You are probably familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s well-known poem “If.” The poem was published about a hundred years ago as a tribute to the British ideals of self-control and poise under stress. The first stanza of the poem says,
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:”.
The poem continues with numerous similar admonitions, and concludes with the statement that, if one can behave in these ways, one has reached mature adulthood. (Rudyard Kipling, “If,” www.poetryfoundation.org, (cited from “A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, 1943).
The poem represents accurately the ideals of British society during the period of the Empire. Like all ideals, however, the virtuous behavior expressed in the poem is somewhat unrealistic. Certainly, not all subjects of the Empire behaved consistently in that fashion. Nonetheless, those remain laudable ideals.
Today, we live in a society very different from Kipling’s. I haven’t seen any sociological research that supports my observations, but based solely on anecdotal evidence, I would say that our values today are the inverse of those expressed by Kipling a century ago.
If Kipling’s poem was to be re-written for our culture, it might go something like this:
“If you can blame others
more often than they blame you,
If you can trust no one but yourself,
and consider it to be citizenship good and true;
If you can complain so vigorously
that you make yourself the center of attention,
If you can hate freely and treat others with condescension,
then, sadly, you’re what passes for an adult today.”
I hope I’m not being judgmental but, very often, I feel as if I live in a society of adults who choose to act like emotional infants. This is not a healthy state of affairs for society or the individuals who comprise society. It is, however, perfectly understandable. Human nature, when left to its own counsel, tends to make poor moral choices. Fortunately, our own counsel is not the only option available to us.
The first reading at this Vigil Mass speaks about God’s Spirit as the source of prophecy; in this context, prophecy means proclaiming God’s goodness to the world. The second reading says that the Spirit inspires prayer that is filled with hope and trust. The Gospel reading looks forward to the gift of the Spirit who confers new life on the baptized. These statements might sound as idealistic as Kipling’s poem, or like abstractions divorced from typical human experience, but the statements in the Scriptures about the Holy Spirit are neither utopian nor abstract.
The many virtues the Scriptures say result from the Spirit’s indwelling are the perceptible consequences of trust in God. The gift of the Spirit offers a redeeming alternative to the downward spiral of self-concern that is so popular today. The Holy Spirit confers God’s Peace, not a magical state that eradicates all trouble and strife, but the Divinely inspired ability to deal constructively and faithfully with the normal, and even the extraordinary, burdens in life.
On Pentecost, which we celebrate this weekend, the Apostles went out to preach about Jesus’ resurrection. They were no band of panicked, angry whiners airing their grievances; they were a united community which preached and spread peace. The witness of their words and actions attracted large numbers of people to the way of life Jesus taught. Those enthusiastic converts were clear testimony to the strength and maturity of the faith of the Apostles.
If Kipling’s poem was to be rewritten about those whose lives are guided by the Spirit, it might say,
“If your speech is filled with God’s goodness
when others shout a scornful refrain,
If you can be hopeful when those around you
give their sense of entitlement unfettered reign,
If you can live always mindful of God’ company
while the majority whine and complain,
Then, you are living the new life promised to the baptized,
and giving credible evidence that forgiveness is possible.”
Quite obviously, I will win no prizes for my poetry writing. Fortunately, attracting attention to oneself counts for little in the life of faith. Attracting converts to the Gospel of Jesus, on the other hand, counts for everything in the lives of the baptized. The Catholic Church has always understood itself as being founded on the faith of the Apostles. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Church in every age to imitate the Apostles’ faith by being emissaries of God’s peace to all.