I was brought to consider the dreadful epitaph of humanity written by George Orwell towards the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four by the article Is Modern Man Irremediably Cut Off from Tradition?
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
The thought is devastating if we think of it for long enough. History has brought us to this vision of hell, or perhaps history was pointless from the start. Many do write about the current godless and hopeless ideology as the end of history, from which no redemption is possible. Has man fallen into a new original sin and cancelled the Redemption by Christ? Earlier today, I brought up the ideas of Nietzsche in an article: his ideas of strength over compassion and empathy, the emptiness of nihilism and man’s final despair and the Wagnerian Götterdämmerung brought to an end with a cyanide capsule and a shot in the mouth with a pistol.
I refuse that step to hell!
For many years, I have heard Romantic aspirations of some in the traditionalist world, and the New Liturgical Movement article is no exception. I go from the idea that there is nothing we can do about geopolitics and conflicts between superpowers. Perhaps they will bring us to a third and nuclear World War or Orwell’s nightmare vision – shared between bloodthirsty jihadists and the liberal oligarchies of the west. Perhaps some small groups can slide under the radar to begin a new middle age as in the vision of Berdyaev. It happens every time a monastery is founded or when a little “bit of church” comes to light like ours or many others in the world. Individually, we are still free in our thought and do our labours of love: a chapel or a shrine in the corner of our homes. We still love music and art, the little parcels of beauty not conserved in museums but very much a part of our lives. For as long as this is so, our human faces will escape the boot.
It is also an argument I have produced in favour of the Use of Sarum and the colourful and bright churches of the English Renaissance. Using the Tridentine rite is also an exercise in archaism or “archaeologism” in the eyes of some. Preferring Beethoven, Mozart or Bach to some oof-ta, oof-ta blaring out of someone’s car waiting at the red light in a town is also archaism, or preferring to live in an old house rather than something modern and practical. We are told that we can’t go back in time or history. That is true, but we can rediscover our roots and base our lives in the present and future on them.
Even if Orwell’s dystopia descends on us, or some jihadist caliphate, some will survive. Human ingenuity is limitless even in chaos or the madness of modern warfare. There is always a way through adversity. It was possible in penal times in England under psychopaths like Topcliffe the priest-hunter, through the Terror in France and in Soviet Russia in the Stalin era. Churches survived and the faith persisted. When push comes to shove, at least we would die for something and not for futility.
Modernity is facing its crisis as events seem to reproduce the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933. Most of us are sick and tired of our current caricatures of democracy and the endless lies. We may wonder if a demagogue who would blow everything away and give a new start would not be a good thing. In itself, I hardly see Donald Trump as a herald of high culture and the new middle age, but rather the reign of unbound wealth and totalitarianism. Prometheus Unbound! Propaganda works in two directions about whether the UK should leave the EU and what would be the consequences from the most alarmist to the most banal. There’s nothing we can do other than voting, but we can keep our spirits alive through prayer and tending the garden of our traditions and identity.
I am not sure that all the presuppositions of this NLM article correspond with reality, or whether we really grasp what things must have been like in the “old days”. Few of us are called to a monastic life, but many of us may be called to frugality, simplicity and a refusal of the consumerist mould. We can get out of town and set up a business rather than seek some soul-destroying employment. It isn’t easy, but it is part of our ingenuity and resilience, our determination to be ourselves. The old monastic rules can be a great inspiration to us as lay people and secular priests.
I once read the idea of Joseph Ratzinger about small communities of faith. Today we debate whether he meant this as an ideal or simply how things would end up with the invading secularism and the end of parish life outside big cities. In my reckoning, I see the small community as an ideal, little family-like churches in places of worship that are once again labours of love and human craftsmanship. If we are priests, we can celebrate Mass and put everything we have into it. Whether we are priests or lay people, we have the Office which can be said or sung in Latin or our own language. This great invisible network of prayer and the Eucharist rebuilds the Church from the base, and the crisis in the “mainstream” institutions seems no longer to have any relevance or importance for us. The true Pontiff is Christ, who is in the midst of every praying community that desires his presence.
I do believe that the future is the freedom of the spirit forever – but if we take responsibility for our own beings and those we love. There is not only the Church and prayer, but also our inventiveness. If we turn our minds to it, we can find ideas for a small business to get out of the “machine”, and with that live in the country. Perhaps we can offer crafts or linguistic skills – anything. We can build a little chapel in wood or convert an outbuilding like I have done, like my Bishop has done with the help of a few friends. If too many of us do it in the present conditions, we may find the “machine” getting back at us with crippling taxes and social contributions, and all sorts of unrealistic regulations and official standards. The movement will have to be slow, and involve those who can hold the course.
By way of analogy, I mention my passionate love of dinghy cruising. Our ports are full of big white yachts, many of which never put to sea. Mooring charges, by the foot, are exorbitant and owners soon tire of their status symbol. A cruising dinghy is parked for free on its trailer at the owner’s home. It can be towed anywhere and launched for free. An owner who is a good handyman can do all the maintenance very cheaply. The boat can sail in very shallow water and go places no yacht can go. You can’t cross oceans in dinghies, but perhaps not all of us want to sail oceans. The magic is in the smallness and accessibility to the less privileged in conventional society. I already mentioned simplicity and frugality which bring us our personality and freedom. It is ours for the taking…