Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 15, 2004
Loneliness is the essence of hell
People of God find happiness through loving relationships
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
Dressed in his blacks, Spiritan Father Donald Nesti was delayed in a Baltimore airport when a fidgety male teen came over and sat beside him. He asked the Texas priest if he truly loved the Lord.
“I always like people asking me questions. I said, ‘Oh, yes I do.’”
As keynote speaker for the annual Vital Grandin lecture series at Newman Theological College Nov. 5-6, Nesti told more than 100 people that the meeting with the young man revealed society’s “myth of unencumbered individualism.”
“He told me he has his own spirituality, but he wasn’t into established religion. He thought people should be able to work things out on their own.”
Nesti, a professor of spirituality at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, wondered if the boy was correct, then why is the world so full of maladies like abortion, euthanasia and war? If we are to figure out all of society’s ills by ourselves and free to do as we please, why is every culture rife with disillusioned wanderers?
Because people have stopped going to church and listening to the teachings of the Gospel, Nesti said.
“Issues discussed by bishops in Canada and America are intertwined,” he said. “We must travel to the deepest strata of society to understand what is to be upset and overturned by the Gospel.”
Nesti says that at issue are the understanding of God, the human person and the world. What is happiness? What is valuable?
The lecture series was titled Creating a Culture of Vocation and a Civilization of Love. Nesti said we must bring work to bring order back to society through the love of God.
“Americans are the recipients of a way of life that has its roots in the cultures of five cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London and Philadelphia.
“Americans have the view that the individual, in his very being, precedes a society that is the result of human beings banding together by choice in the common cause of self-interests.
“When we come into life, we are not essentially wired for relationships. We determine our relationships on the basis of how they will assist us in achieving our self-interests. This is quite different than the people of God who cannot find happiness except in, and through, loving relationships,” he said.
Nesti traced the term “individualism” to a French priest who visited the U.S. in the early 19th century. He went to priests, institutions and the courts. He analyzed how the government functioned. The priest observed “a calm and considerate healing that disposes each citizen to isolate himself, withdrawing into a circle of family and friends.” People preferred their own small societies, leaving the greater one to look after itself.
“This seems to provide us with a point of difference between what the Gospel is saying about God’s people, and what we would say about how a society of individuals exists who have withdrawn themselves so that they are with people who are like themselves,” Nesti said.
Everybody wants to be happy, but how can a person truly be happy by himself? That is the essence of the myth of a society that places more emphasis on things rather than the quality of human relationships. Isolation and loneliness is the essence of hell, Nesti said.
“When the cultural world is deeply entrenched in the institutions and sub-systems of society, how are the ordained – and especially the laity – to live out their mandate to bring liberating news? The Church believes in community. Evangelization is the action of a community concerned with all of its brothers and sisters who have a right to hear the good news,” Nesti said.
“This is what most distinguishes the Catholic understanding of evangelization from individualistic evangelism of our separated brethren.”
The Church provides truth and humanity for the wanderers. It challenges individualism through relationships. It allows a person to live in freedom.
“I think Father Nesti hit on the key about the difficulties we face in our society,” Archbishop Thomas Collins said later in an interview.
“In our society, and the American society he is directly referring to, we become so absorbed in self that ‘What I want, what I feel and what pleases me’ is the heart of it all. Yet if we do that, we end up not really finding what gives life to an individual.”
The idea of individualism is so deep, Collins said, that the Gospel is often alien in our culture. The Gospel speaks of love for others, not just to see what pleases a person.
“If we continue to seek our own happiness as an individual, we are never going to find it in any real sense. At the deepest level is the individualism where there is no profound sense of need for others. That is something the Church needs to speak to because so many people, even Catholics who attend Mass regularly, are unconsciously drawn into the idea of self,” he said.
“The Church offers a different vision which ultimately gives life to an individual as part of a living family.”
"The people of God who cannot find happiness except in, and through, loving relationships,”
- Fr. Donald Nesti
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