Fr Jonathan Munn recently wrote a Sunday sermon on Remembering the Future. The theme is nostalgia, the good old days. It is a very powerful emotion in us, and commercial advertisers find it very effective. For example, an industrial baker would portray the words of an elderly man remembering his boyhood in something like the 1920’s, how he used to go to the bakery on his bicycle to buy bread for the family. As good for you today as it has always been. The implication is that it is possible to bring the past back, or at least find something that had not changed.
As a youth of 23, I arrived in France – also on a bicycle – in the hope of finding a diocese or a religious community that had not changed, that had remained “pre-reformation”. Unfortunately my sense of Sehnsucht trumped my rational faculties, because such a thing is easy to find out by reading and talking with people. Of course, there were the traditionalists with their modern authoritarian political ideology, but there were also a few parishes as would not have been possible in England in the early 1980’s. The first I went to visit was Le Chamblac and Fr Montgomery Wright, featuring in my posting With the passing years… I’m not sure this English (of Scottish ancestry) priest would have represented French Catholicism in the 1870’s, 1770’s or 1470’s. He was a unique character who marked my life and that of many others. Some of the parishes, like that of Belloy en France with Fr Lourdelet or Bouloire with Fr Jacques Pecha, were quite “traditional” but much less eccentric than the former Anglican in Normandy. Most of these priests belonged to an association called Opus Sacerdotale, which was behind the foundation the Institute of Christ the King in which I was ordained a deacon. Unlike the Society of St Pius X founded by Archbishop Lefebvre, Opus Sacerdotale concentrated more on the priestly identity formed by the Ecole Française and the fathers of St Sulpice in the seventeenth century than the theme of Christ the King expressed in authoritarian government and the denial of freedom as an inalienable right.
I never did find what I was looking for, namely the product of origin, the “real thing”, except those few parishes and a couple of monasteries of the Solesmes Congregation. They were islands struggling to survive, and which did better with the arrangements made by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The secret garden of our nostalgia is within us. Not only can we only search within ourselves, but we cannot escape from ourselves. We follow ourselves to the ends of the earth for our entire lives. I find Continuing Anglicanism nearer to that idea than authoritarian traditionalist Roman Catholicism, but we have to be true to ourselves and allow ourselves to yearn for what is beyond our ego.
A few days ago, I had an interview with the French authorities in view to my French citizenship (I will be allowed to keep my British nationality). As the conversation developed, the lady asked me to write her a resume of my life, but something more than what I would present for my translating work. As I began to write, I felt the past events of my life pressing down on me, like a judge pointing a finger and saying with a loud voice “I accuse you of a wasted life!“. Is there any coherence, any teleology, or am I just a wreck at the age of 60? I felt the same reproach coming from my wife, but I don’t believe that was her intention. Where were those waters of Babylon by which I sat and wept?
Strangely, I have never experienced my own past as something to worship and idolise. I am thirty years younger than my father (who is doing very well for his ninety years). Logically my 1960’s should have been to me like his 1930’s. I have often heard of the 1930’s or 50’s like some “golden age”. Perhaps people were more courteous and a worker was more concerned to do a good job for the sake of pride. The 1930’s were also a time of poverty and anxiety. There was the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe. The flamboyance of the 1920’s was over. I suppose I experienced the end of the Trente Glorieuses in the mid 1970’s, as our country seemed to have lost its soul and ideals. We had to be more careful with our money as strike followed strike, as did the electrical power cuts. Were those “good days”? My memories of schooldays were those of boring and stuffy old men, and of philistines and bullies. Finally, those days were neither good nor bad. It was my time slot for my youth. I have now arrived at the age of sixty, and I feel no different – other than the odd aching knee or painful gout in a foot. I used to think that sixty-year-old men were very old!
Humanity has essentially remained the same. Individually we can show great inspiration and genius. Collectively, going by the evidence of British politics, humanity shows very little sign of either emotion nor intelligence. We have computers and cell phones, which can be very useful. I use both, and sending an e-mail or making a phone call from just about anywhere beats writing a letter, putting a stamp on the envelope and going to the letter box – or finding a phone box and hoping we have the right change. Yes, I remember the A and B buttons and the four penny coins! Now, we have devices that out-perform Star Trek – except that we can’t (yet) be beamed up or down from the Enterprise.
There are ideologies that would deprive us of this technology, like for example the old Luddites or some of the environmentalists. We would adapt, either adapt or die. I am probably better equipped through living in the country and having practical skills. But it would be hard, having to saw wood by hand or using energy sources like running water. It might seem an ideal. Some people do go off-grid and live in the wild. I admire them, but I wonder if they find their teleology or meaning of life.
Are people less respectful now than in the past? I doubt it. Just differently.
I experienced nostalgia differently. For me, it was like that of the Romantics, a period hundreds of years ago, and filtered, refashioned and projected not into the present but into the future. This is an element of that concept in German Romanticism of Sehnsucht, the archetypical Blue Flower of Novalis. There are many aspects of the future we can fashion and influence, putting the Idea before the supposed external reality. This is Idealism and something that brings Hope and the onward movement we need to live. In the thought of Heraclitus, life is fire, movement, progress from opposition of thesis and antithesis.
This emotion is of capital importance at a time (the same thing has been in other times too) when church religion seemed to be dead and only good for being discarded as unfit for use. When we cannot rely on the outside world and “other people”, then we have to rely on ourselves. To do this, we have to be able to desire and hope. We sometimes receive glimpses of that desire that calls of God and the joy of knowing him. We are given a sense of wonder and awe through experience, whether of the liturgy or nature. Rather than being threatened with punishment by authority, we are drawn to beauty and the sense that the object of our love lies beyond our reach. We must never give up, but continue to reach. Some might ask us why we reach for something that is unattainable. Don’t we get frustrated? Isn’t it better to reach for things we can have and possess? No, because something else will always be beyond our reach. We begin with a radio, then a bicycle, then a motorcycle, then an old car, then a new car, then a Ferrari, and then a helicopter, and an aeroplane, the biggest mansion in the world, and so it goes on. My material possessions are something like in the lower-middle of all that. There are things I would like (like a sailing yacht), but I have to establish priorities – because I am not alone and there are other things to consider first. That is common sense, but in the midst of all these things and cares, there is the big hope and desire that is never quenched.
We need a sense of direction in life, and perhaps our Sehnsucht can be “managed” by developing achievable goals, milestones and a sense of achievement with each one. In the spiritual life too, we need to be like the mustard seed planted in good earth so that we can take root. Paradoxically, failure in some of these intermediate goals can bring us humility and a clearer view of the supreme desire and hope.
This is how I see my life, rather than the finger-pointing judge. I have come to understand that there is a single thread running through all the successes and failures. The passing years have brought me to understand that the utopia will never be found outside myself. Those colourful parish priests have died. Some of those parishes have been allowed to continue with other priests, others closed down in an act of vengeance from a spiteful bishop. The monasteries have continued, of more consolation to retreatants and visitors than the monks who live under a totalitarian regime. The seminary I went to has changed, perhaps for the better with age and experience. What is old is not always ideal. Static traditionalism as in the thought of Parmenides explains how “all reality is one, change is impossible, and existence is timeless, uniform, and necessary”. I remember reading Owen Chadwick’s book From Bossuet to Newman, contrasting the immobilist notion of Christian Tradition held by the scholastics and Newman’s theory of organic development. The latter notion is a major dimension in Pope Benedict XVI’s thought.
This notion of organic development is an aspect of our personal lives as in history in general and theories of religious tradition. Newman would use the analogy of nature to try to distinguish healthy changes from ruptures and acts of destruction like the Protestant Reformation. The theory, like all theories, is an imperfect analogy. A part of our Hope and Sehnsucht is to move beyond the tyranny of time to an existence where movement, change and dynamics bring joy and happiness, not bitterness and disappointment.