Back in the day, when I studied Traditional Chinese Medicine, it was fascinating to ponder the Taoist idea of Yin (quiescence) and Yang (exuberance)—the action we see in nature of an eternal cycle of inception and growth into a fullness that must then transition into something else. I wrote about it, in a manner of speaking, when thinking about the bliss that comes with praying the Divine Office:
Long ago you founded the earth
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish but you will remain.
They will are wear out like a garment.
You will change them like clothes that are changed.
But you neither change, nor have an end. (Psalm 102:26-28)
Here is a beautiful depiction of the futility of our daily stresses and worries; a reminder of the constantly renewed world, and all creation in it, including you and me. I prayed the psalms and considered the slow lifting of the darkness on a chilly morning. Winter had reached absolute fullness; incapable of being more of itself, the season must wane so that the slow, inexorable spring may begin the process of reaching its own culmination, too—becoming wholly and fully summer, until it can be summer no more.
Currently many of our bishops are gathered in Rome to discuss how to best evangelize and encourage our young people to become more excited, and more involved, in the life of the Church and to seek out the sort of authentic encounter with Jesus Christ that is necessary in order for the teachings of the Church to fully flourish within us.
As this concerns the future of not only our Eucharistic Church but in a very real sense the future of humanity, the matter is an urgent one, and we must pray for Wisdom to predominate over the ongoing discourses and interventions taking place in Rome.
But the issue of Catholic youth—and particularly our concerns regarding what seems to be a catastrophic reality of “lost” members (and still-low numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life) — can perhaps be given some added perspective if we think about that cycle of Yang and Yin.
Please bear with me, as I am merely unraveling a thought. Obviously as Christians we don’t believe in the metaphysics of the Tao, however, the basic concept of continual back-and-forth between growth and transition occurs all the time. Evil rises, and good comes to stop it. Human beings are born and then they return to ashes. In following Benedict XVI, as well as the Second Vatican Council, we can find truths in other philosophies, even if on the human level alone.
With that in mind, let’s consider the long journey of the church through the ages as a Yin characteristic—a slow and thoughtful growth that helped to shape the Old Word in its philosophies, it’s art, it’s scientific reason and exploration and even its law. When comparisons are done on vocations and growth, researchers love to begin by citing figures from the Catholic “heydey” of the late 1950s, a time when the Church, now fully established within the New World while still entrenched in the Old, was enjoying a profound fullness, both vocationally and in terms of infrastructure. There were more priests and nuns, more flourishing communities and parishes, more schools in operation, more missions, more “everything” than at any time previous in the church’s history.
It’s worth noting that the high vocation numbers in the mid-twentieth century were actually an aberration. Throughout history, and well up to the first World War, priests and religious were distinct as much for their rarity as for their garb. Convents, abbeys, friaries grew then scattered, and their growth (as today) was always greater in those areas where people were poorer, and less distracted by the lure of materialism—more open to the small, still voice calling their names.
And too, Catholic vocations contained within them a singular sort of social and material advancement; if you were a priest or sister, you might always be poor but you were likely to receive some sort of education or training and your meals, however frugal, would be regular. Many a sound and fervent vocation began with an empty belly and a thirst for learning, and there is nothing wrong with that. The Holy Spirit has ways of using everything to God’s own purpose.
It’s possible the extraordinary numbers from that era were also enhanced thanks to sympathetic showings in media. Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and Therese of Lisieux’s The Story of a Soul were both mainstream best-sellers credited with inspiring numerous monastic vocations. Movies like The Nun’s Story and The Scarlet and the Blackgave a sense of the consecrated life as something challenging but meaningful and truly important. You might say the Church had become as much Church as it could be in that moment.
Soon enough, and with startling swiftness, post-war prosperity and increased job and educational opportunities helped to empty Western seminaries, and government embrasure of most social services made some religious charisms seem less-urgently needed, particularly as the Women’s Movement began to advance. All of this—coupled with a less-than-stellar lay participation in reading, understanding, and implementing the documents and reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the collapse of our catechetical and formation programs for the young—impacted youthful participation.
One might say the 60s through the 90s were the first thrust of Yang ebullience, penetrating the complacent end to what had come before with a huge energy of the sort of “questioning and searching” that went too far abroad and begat so much cultural and religious relativism. The philosophy so succinctly expressed in the tritest of song lyrics, “It’s your thing, do what you want to do/I can’t tell you who to sock it to,” had a profound influence on the world, and neither the Church—nor her newly engaged laity, who were beginning to influence liturgical and catechetical planning—were wholly immune to it. Arguably, the age began to influence the church, rather than the church influencing the age.
But if the cyle of ebullience and quiescence is eternal, and we know it is, then at some point that Yang energy is going to reach its culmination—become all it can possibly be in this character—and will then begin to transition into Yin, bringing forth something that is quieter, more thoughtful and reflective.
The first transitional “blips” that move from Yin to Yang, from Black to White and back, are rarely observed because they are so very small, and because that’s true, whole generations can slip through the cracks and be lost to what comes next. There is always that “missing” generation that gets shortchanged when Yang moves to Yin or Yin to Yang. I believe God must have a particular abundance of mercy for those lost in the blur, because the transition leaves them so vulnerable, so untethered to what is substantial and real. If that is true, then he will surely give us the means to reclaim his “lost” and youthful sheep.
Perhaps with this synodal outreach—and even with the advent of alternative and social media that is tracking it—God is doing just that.