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Between the stirrup and the ground

“Here in Sweden,” an old friend emailed me recently, “a true Christian is a curiosity, but the upshot is that there’s no point to fake it.”


Välkommen! to Sweden, a vast land whose approximately 150,000 Catholics (1.5 percent of the population) must go allt eller intet (“all or nothing”), and where, if they opt for the allt of faith, they can expect to be marginalized, mocked, or tolerated as a kind of anachronism.

Enter Anders Arborelius — a Carmelite, cardinal, and the current bishop of Stockholm, whose recent University Club of Chicago keynote on “Silence, Prayer, and Contemplation in a Secular Society,” sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute, bespeaks a surprising serenity and confidence. Where we may see only the fallout of post-modern secularism, Arborelius invites us to discover (at least) seven points of entry to deeper faith, hope and charity.


“There are many places where there is no Catholic church,” Arborelius observes, “and you can start to long.” This longing, he explains, can fuel conversion. “In Sweden,” he continues, “you have to learn to long for the Church, to long for God, to desire God. If you really lack something and long for it, something can change.”


Having taken the episcopal motto “in laudem gloriae” (to God, praise and glory), Arborelius finds that “it has often been forgotten that our first duty — and our privilege — is to honor and glorify God.” In the busyness and loneliness of contemporary Sweden, he notes that often “we are not taught how to be loved by God,” which he calls an “important art”: “God is always offering us his immense love, but we don’t notice it, because we have so much to do, so much to think about.”


“In a secular society,” Arborelius continues, “we will not get so much help from outside. We have to take this seriously.” The cardinal sees here an opening for a grittier ownership of one’s own formation: “That’s also kind of a privilege,” he notes, “to realize that my life in this society means that I have the responsibility to discover new ways of relating to Jesus, new ways to see how he’s present in my life.”


“In society today, silence is very rare,” Arborelius notes. “People are overwhelmed by so many words, so much propaganda, so many ideologies, so many voices.” With the perspective of nearly 20 years in a contemplative hermitage prior to being appointed bishop, he instructs us to “fight” for silence through “practice” and “exercise in silence”: “We have to learn how to be quiet in front of the Lord and let him speak to our heart.”


The bishop notes that as Christians in Sweden are “criticized, ridiculed,” or simply ignored, the need for friendships with fellow Christians is vital: “someone who can help me, and someone I can help in order to grow.” He notes that often, it is the very people who mocked you who “will come to you” when they face problems in their own lives, “because somehow they realize that this person lives for something more, something deeper.”


“We have so many appetites for all kinds of things, that we cannot care for the Lord,” Arborelius observes of Sweden’s multitudinous options. “That’s why something in us has to be taken away.” The Carmelite notes that the “secular society of today” is “a kind of dark night of the soul,” a “deep process of purification,” which can be “very painful, but also very helpful,” and in which “something can change.”


“We have this temptation to postpone the surrender,” Arborelius warns, “and that’s a very, very dangerous temptation, because we have to do it right now, because the Lord is present right now.” Within a “very secular atmosphere,” there is nonetheless, he says citing Graham Greene, “grace ‘between the stirrup and the ground’: there are always possibilities to say ‘yes’ to the Lord.”

“Ingenting retar aptiten så som litet på fatet,” goes an old Swedish proverb: “Nothing stimulates the appetite like little on the plate.”

As secularism leaves less and less on the plate and as Christians look more and more curious, a strategy emerges from the Nordic periphery: “something can change.” “The upshot,” as my friend said, “is that there’s no point to fake it.” Life with Christ is allt eller intet. There is nothing to fear. And a descendant of Vikings declares that the time to surrender is now.

Johnson is associate director of the St. Thomas More Institute.

Watch the keynote


Go to bit.ly/ArboreliusKeynote to watch Anders Arborelius’ keynote address.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018