Young Adult

I have a thing for stories set in World War II. I actually do not know how to explain to you how deeply I’m moved by things like the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” or the 2019 film “Midway” or the two-part novel “Blackout” and “All Clear” by Connie Willis, all of which take place during World War II.

I can point to some sources for this love. For example, my childhood favorite book, “Enemy Brothers,” which is set in England during WWII, completely captivated my imagination. But the feeling has spread well past its sources. There is such a unique beauty to the big band dance halls, to England holding onto morale through the horrors of the Blitz, and the kind of heroism required to stand up to Hitler and the impenetrable fortress of Europe. It is an era of heroism from which we are only barely removed. My grandfather remembers Victory in Europe Day. He was a young boy in Wauwatosa and remembers going out to the driveway to think about the news that the war had ended. Maybe some of you have your own personal memories of the day, more dramatic than his. I am far enough removed that for me, VE Day is something almost mythic: the crowds dancing in Trafalgar Square, the unimaginable beauty of lights after years of blackouts, throngs of people overflowing with relief and joy.

Is this feeling that I get a simple romanticization based on how much historical fiction I have read, or is it some authentic, if distant, glimpse of what life was like then? I genuinely do not know. If I had to guess, I would say it is probably some of both. But it did get me thinking.

Maybe every era has a distinctive beauty, unlike that of any other, because God is always doing something new. More specifically, when people heroically say yes to the working of the Holy Spirit in their particular era and culture, it is not only beautiful, it is beautiful in a way that is completely unique. Maybe the beauty of the 1940s is particularly evident to me because so much of the world was united against an enemy that was so clearly working for evil. Maybe it is particularly evident to me because I have read so much historical fiction about the era. But it is not the only era that I have seen this way. Just about any time in Ireland’s history moves me more than is reasonable. I have been swept away by the romance of medieval castles and ancient cities. And early Christianity, like a small but unquenchable flame in ancient Rome, holds its own unique fascination for me — all the more now that I have seen, in person, its memory still etched in the stones of modern Rome.

The point of all of this is not to revel in my confusingly emotional reaction to history (although that is certainly very fun for me). The point is that every specific place in history has a unique beauty that comes from saying yes to the Holy Spirit. And that means ours does, too.

Looking around at polarization, lives spent behind screens, abortion, mental health crises, etc., it is easy to be nostalgic for a different era with different problems that, from our vantage point at least, look clearer or simpler or less pervasive. But the problems of our era are not worse than those that came before; they are different. If I had had to live with the nightly terrors of bombs or the monumental and relentless loss of a worldwide war, I might have been nostalgic for a still earlier time when wars were smaller and less mechanical. It is quite likely that I would have because I am certainly one of the most nostalgia-filled people you will ever come in contact with. If you need evidence, go reread my descriptions of how I feel about history. But I also read “The Lord of the Rings” at a young age, and when Gandalf said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us,” I took it to heart.

God gave us this particular time and place to dwell in, and he does not make mistakes. Our culture might not be the one we would have chosen, but it is the one God chose for us. I believe that if we say yes to him — yes to what he has given us as well as to what he is doing — then the unique challenges and brokenness of our own era and moment can be the soil for a beauty just as captivating as any that came before but completely unique.

Maybe we will not be able to see it very clearly. Maybe it is something that is easier to see from a distance. But it will be there. Maybe there will be people, decades from now, who look back on this era — this era of social media and globalization — with the same depth of nostalgia and awe that I feel when I read stories of the heroes of World War II.

The Holy Spirit is living, active and intimately present with each one of us. He is always doing something new. His coming at Pentecost transfigured a handful of scared and illiterate fishermen into the towering pillars of the ancient Church: men who changed the world. In every era and in every heart, he has been at work. When people say yes to him, they change the world. None of them single-handedly fix everything that is wrong in the world. But their active participation in salvation history does truly change things, no matter the scale.

God is the great storyteller, and he is always doing something beautiful and something new. Like Mary, whose month we celebrate, we just have to say yes.