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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
18 Nov 2003

Is There a Safe Haven?

by John Galvin


Often times people are motivated to consider a simple lifestyle by fear of impending catastrophes. It's not implausible that our economy could be on the brink of collapse, and Christ Himself told us that on the day of tribulation, we should "flee to the mountains." But when considering the idea of moving somewhere to avoid coming troubles, it may be helpful to recall what happened to science fiction writer Robert Heinlein who moved from the frying pan into the fire:

Heinlein had spoken of his search for a place that would avoid fall-out from the major atomic targets on the coasts, and the area around Denver seemed ideal. As they finally began to build their Colorado Springs house in 1950, shortages of labor and materials caused costs to increase enormously…

By 1965, the Heinleins had outgrown the Colorado Springs house; Ginny's health problems relating to altitude sickness had gone from intermittent to chronic; and the original rationale for choosing Colorado — to be away from nuclear targets and out of the fallout drift patterns — was long gone. In 1957, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) set up its headquarters to correlate data from the Arctic Distant Early Warning (DEW) line at nearby Ent Air Force Base, then the Air force opened the U.S. Air Academy nearby, and, to put a cap on it, NORAD was building into Cheyenne Mountain, virtually in Heinlein's back yard, construction to be completed in 1966. Colorado Springs had become the #1 nuclear target in the U.S. — a fact Heinlein's friends lost no opportunity to rib him about. Heinlein took his revenge by pounding Cheyenne Mountain flat in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. (Robert A. Heinlein: A Biographical Sketch, Copyright 1999 by Bill Patterson)

Testimonies of those who have pursued the simple life and those who were heavily involved in Y2K preparations indicate that some have experienced similar unintended consequences. So if we wish to protect ourselves and our families, where should we go, how can we protect ourselves? Will investing in gold be the solution? Or should we invest instead in solar power and kerosene lamps?

The reality is that no location is safe and no material goods can protect us. There is only one commodity which will help us survive the day of wrath, whether it makes its appearance as hyper-inflation, war, nuclear conflagration, or the last judgment. That item is grace. We need to store up our treasures in heaven, where the moths do not eat and rust does not corrode.

We needn't spend too much time making the point that no material goods can ever be solid supports. A remote location is no protection, food spoils. Gold is always valuable, but not when someone, whether private or public, takes it away. It happened last time there was a great depression — FDR's first act upon becoming president was to confiscate all privately-owned gold. Weapons are no protection against superior force — look what happened at Waco. While certainly not condoning the actions of the government, the simple fact is that the Branch Davidians' weapons led to their own destruction.

Of course prudent planning for the future of our families is always a virtue. But our priorities must be in order, and the first priority must always be supernatural. Grace is the only wealth that cannot be stolen or destroyed. Grace is the only support that cannot be taken away from us. Grace is the only good we can accumulate which we can take with us to the next life. Grace is the only inheritance we can pass on to our children which we can confidently hope will not be wasted, squandered, or used for destructive purposes. Grace is the only thing we can own which will keep us happy in times of trouble. Grace is the only aid which can let us bravely face pain, suffering, torture and death.

When one owns a savings account, there is nothing more pleasing than to see the total steadily increase, with no corresponding withdrawals in the negative column. Those who do not trust the federal government's paper money system may feel the same way every time they add to their stock of gold. But Christ tells us that we have a savings account in heaven, and this is the only one that really matters. If only we could see the total in our heavenly passbook rising day by day or could see a chest holding our "treasure in heaven" filling with eternal rewards. Unfortunately, the reality is that too many of us are overdrawn.

Some readers might be thinking, "It's nice to talk about heaven, but we have to be concerned about our earthly needs and real necessities here and now and in times of future turmoil." This is a valid concern, but the main purpose of this article is to help people understand that grace is a necessity here and now, grace is the most important pragmatic concern you can have today, grace is a real thing, more real than the objects you see around you, and more permanent.

In "The Sinner's Guide," Ven. Louis of Granada describes the rewards given to the just right here on earth, even before they reach heaven (available from TAN Books & Publishers). Among the many benefits to the righteous, the one he lists first is "God's fatherly care and protection." God's divine providence watches over every action of the just. God's divine providence also takes care of the wicked, but in a different way.

If we were to experience an economic collapse, a war, or a general catastrophe, which would you rather have, a store of gold or God's divine providence watching over you? Imagine for comparison that you need to cross a slippery log over a rushing stream — which would you rather have, a rope or God's protection? Sure it might be nice to have both, but say, for example, you would have to steal or tell a lie to get the rope. Given the choice, would you rely upon sin and a rope, or God and no rope?

In a story reminiscent of Robert Heinlein, when St. Maximilian Kolbe traveled all the way from Poland to Japan to establish a mission, he chose a location right in the middle of Nagasaki, soon to be the target of the largest atomic weapon dropped on a human population. Did God's fatherly care fail to protect his servants? On the contrary, the poverty of the Franciscans forced them to choose a location on the side of a hill which entirely shielded them from the blast and accompanying fallout. No human ingenuity could have chosen such an ideal spot as the one which God picked out for them.

We don't need to be anticipating imminent catastrophe in order to set our priorities in order. Jesus told of the man who built larger barns, but God said, "Fool, don't you know that this very night your life will be demanded of you?" That man had to face his own private day of judgment, and so will each of us, whether it comes on the day of Armageddon or tomorrow. What preparation will allow us to face that day with courage and equanimity? Only one — a store of treasure in heaven.

Nor should we comfort ourselves that our material preparations will help our families after our deaths. Inheritances of wealth without accompanying grace inevitably generate hard feelings, sever relationships and even destroy families. The money is often used in ways totally contrary to what the dead person would have wished. Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds, for example, was a major contributor to conservative political causes. But as soon as he died, his widow used his billions to fund liberal causes, the exact opposite of what he had tried to achieve in his life (it was her second marriage, his third).

And after all, what are the chances that your wealth will be successfully passed on to future generations? My grandfather was a rich man who owned a construction company, but he lost everything in the great depression. Nothing was handed down even to his children, much less to his grandchildren or future generations. However, he returned to the Catholic faith after his family had been apostate for 2 generations. That inheritance was passed down to his children and his grandchildren, and it has proven to be more substantial, more real, more lasting than the value of the business.

None of this is intended as a criticism of simple living, rather it is intended to highlight the importance of putting "Catholic" first, and to see "simple living" as following upon that. No one personifies "Catholic simple living" more than St. Francis of Assisi, and even today there are Franciscans of strict observance living in Scranton, PA who own no more personal possessions than they can fit into a shoe box. St. Francis chose that way of life not for its own sake, but entirely for the sake of Christ.

Religious live out vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and Catholic families likewise live out these same virtues in a way appropriate for our own state in life. Simple living for Catholic families can be a protest against the materialist values of modern consumer society. It can be a way to afford to live a life of grace, since material concerns too often crowd out any attempt at a spiritual life. It can be a way to live out the virtue of generosity in accepting children, since those who chase after material success generally find themselves unable to "afford" more children. It can be a way to live out a spirit of self-sacrifice and mortification.

But it can only be these things if we put grace first, if we are Catholic first, if we make prayer and the sacraments our first priorities, if we make the effort every day to discern the will of God in our lives and to live out whatever He wants for us, not what we want for ourselves.


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