Pray with the Pope: September 2016
General Intention: That each may contribute to the common good and to the building of a society that places the human person at the centre.
When the problems of our world seem insoluble and the common good is in jeopardy, our knee-jerk reaction is often isolationism.
We cut ourselves off from what is going on out there. We stop watching the news or reading it in the papers or on the internet. We retreat into private life or a private spirituality, insulating ourselves from the perceived outer darkness.
It’s an understandable reaction to the sense of powerlessness that we feel at the enormity and systemic nature of some of the world’s problems. What can we, as individuals, do about the arms trade or corruption or human trafficking, to name but three massive evils which systematically infect modern society?
At the end of his rather depressing novel Candide, which presents a relentlessly gloomy view of the human condition, the 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire leaves us with the enigmatic phrase: “We must cultivate our garden.” The reader feels a little let down at this apparently weak punch-line. “That’s it?” one is tempted to say; “All I have to do is go out and do a little gardening and that will solve the problems of the world?”
There are many interpretations of this now celebrated line. One is that Voltaire may be having a dig at philosophers who are all talk and no action. As a gardener I am tempted to take it literally but I suspect a broader interpretation is in order. It is perhaps to be understood in the same vein as the Chinese saying about it being better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.
The world is a tough place and there are many things wrong with it, but one must take responsibility for one’s own little bit of it. Voltaire was probably thinking of a vegetable garden, rather than a rose garden. The benefit of veggies is obvious in every culture. The current movement of creating urban community vegetable gardens indicates the abiding value of the metaphor.
Voltaire’s use of the word “cultivate” is also very useful. If we “cultivate” people in the sense of nourishing and building them up through our loving care and creating good human relationships, then we will be doing our little bit for the common good while, as the intention states, putting “the human person at the centre”.