean very few things blow up; there are no alien invasions; no snappy one-liners uttered by the heroes before they blow away the bad guys. For the most part, they consist of lengthy conversations among fascinating and quirky characters. Much the same can be said of the novels and stories of Dostoevsky. Though there is indeed a murder and a police investigation at the heart of the plot of The Brothers Karamazov, for the vast majority of that famous novel, Dostoevsky arranges various characters in drawing rooms for pages and pages and pages of dialogue on matters political, cultural, and religious. During that same period, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of debates on the vexed issue of slavery in America. They spoke for hours at a time—and in an intellectually elevated manner. If you doubt me, look up the texts online. Their audiences were not cultural elites or students of political philosophy, but rather ordinary Illinois farmers, who stood in the mud, gave their full attention, and strained to hear the orators’ unamplified voices. Could you even begin to imagine an American crowd today willing to stand for a comparable length of time and listen to complex presentations on public policy—and for that matter, could you imagine any American politician willing or able to speak at Lincolnian length and depth? Once again, the questions answer themselves.
Why this look back at modes and styles of communication from another age? Because by contrast ours seem so impoverished! I certainly understand the value of social media and I readily use them in my evangelical work, but at the same time, I am acutely aware of how they have lessened our attention span and capacity for sophisticated conversation and real advance toward the truth. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and especially Twitter specialize in flashy headlines, misleading titles, simplistic characterizations of an opponent’s position, sound bites in place of arguments, and mean-spirited rhetoric. Just dip into the comment boxes on any of these sites, and you’ll immediately see what I mean.
A favorite technique on social media is to take a phrase or even a single word of a person’s argument, wrench it out of context, give it the worst possible interpretation, and then splash one’s outrage all over the internet. Everything has to be fast, easily digested, simple to understand, black and white—because we have to get clicks on our site, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world. What worries me is that an entire generation has come of age conditioned by this mode of communication and hence is largely incapable of summoning the patience and attention required for intelligent engagement of complex issues. I noticed this, by the way, in my nearly twenty years of teaching in the seminary. Over those two decades, it became increasingly difficult to get my students to read, say, a hundred pages of St. Augustine’s Confessions or of Plato’s Republic. Especially in more recent years, they would say, “Father, I just can’t concentrate that long.” Well, the auditors of the Lincoln-Douglas debates could, and so could the readers of Dickens, and so even could those who sat through The Ten Commandments sixty-some years ago.
So as not to end on a down note, permit me to draw your attention to what I consider a real sign of hope. In just the last couple of years, there has been a trend in the direction of long-form podcasts that are attracting huge audiences of young people. Joe Rogan, who hosts one of the most popular shows in the country, speaks to his guests for upwards of three hours, and he gets millions of views. In the past year, I have appeared on two podcasts with Jordan Peterson, each one in excess of two hours and featuring pretty high-level discourse and both has reached just shy of one million views.
Perhaps we’re turning a corner. Perhaps young people have tired of vituperative sound bites and superficial pseudo-intellectualism. To encourage this trend, I would like to invite all of you to use much less social media—and maybe pick up The Brothers Karamazov.
© Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Bishop Barron is a #1 Amazon bestselling author and has published numerous books, essays, and articles on theology and the spiritual life. ARTICLE originally published at wordonfire.org. Reprinted with permission.
Blessings were abundant: friends, family, money, vacations—you name it, I had it all. So how did it all go so wrong? I didn't really have a wonderful storybook childhood—tell me someone who has—but I wouldn't say it was terrible. There was always food on the table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head, but we struggled. I don't just mean we struggled financially, which we definitely did, but I mean we struggled to find our way as a family. My parents were divorced by the time I was six, and my father turned to heavier drinking than ever before. Meanwhile, my mother found men who were into the same drugs and habits as she was. Though we had a rough start, it didn't stay that way. Eventually, against all statistical odds, both of my parents and my now stepfather, by the grace of God, got sober and have stayed that way. Relationships were rebuilt, and the sun began to rise in our lives again. A few years went by, and there came a point when I realized that I had to do something productive and different in my life so that I could avoid all of the pitfalls of my childhood. I buckled down and went back to school. I got my barber’s license and worked myself into a nice career. I made plenty of money and met the woman of my dreams. The opportunity eventually arose, and I started a second career in law enforcement in addition to cutting hair. Everyone liked me, I had friends in very high places, and it looked as if the sky was the limit. So how'd I end up in prison? Unbelievably True Wait a minute, this isn't my life…this can't be real…HOW IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?! You see, despite everything I had, I was missing something. The worst part of it was that I knew all along exactly what that something was, and I ignored it. It's not like I didn't ever try, but I just couldn't give God my everything. Instead, I lost it all…or did I? This is how it is: Whatever sin you're holding onto will eventually work its roots deep down into the core of your soul and choke you out until you can't breathe anymore. Even seemingly insignificant sins demand more of you, little by little, until your life is upside down, and you're so disoriented that you don't know which way is up. That's how it started for me. I began giving in to my lustful thoughts somewhere around middle school. By the time I was in college, I was a full-fledged womanizer. When I did finally meet the woman of my dreams, there was no way I could ever do what was right anymore. How could someone like me be faithful? But that's not all. For a while, I tried to go to Mass and do all the right things. I went to confession regularly and joined clubs and committees, but I always kept just a little bit of my old sins for myself. It's not necessarily that I wanted to, but I was so attached, and I was afraid to let go. Time went on, and I slowly stopped going to Mass. My old sinful ways began to fester and creep back into the forefront of my life. Time moved fast, and pleasures swirled all around me as I threw caution to the wind. I was high on life. On top of it all, I was very successful and admired by many. Then it all came crashing down. I made some terrible choices that left me serving a 30-year prison sentence. More importantly, I left behind people who loved and cared for me with a lifetime of pain. You see, sin has a way of convincing you to go further than you've gone and making you more depraved than you once were. Your moral compass becomes confused. Worse things seem more exciting, and the old sins don't cut it anymore. Before you know it, you've become someone you don't even recognize. Fast forward to the present day... I live in an 11x9 ft. cell, and I spend twenty-two hours a day locked inside of it. There is chaos all around me. This is not how I imagined my life would turn out. But, I found God within these walls. I have spent the last few years here in prison praying and seeking the help I needed. I have been studying Scripture and taking lots of classes. I've also been sharing the message of God's mercy and peace with all the other inmates who will listen to me. It took an extreme wake-up call before I finally surrendered to God, but now that I have, my life has been totally different. I wake up every morning thankful to be alive. I am grateful every day for the shower of blessings that I receive despite my incarceration. For the first time in my life, I experienced peace in my soul. It took me losing my physical liberty to find my spiritual freedom. You don't have to go to prison to find and accept God's peace. He will meet you wherever you are, but let me warn you—if you hold anything back from Him, you may very well end up being my neighbor in prison. If you recognize yourself in this story, please don't wait to seek professional help and guidance, starting from, but not limited to, your local parish priest. There is no shame in admitting you have a problem, and there is no better time than NOW to get help. If you're in prison and you're reading this, I want you to know that it's not too late for you. God loves you. He can forgive whatever it is you've done. Jesus Christ shed His precious blood to forgive all of us who come to Him with our pain and our brokenness. You can start right now, this very moment, by recognizing that you are powerless without Him. Cry out to Him with the words of the tax collector: "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). I leave you with this: "What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Matthew. 16:26)
Are there doors in your life that refuse to open, no matter your efforts? Know the secret behind those closed doors through this heartfelt experience. Opening the door to the Cathedral of Saint Jude, my husband and I found our seats amidst a large crowd gathered for the funeral of a woman I had met long ago when I was only 20 years old. She and her husband were the pastoral leaders of a Catholic Charismatic Prayer Community at the time. While she and I had not been close personal friends, she had touched my life in significant ways when I was involved with this dynamic faith-filled group. Her middle son, Ken, was now Father Ken, and that day was also the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Scanning the congregation revealed many familiar faces from both my past and present. Father Ken’s touching tribute to his mother and the loving eulogies by his siblings reflected the impact the prayer group had on their own family, as well as many in attendance that day. Their words prompted memories to course through my mind—of how the Holy Spirit used this community to change many lives, especially mine. Dragged into Love I had been raised by two very devout Catholic parents who attended Mass daily, but as a teen, I only grudgingly participated in the life of the Church. I felt resentful of my father’s insistence on family Rosary every night and saying grace not just before meals but after as well. Attending the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on a Friday night at 10 PM didn’t bode well for my social status as a 15-year-old, especially when my friends asked what I had done over the weekend. Being a Catholic, for me then, was just about plenty of rules, requirements, and rituals. My experience each week was not one of joy or fellowship with other believers but rather one of duty. Still, when my sister invited me to join her at her college’s weekend retreat the fall after I graduated from high school, I agreed. My small town offered little in the way of new experiences, and this would definitely be out of the norm for me. As it turned out, this retreat would set the trajectory for the rest of my life! Between the warm camaraderie of the participants, as well as the huge smile that covered Father Bill’s face when he shared about the Lord with us, I saw something I had never seen in my home parish, and I knew that was what I truly wanted in my life: JOY! Near the end of the weekend, during the quiet time outdoors, I offered my life to God, not knowing exactly what that really meant. Hopeless Cases Less than two years later, my sister and I moved from the east coast of Florida to the west, first due to her job and later, because of my acceptance to a college in Saint Petersburg. Our efforts to find a place to live within our means were thwarted time and again due to the unwillingness of numerous apartment managers to rent a one-bedroom unit to two girls—even though we had shared a bedroom our whole lives and were sisters! Discouraged after yet another refusal, we stopped at the Cathedral of Saint Jude to pray. Knowing nothing about this Saint, we spied a prayer card and discovered that Saint Jude was the ‘patron of hopeless cases.’ After a bumpy search for affordable housing, our futile situation seemed to qualify as a hopeless case, so we knelt down to invoke Saint Jude’s intercession. Lo and behold, after arriving at the next apartment complex on our list, we were again greeted with the same hesitance. However, this time, the older woman looked at me, paused, and said, “You remind me of my granddaughter. I don’t rent one-bedrooms to two women, but...I like you, and I’m going to make an exception!” We came to find out that the nearest Catholic Church to our new home was the Holy Cross, where a group called 'Presence of God Prayer Community' met each Tuesday night. Had we been able to rent any other apartment, we would not have been led to this group of joy-filled people we soon came to call 'family!' It was clear that the Holy Spirit was at work, and His presence was revealed time and time again in the 17 years I was actively involved in the group. Completing the Circle Returning to Saint Jude’s, the celebration of life that day was not only of our long-ago pastoral leaders, but it was also very much my own! Remembering my brokenness as a young adult and the loneliness and insecurity I felt at that time, I marveled at how the Lord had changed my life. He used His Spirit and His people to heal me emotionally and spiritually, filling my life with deep and rich friendships that have stood the test of time. He helped me discover the gifts He had given me—the community offered me a place to serve in various ways until I realized that my natural abilities, like that of organization, could be used for spiritual purposes. After several years, I was invited onto a new Pastoral Team whose dynamic leader mentored me by example. Through his encouragement and support, I developed leadership skills that resulted in beginning new ministries to serve the 'household of faith' in the prayer community and the 'least of these' outside the doors of the church. When a new parish began nearby some years later, I was asked to join the music ministry there, and with the Spirit’s prompting, I also participated in various other ministries. Bringing in all that I had learned and experienced over the years, I was able to set up many events that offered opportunities for healing, conversion, and growth within our parish community. For the last 14 years, I have been blessed to organize a women’s fellowship group begun by myself and a friend, who, like me, was changed by the love and care of Christian communities. I have found all of God’s promises in the Scriptures to be true. He is faithful, forgiving, kind, compassionate, and a source of joy deeper than any I have ever thought possible! He has provided meaning and purpose in my life, and with His grace and direction, I have been able to partner with Jesus in ministry for over 40 years now. I didn’t have to 'wander in the desert' for those years, as did the Israelites. The same God Who led His people by the “pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night” (Exodus 13:22) has led me day by day, year by year, revealing His plans for me along the way. A song from my prayer group days lilts through my mind, “Oh how good, how wonderful it is when brothers and sisters live as one!” (Psalm 133:1). Looking around that day, I saw clear evidence of that. The Spirit at work in Father Ken’s mother brought much fruit from the seeds she planted, both in her home and in our community of faith. That same Spirit then brought forth a harvest from the seeds planted and watered in my life over the years. The Apostle Paul said it best in his letter to Ephesians: “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen!” (3:20-21)
A winning combination is cooking within. Do you want a taste? In 1953, Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote, “The vast majority of the people in Western civilizations are engaged in the task of getting.” These words still hold so much truth even today. Let’s be honest. These days, there is a whole subculture of influencers whose lavish lifestyles are funded by a successful swaying of their followers to purchase particular products that they advocate. Influence, consumerism, and greed abound. We desire the newest model of smartphones even before they hit the shelves. We want to get our hands on the trendiest items whilst they are still in vogue. We know that given the ever-changing trend pattern, it would not be too long before these same products are advertised through alternate media labeled ‘In Excellent Used Condition’ or, worse, ‘Brand New With Tags.’ “The massing of wealth,” observes Sheen, “has a peculiar effect on the soul; it intensifies the desire of getting.” In other words, the more we get, the more we want to get. This endless quest for gratification through wealth drains us and causes fatigue in our very being, whether we realize it or not. So then, if amassing wealth is essentially an unquenchable desire, how do we find happiness, self-worth, and contentment in the consumeristic world that we live in? Grit and Gratitude Saint Paul directs us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18). Most of us would admit that this is easier said than done. But does that mean it is impossible? Despite living a life of peril and strife, Saint Paul, one of the forefathers of Christianity, led by example. Was he imprisoned for promoting Christianity? Absolutely. Was his life in danger? Constantly. Was he shipwrecked, stoned, and ridiculed? Without a doubt. And despite all of these—and more—challenges, Saint Paul regularly exhorted Christians, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). In fact, gratitude and giving due thanks and praise to God was a recurring and, dare I say, constant theme of his correspondence to the Churches. From Rome to Corinth, Ephesus to Philippi, the early Christians were encouraged to give thanks—to be grateful—in all circumstances, not just the good ones. Then, as now, this encouragement is both timely and confronting. However, being grateful in all circumstances requires prayer, effort, and perseverance. Grateful and Giving If we were to follow Saint Paul’s example and examine what we have with gratitude, what would that look like? Would we be grateful to have: a roof over our heads, money to pay the bills and feed the family, and enough to spend on little luxuries along the way? Would we be grateful for the family and friends we have around us, the vocation, and the talents that God has blessed us with? Or would we still desire to blindly follow what’s trending and fritter away our money, energy, and happiness on things we don’t need and appreciate? Or could it possibly result in a more ordered and prudent approach to what we have and what we spend our money on? Of course, the measure of our success in practicing gratitude is offset by the energy we put into it. Like any spiritual endeavor, we are not going to become proficient at gratitude overnight. It is going to take time and effort. Slowly but surely, gratitude will color the way we see the world. In appreciating and being thankful for what we have and not chasing after more than we need, we are much better disposed to give to others rather than to receive ourselves. This combination of gratitude and giving is a winning combination. Once again, Bishop Fulton Sheen agrees, “The reason it is more blessed to give than to receive is because it helps to detach the soul from the material and the temporal in order to ally it with a spirit of altruism and charity which is the essence of religion. There is more happiness in rejoicing in the good of others than in rejoicing in our own good. The receiver rejoices in his good; the giver in the joy of others, and to such comes the peace nothing in the world can give.” Give gratitude a Go Expressing gratitude involves the growth mindset. To grow in gratitude is to grow in self-knowledge, knowledge of God, and His plan for us. In separating ourselves from the cyclic nature of amassing wealth and the futile pursuit of happiness, we open ourselves up to finding happiness where we are. We also ensure the right ordering of ourselves and our benefits as a result of God’s goodness. Like Saint Paul, we can recognize, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36). This attitude of gratitude—which rolls rhythmically and poetically off the tongue—also helps us to see the silver lining in things that do not always turn out the way that we want them to. And this is the most poignantly beautiful aspect of gratitude, the spiritual aspect. As Saint Augustine explains, “God is so good that in His hand, even evil brings about good. He would never have permitted evil to occur if He had not, thanks to His perfect goodness, been able to use it.”
When struggle and pain linger, what keeps us going? My 11-year-old son patiently sat on the examination table while the doctor tested his muscle strength as she had done so often before. Over the last eight years, I had watched her examine his skin and test his muscle strength, and each time, a panic ripped through me. After finishing her exam, she stepped back, faced my 11-year-old son, and gently uttered the words I had dreaded: “Your muscles are showing signs of weakness. I believe the disease is active again.” My son looked at me and then hung his head. My stomach twisted. She put her arm around his shoulders. “Hang in there. I know that, over the years, flare-ups haven’t been easy for you. I know they are very painful, but we’ve managed them before, and we can do it again.” Breathing out slowly, I leaned against the desk next to me to steady myself. She glanced back at me. “Are you okay?” “Yes, the baby is in a weird position, that’s all,” I said. “Are you sure you don’t want to sit down? With a painted-on smile, I murmured, “No, I’m good, thank you.” She turned back to my son. “We’re going to try a new medication.” “Why, he did fine on the old medication,” I said. “He did, but heavy doses of steroids are hard on the body.” Why did I ask questions when I really didn’t want to hear the answers, I thought. “I think it’s time to try a different medication.” My son looked away and rubbed his knees anxiously. “Try not to worry. We will get this under control.” “Okay,” he said. “The medication has some drawbacks, but we will meet what comes.” My heart pounded in my chest. Drawbacks? She turned to me, “Let’s get some blood work. I’ll call you in a week to come up with a plan.” After an anxious week, the doctor called with the test results. “My suspicions have been confirmed. He’s having a flare-up, so we’ll begin the new medication immediately. He may experience some difficult side effects, though.” “Side effects?” “Yes.” Panic set in as she listed possible side effects. Were my prayers being answered, or was I losing my son, bit by bit? “Call me immediately if you notice any of these,” she stated. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I shared the news with my husband, and said, “I’m not okay right now. I’m hanging on by a thread. The kids can’t see me like this. I need to cry it out and get myself together.” He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re trembling, I should go with you. I don’t want you to go into labor early.” “No, I won’t; I’ll be all right. I just need to get myself together.” “Okay. I’ve got everything under control here. It’s going to be all right.” Surrendering… Driving to the chapel, I sobbed, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve had enough. Help me, God. Help me.” Alone in the chapel, I stared sorrowfully up at Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. “Jesus, please, please...stop all of this. Why does he still have this illness? Why does he have to be on such a dangerous medication? Why does he have to suffer? This is too hard. Please, Jesus, please protect him.” I closed my eyes and pictured Jesus’ face. I drew in a deep breath and begged Him to fill my mind and heart. As the torrent of my tears waned, I recalled Jesus’ words in Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s book, Life of Christ. “I created the universe, I set the planets in motion, and the stars and the moon and the sun obey Me.” In my mind, I heard Him say:, “I am in charge! The effects of his medication are no match for Me. Let Me have your cares. Trust in Me.” Were these my thoughts, or was God talking to me? I wasn’t sure, but I knew the words were true; I had to let go of my fears and trust in God to care for my son. I breathed in deeply and breathed out slowly, intent on releasing my fears. “Jesus, I know You are always with me. Please wrap your arms around me and comfort me. I’m so tired of being scared.” Answer Arrives… Suddenly, arms wrapped around me from behind. It was my brother! “What are you doing here?” I asked. “I called the house looking for you. I figured you might be here. When I saw your car in the parking lot, I thought I’d come in and check on you.” “I was asking God to wrap His arms around me when you came up and hugged me.” His eyes opened wide. “Really?” “Yes, really!” As we walked out to the parking lot, I thanked him for coming to check on me. “Your hug reminded me that God reveals His presence in loving actions. Even as I suffer, He sees, hears, and understands. His presence makes it all bearable and enables me to trust and hold onto Him, So, thank you for being a vessel of His love to me today.” We hugged, and tears welled up in my eyes. I felt touched to the core by an overwhelming sense of God’s loving presence.
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