Not far into his new book, Let Us Dream, Pope Francis, with the skill of someone trained in the Ignatian method of discernment of spirits, cautions the reader to a prevalent temptation of our times – escapism, the desire to seek distraction from reality, especially if reality is unpleasant or demanding. The pope later lists this need to escape reality as one of the contributing causes to the virus of indifference effecting our world – the other virus starkly revealed by our world and society’s response to the Covid-19 virus. Escaping reality can certainly be achieved through such means as materialism, alcohol and drug use and forms of sexual addiction but the Holy Father focuses rather on attitudes and mindsets that any of us can easily fall into and even choose to cultivate in our hearts. Here I want to look at the three ways of escaping reality that the Holy Father lays out in his book – narcissism, discouragement and pessimism – and, since our current liturgical year has been dedicated to St. Joseph, suggest the witness of the foster father of our Lord and chaste spouse of the Virgin Mary as an antidote to this desire to escape reality.
St. Joseph speaks no words in any of the gospels but from his actions and his life we quickly learn that he is a man who was able to face reality head on with faith and conviction. How was he able to do this? Maybe we will be able to gain some insight when we look at what he did not do.
Narcissism takes you to the mirror to look at yourself, to center everything on you so that’s all you see. You end up so in love with the image you created that you end up drowning in it. Then news is only good if it’s good for you personally; and if the news is bad, it’s because you are its chief victim. (Let Us Dream, Pope Francis)
St. Joseph was not a narcissist. In Matthew’s gospel we are told that immediately after it was found that Mary was with child, Joseph, her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. There must have been confusion, hurt and possibly even anger stirring in the heart of Joseph in the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy but – even with all that – Joseph is “unwilling to expose (Mary) to shame”. Joseph did not allow himself to be carried off by narcissism to the mirror to fixate only upon himself in this situation. Joseph did not get lost in himself – did not play the role of the chief victim – but rather accepted the reality of the situation as he knew it to be and then made the choice to act out of the principles he chose to live by rather than reacting out of hurt and anger. Scripture says that he “was a righteous man” and here is where the virtues that he had acquired, the virtues that comprised his righteousness showed forth – a faith stronger than the hurts and disappointments of life and a care and compassion for the other person even in a difficult moment.
Discouragement leads you to lament and complain about everything so that you no longer see what is around you nor what others offer you, only what you think you’ve lost. Discouragement leads to sadness in the spiritual life, which is a worm that gnaws away at you from the inside. Eventually it closes you in on yourself and you can’t see anything beyond yourself. (Let Us Dream, Pope Francis)
If Joseph was a man prone to loud lamenting and complaining, would he have been someone open to the different instructions of the angels in his dreams? Would he have even heard the messages or even paid them any heed? I don’t think so. Our actions and choices have consequences and Pope Francis is reminding us of this truth. Loud lamenting and complaining – in addition to being annoying to those persons around who have to endure it – blinds and deafens the lamenter and complainer to all that is around them, even spiritual realities that offer hope, guidance and endurance. If we have fallen into the fallacy of thinking that God doesn’t care or that life is always unfair maybe it seems that way because we are actually whining too much to notice how God is indeed present and how there are good things in life. St. Joseph did not complain nor give into discouragement and therefore his heart was free and open to the instruction of the angel.
And then there’s pessimism, which is like a door you shut on the future and the new things it can hold; a door you refuse to open in case one day there’ll be something new on the doorstep. (Let Us Dream, Pope Francis)
St. Joseph was not pessimistic. If he was, he would never have taken the first step in his journey to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt and then to Nazareth. These journeys in faith and the fact that he was able to make them, demonstrate that Joseph was not paralyzed by pessimism – that he was able to open the door to the new and to the possible even as there were real risks involved. Rather than pessimism, Joseph chose faith and that gave him the hope and courage necessary to move forward into life.
The desire to escape reality is a besetting temptation and sin of our time and it manifests itself in multiple forms including attitudes and mindsets we can each carry within our own hearts. Pope Francis has given the Church a wonderful gift in this year dedicated to St. Joseph. The humble carpenter and foster father of our Lord had the strength of character to face reality with faith and conviction and he was blessed in this. God chose the foster father of his son very well. Hopefully we can learn from this quiet saint and realize that the lessons he has to give can truly be an antidote to the temptation to escape reality and the virus of indifference in our world.