In a few carefully argued pages in his recently translated The Crisis of Modernity, the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto del Noce explains the “ascendance of eroticism.” Del Noce died in 1989, but his account could have been written yesterday. He illumines why Fifty Shades of Grey strikes a cultural chord, why same-sex marriage became the cutting edge of radical politics, and why virtually no Democrat dares to oppose abortion rights. It’s a little tour de force of philosophical and political analysis.
The sexual revolution, del Noce argues, was a radical change in Western metaphysics and views of human nature. Wilhelm Reich’s manifesto, The Sexual Revolution, began from the unargued assumption that there is no “order of ends, no meta-empirical authority of values.” In a world without purposes, “all that is left is vital energy, which can be identified with sexuality.”
This worldview is partly a product of a deliberate war against Christianity, especially Catholicism, but Del Noce sees it as the fruit of the elevation of science into a metaphysics. Modern science eliminates Aristotelian-Thomist teleology and deals only with efficient causes and natural forces. Sexuality becomes nothing more than a play of drives, without purpose or ultimate value. “The sexual revolution is . . . the point of arrival of ‘scientism.’” Any limit on our drives is an assault on our dignity. Sexual inhibitions are unnatural, every prohibition a threat to human freedom.
This is why the Sexual Revolution was really a cosmological one. More Del Noce, via Leithart:
The sexual revolution transforms the past into “what has to be surpassed,” what Reich calls “the dead trying to suffocate the living.” The past is “what must be negated to find psychological balance.” We are not free unless we are free to couple and decouple at will, without faithfulness or future. As del Noce puts it, “the domain of free sexuality is the pure present.”
Isn’t that what it means to be a fully modern Westerner: to live in the pure present, with nothing but possibility laid out before us, and only our desires to carry us forward?
View from the guest bedroom at my DC area hosts Joe and Melanie Hartman. They went to the trouble to research my tastes and to lay in a bottle of this hard to find French aged plum brandy. I was flabbergasted when I saw it. What a special gift! This is one of the most thoughtful welcomes anyone has ever given me. If this is how the DC trip starts…
Met a number of Christians in Washington, DC, today, and talked about the Benedict Option with most of them. Overheard today by me in one of those conversations:
“So many of the families in our church just want their kids to be happy and successful.”
Well, doesn’t every parent? Yes. But that’s not the point here. In context, the speaker meant that this is their telos, that they want nothing more for their kids than that they be happy and successful, and that the mothers and fathers are not prepared to hear anything contrary to this gospel of worldly success.
Hate to say it, but that attitude is going to be the death of Christianity in those families, in the younger generation. We are going to have to prepare a church that is capable of suffering, and suffering without losing its joy. This is an unpopular message, but it happens to be the truth. As Flannery O’Connor put it:
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.
Hey, please consider coming out to Georgetown on Saturday morning to the Benedict Option event with Ken Myers and me. It will be a great opportunity to meet Christians (and others?) who can read the signs of the times, and who want to build communities of joyful resilience. Here’s the Facebook page, and details from it:
How should Christians meet the challenge of living faithfully in a post-Christian America? Inspired by the cultural diagnosis of Alasdair MacIntyre, Pope Benedict XVI, and other contemporary critics of modernity, Rod Dreher contends that the most important work orthodox believers can do is to construct local forms of community within which traditional Christianity can thrive in what he sees as a new Dark Age. The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict and the monastic spirituality that emerged from it can inspire Christians today to be a countercultural, creative minority.
Please join us on Saturday morning, October 10 at Gaston Hall on the campus of Georgetown University for what promises to be a fascinating discussion of what Dreher, inspired by the cultural diagnosis of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, has termed the “Benedict Option.”
When: Saturday, October 10, 2015, 10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Where: Gaston Hall, Georgetown University 3700 O St. NW
Go to the Facebook page and let us know if you’re coming. Not strictly required, but it would be nice of you. I predict that after you hear Ken Myers speak, you will subscribe to his Mars Hill Audio Journal, which, if you ask me, is the aural companion to the Benedict Option. In my experience, there are two kinds of Christian intellectuals: Journal subscribers, and those who have not yet heard the Journal.
By the way, Father Raphael Barberg has started a Facebook discussion group about the Benedict Option.
Fantastic comment by a Muslim reader who posts under the name “Jones.” He begins by quoting a Russian Orthodox bishop from a previous post of mine:
“The last Glinsk elders were dying—those spiritual giants with enormous experience and priceless treasures that they wanted to pass on to us. But we, he says, were not able to receive it; because of our feebleness we couldn’t take it on.2
People have become weaker, they can’t receive this rich spiritual experience, because it is a cross—a very heavy cross.
This break between elders and novices can be seen now: Why are there practically no elders left? Because there are no obedient disciples, no people who are capable of receiving this wealth of experience.”
This is exactly what I was talking about earlier, when I was talking about my concerns about the next generation being unable to receive the wisdom of the previous one. Of course if I understand correctly, “elders” is here being used in a specific religious sense, but our “elders” are still our best reserve of spiritual wisdom and experience.
This means a lot to me right now. The whole idea that we are increasingly incapable of asceticism feels like a personal call to action for me. I’ve been increasingly struggling, in recent weeks, with my own failures in this regard. I’ve been noticing the failures only because I’m now trying to do better.
For my entire life I’ve been concerned about how to maintain an ascetic perspective in a deeply hedonistic society. For a long time I’ve lamented the spiritual vacuousness of secular liberal society. The evidence used to be all around me — God, you couldn’t do anything to get me to go back to high school and college and be around that again.
Now I’m around a different kind of person, guilty of a slightly different kind of sin. These are some of the smartest and most talented people the US produces. They radiate success, and they are utterly steadfast in their discipline. So base hedonism is not at all their sin. Their characteristic sin is idolatry. Their morality is typified by what Plato called the “oligarchic soul.” Their god lives in the world, among them. I’m not sure what, exactly, it is. I’m not sure that they know. Some form of socially dispensed prestige and status, which gets defined by different authority figures at different times. But if the world is all you have, then when you lose something materially, you stand to lose everything. I’ve realized that, for them, the quest of career success is aimed at a religious verdict on their moral worth, which is the only way to account for the zeal with which career success is pursued. I can’t make that conflation, because I think it’s idolatrous. But as a result I am not as invested in worldly success as they are. I can only infer that many of these people have had an upbringing that conflated moral worth with worldly success in a way that my upbringing did not.
As I grow older my life has become more comfortable. When I was young I was poor, surrounded by the children of the rich. It was easy to see that wealth and status would never be paths to happiness for me. Now the difference between me and those people is not so easy to see. I don’t get the easy reminders. I also don’t feel the day-to-day struggle against a recalcitrant world constantly decaying into disorder. And I no longer have easy access to that world of working class immigrants at the mosque, the pious, humble crowd I could quietly slip into, stand shoulder to shoulder with, and become just another humble worshipper.
Jones, how I wish you lived in my town so we could be friends and talk about these things! I am passing through the Charlotte airport now, but I will add more to this later. I wanted to get it out to you readers first.
Here’s something shocking mentioned in a John Allen column about Pope Francis and the Synod. Allen is making a point about how this pope benefits from having a certain narrative associated with him. Allen begins by talking about what an international scandal it was when Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including one who was a Holocaust denier. Benedict had to apologize. Here’s Allen:
Flash forward to 2015, when Pope Francis named a new bishop for the diocese of Osorno in Chile who critics believe covered up crimes by his country’s most notorious abuser priest. The appointment triggered protests in Chile and objections from some of the pontiff’s own advisors on anti-abuse efforts, but has had little echo anywhere else.
Francis hasn’t responded with a heartfelt mea culpa like Benedict, but with defiance.
In a five-month-old video, Francis is heard telling an employee of the Chilean bishops’ conference that people criticizing his move are being “led around by the nose by leftists,” and that the country has “lost its head.”
While the substance of the two situations may be very different, the potential for backlash is eerily similar. Just imagine what the reaction would have been had Benedict blamed his own woes on “leftists,” and you’ll understand the difference between the narratives the two pontiffs carry around.
It’s striking that outside the Spanish-speaking media, there’s been relatively little reaction to the Barros affair, certainly nothing like the firestorm Benedict faced six years ago.
When Bishop Barros was installed, most of his own priests boycotted the ceremony. Some 650 people tried to prevent him from entering his own cathedral. The accusation is that Barros covered up for a popular priest who mentored him, but who was later found guilty by the Vatican itself of child molestation.
Here’s the video, in Spanish:
I knew that the Pope backed Barros, but I had no idea that he dismissed those protesting him as nothing but a pack of leftists. Yes, just imagine what would have happened had Benedict done this. Lucky man, Pope Francis. Lucky man.
Because we know essences only through effects, for MacIntyre there is no place to begin but in the middle. MacIntyre’s position is, I think, similar to his characterization of Rosenzweig’s in Edith Stein: ‘We do not begin with some adequate grasp of the concepts of knowledge and truth and in the light of these pass judgment on whether or not we know something of God or whether or not it is true God exists, but rather it is from our encounters with God—and with the world and with human beings—that we learn what it is to have knowledge of what truth is.’
Conservatives who think they have found an ally in MacIntyre fail to attend to his understanding of the kind of politics necessary to sustain the virtues. He makes clear that his problem with most forms of contemporary conservatism is that conservatives mirror the fundamental characteristics of liberalism. The conservative commitment to a way of life structured by a free market results in an individualism, and in particular a moral psychology, that is as antithetical to the tradition of the virtues as is liberalism. Conservatives and liberals, moreover, both try to employ the power of the modern state to support their positions in a manner alien to MacIntyre’s understanding of the social practices necessary for the common good.
The “plain person” is the character MacIntyre has identified to display the unavoidability of the virtues. Plain persons are those characterized by everyday practices such as sustaining families, schools, and local forms of political community. They engage in trades and professions that have required them to learn skills constitutive of a craft. Such people are the readers he hopes his books may reach. Grounded as they are in concrete practices necessary to sustain a common life, they acquire the virtues that make them capable of recognizing the principles of natural law and why those principles call into question the legitimating modes of modernity.
MacIntyre has sought, within the world we necessarily inhabit, to help us recover resources to enable us to act intelligibly. From beginning to end, he has attempted to help us locate those forms of life that can sustain lives well lived. In Tradition, Rationality, and Virtue, Thomas D. D’Andrea quotes the preface MacIntyre wrote to the Polish edition of After Virtue:
The flourishing of the virtues requires and in turn sustains a certain kind of community, necessarily a small-scale community, within which the goods of various practices are ordered, so that, as far as possible, regard for each finds its due place with the lives of each individual, or each household, and in the life of the community at large. Because, implicitly or explicitly, it is always by reference to some conception of the overall and final human good that other goods are ordered, the life of every individual, household or community by its orderings gives expression, wittingly or unwittingly, to some conception of the human good. And it is when goods are ordered in terms of an adequate conception of human good that the virtues genuinely flourish. “Politics” is the Aristotelian name for the set of activities through which goods are ordered in the life of the community.
Read the whole thing. I’ll be traveling to Washington today. Speaking on Capitol Hill tomorrow at the Faith & Law meeting, and then on Saturday, with Ken Myers, at the Benedict Option event at Georgetown (10am-12:30pm, 3700 O St., NW). Come out to Georgetown and meet your fellow Ben Oppers. If you’ve never heard Ken Myers speak, you are in for a big treat.
Ross Douthat has a great take on the knockout ghost story in Elle magazine (about which I blogged here). He writes that despite the growing irreligion of our culture in this secular age, many people who are otherwise unreligious still believe in the paranormal, because it jibes with their experience. These things cannot be rationalized away. I mean, they can be, and often are, but if something like this happens to you, you know instantly how insufficient are the usual rationalist strategies to explain that what happened to you really didn’t happen. Douthat writes:
My suspicion is that eventually someone will figure out a new or refashioned or revivalist message that resonates with the fallen-away but still spiritually-inclined; man is a religious animal, nature abhors a vacuum, people want community and common purpose, and above all people keep having metaphysical experiences and it’s only human to want to make sense out of them and not just compartmentalize them away from the remainder of your life.
But what you see in the Elle piece is that in the absence of strong institutions and theological systems dedicated to the Mysteries, human beings and human society can still make sense of these experiences through informal networks, private channels, personalized interpreters. And to the extent that these informal networks succeed in satisfying the human hunger for interpretation, understanding and reassurance — as they seem to have partially satisfied Peter Kaplan’s widow — then secularism might be more resilient, more capable of dealing effectively with the incorrigibility of the spiritual impulse, than its more arid and strictly materialist manifestations might suggest.
A few years back, I wrote a column about a fascinating book by a religious studies scholar. From that column:
And yet, countless people — of all faiths, and of no faith at all — have paranormal experiences, and know they are not crazy. “Just how long can we go on like this until we admit that there is real data, and that we haven’t the slightest idea where to put it?” asks Jeffrey Kripal, head of Rice University’s religious studies department. Kripal poses the question in his provocative new book “Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred,” in which he contends that both orthodox religion and orthodox science foolishly deny things like ghosts, UFOs, telepathy and suchlike because manifestations of the paranormal may violate both religious dogma and what Max Weber (quoted by Kripal) calls “the iron cage of modern rationalism, order, and routinization.”
Kripal’s personal viewpoint on all this is slippery. He says he neither believes nor disbelieves — not because he’s trying to avoid taking a position, but because of his theory about what the mind and human personality are. This requires some unpacking. In Kripal’s view, the mind and consciousness are far more complex than science and religion think, which renders our various interpretive models inadequate to explain reality. Kripal doesn’t propose a clear alternative, though he does propose that in some way, human consciousness helps create reality through its interaction with the material world, much as we have learned from quantum physics the fantastical lesson that a conscious observer helps determine physical outcomes at the quantum level. He doesn’t believe UFOs are hallucinations or creatures from outer space, for example, but theorizes that UFOs are a a real phenomenon that is, in some dimly understood way, a result of human consciousness interacting with the universe.
If this sounds impossibly New Age, well, it kind of is. But this is precisely where Kripal wants to take the reader by the collar and say, “Not so fast!” The kind of characters we dismiss as kooks may in fact be kooky — but their very distance from the mainstream may help them to see things as they are more clearly, or at least to ask questions that are important, but embarrassing to the right-minded. This is why he turns to a handful of outsider figures, both historical and contemporary, in his search for forgotten insights. One of them, the 20th century American eccentric Charles Fort, described as “damned” information and phenomena discarded by dominant intellectual paradigms. Fort was a legendary curator of the damned, and though he entertained some thoroughly crackpot notions, Kripal values him for paying attention to things respectable intellectuals ignored.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 19th century, Kripal shows, leading scientists and thinkers turned their powers to investigating and analyzing what we now call the paranormal. At some point, however, a dogmatic materialism suppressed genuinely scientific curiosity about these strange phenomena. This is partly, Kripal says, because the paranormal typically cannot be reproduced in laboratory settings. But can we really afford to say that nothing that can be measured or reproduced scientifically can be said to exist? This, according to Kripal, is to succumb to an unreasonable rationalism.
In the end, “Authors of the Impossible” is not a book about “The X Files” and spiritualist ooga-booga, but one about epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we know that we are refusing to ask the right questions because we are afraid of the answers? Have we set up our modes of inquiry such that we cannot possibly penetrate these mysteries?
Read that whole column here. If memory serves, Kripal is also hard on religious people who deny paranormal events and manifestations if these phenomena do not strictly line up with dogma.
At a recent dinner, a well-respected, highly intellectual Catholic priest who had been confronted by a possessed woman recounted the incident. He was sitting next to me, and I could see his right hand shaking on his lap as he told the story. For those who have seen and heard and been part of such encounters, no convincing is necessary. You may not know exactly what you are dealing with, but the fact that you are dealing with something beyond mere rationality is not in doubt. Sometimes, it takes more faith to believe a thing did not happen than to believe it did.
But now, at 31, Whitney lies in bed in a darkened room in his parents’ home, unable to talk, walk or eat. He is fed intravenously and is barely able to tolerate light, sounds or being touched. His parents and the medical personnel who see him wear plain clothing when they enter his room because bright colors, shapes or any kind of print make him feel even worse, as does any movement that he’s not expecting.
“It’s hard to explain how fragile he is,” says his mother, Janet Dafoe.
This isn’t the picture that people imagine when they hear “chronic fatigue syndrome,” which is often viewed by the public and the health-care community as a trivial or primarily psychological complaint.
One of the world’s top biomedical scientists is now working on understanding the disease. That scientist is Whitney Dafoe’s father, a Stanford medical researcher named Ronald Davis, who is trying to raise money to fund the undertaking. More from the story:
For some patients, ME/CFS starts suddenly, with an illness or a trauma from which they never fully recover. For others, like Whitney,the illness follows a series of ailments. He was healthy as a child but caught a bad case of mononucleosis in high school and had a spell of headaches and dizziness after a trip to Jamaica during college. He eventually recovered from both.
He’d been in India for several months in 2006 when he began experiencing stomach pain, bloating and nausea. He returned weighing just 115 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. Then, two years later, he developed what seemed like a cold and never felt normal again.
“He went downhill from there,” his mother says.
Whitney’s is an extreme case. I’m interested in this story, though, because I’m still dealing with a version of this, and I suppose I always will be. I became sick with mononucleosis in the spring of 2010, though it was misdiagnosed for two years. It turns out that the condition overtook me at a period of intense stress. We had just moved to Philadelphia, but we couldn’t sell our house in Dallas, which meant we were watching our bank account dwindle as we paid Philly rent and a Dallas mortgage. My sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer in this time, and things began to go south at my new job. Apparently all that stress gave mononucleosis an opportunity to strike.
It took two years and a move to Louisiana — which, unexpectedly, turned out to be like jumping into a swimming hole of anxiety — to figure out what was really wrong. By then, I was really sick. Not Whitney Dafoe sick, or even close, but still sick. Sleeping four to six hours in the middle of the day. Periods of profound weakness. Constant inflammation. The other day in New Orleans, Julie and I passed by a hotel in which I’d stayed a couple of years ago while in the city for a board meeting. I told her one day I had to cancel my participation in the meeting, because I was too weak to walk the three blocks from the hotel to the gathering. It made me remember how difficult that whole period was.
What brought me to healing was, as you know, the journey with Dante through the Commedia, which for me became a journey out of the dark wood of anxiety (a rheumatologist told me that my intense anxiety was triggering my chronic mono). I’m so much better off than I was, I can hardly tell you. And yet, I’m still struggling. The inflammation never goes away, and I still have to sleep in the middle of the day more often than I care to admit. I don’t feel stress at all, so I’m guessing that this immune-system condition I have must be permanent. A couple of days ago, Julie asked me to clean up a dusty corner in which I had stacked piles and piles of books (pointing to the messy mountain, I told her, “That’s how my mind looks”). After ten minutes of work, I sneezed once, then had a massive allergic reaction, and had to sleep for four hours. The fragility of my immune system is such a pain in the butt.
My fear is that something will tip me over into Whitney Dafoe territory one day.
Yet few of today’s practicing physicians are aware of the escalating tsunami of epidemiological evidence that now concerns top scientists at every major research institute around the world: evidence that autoimmune diseases such as lupus, MS, scleroderma, and many others are on the rise and have been for the past four decades in industrialized countries around the world.
Mayo Clinic researchers report that the incidence of lupus has nearly tripled in the United States over the past four decades. Their findings are all the more alarming when you consider that their research has been conducted among a primarily white population at a time when many researchers believe lupus rates are rising most significantly among African Americans.
Over the past fifty years multiple sclerosis rates have tripled in Finland. Rates have likewise been rising in Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, where the number of people with MS has been rising at nearly 3 percent a year. Multiple sclerosis rates in Norway have risen 30 percent since 1963, echoing trends in Germany, Italy, and Greece, where MS rates have doubled over the past thirty to forty years.
Rates of type 1 diabetes are perhaps the most telling. Data over the past forty years show that type 1 diabetes, a disease in which immune cells attack the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, has increased fivefold. The story regarding childhood-onset type 1 diabetes is more disturbing. Studies show that the number of children with type 1 diabetes is skyrocketing, with rates increasing 6 percent a year in children four and under and 4 percent in children aged 10 to 14.
Rates of numerous other autoimmune diseases — scleroderma, Crohn’s disease, autoimmune Addison’s disease, and polymyositis — show the same alarming pattern.
As with all epidemiological research, it can be more art than science to tease out what percentage of these rising rates is the result of more people being diagnosed with a disease because physicians are more aware of it, versus the increase from a genuine rise in the number of people falling ill. Yet the researchers behind these epidemiological studies hold that something more than an improved ability among doctors to diagnose autoimmune diseases is driving these numbers upward.
I notice that increasingly, I am sensitive to all kinds of triggers. The chemical smell of a cheap scented candle can provoke an allergic reaction, for example. Stuff that I used to be able to tolerate easily. I used to roll my eyes at people who said that they could not tolerate fragrances, until it started happening to me. To be sure, most fragrances don’t bother me a bit, but those that have a strong chemical smell do. Cleaning fluid is another, as is paint. Is the autoimmune epidemic, if indeed there is one, a disease of modernity?
What do you think? Open thread…
Yesterday I was talking with a friend, a well-known professor who has done a lot of thinking about Christianity in modernity. I told him I was preparing to speak on the Benedict Option this weekend at Georgetown (about which, come see Ken Myers and me talk Ben Op, 10am-12:30pm, 3700 O St, NW, this Saturday Oct 10), and was curious about his thoughts on the matter. I was taking notes. Here’s one thing he said that really stayed with me:
It’s painfully obvious to me how fragile things are. How fragile — we’ve spent so much time, a millennium, building our institutions, and it turns out that they are very fragile. Things can change in an instant. We are going to have to come to grips with the question of whether or not our faith is prepared to endure suffering and loss. Because we are going to face a lot of that in the years to come.
Whatever Benedict Option communities end up being as we pass through all this, they are going to have to bear witness to suffering and loss, in a way we [in the West] have not had to do for a great long time. As you talk about the Ben Op, I think you might draw on what you have learned from Dante about how to bear suffering in a Christian way. We are going to have to be patient for a restoration of justice, and develop the kind of faith and understanding required for that.
The Benedict Option has to be about what discipleship looks like and must contain in this present reality. It can’t be simply about Christian survival within the liberal order. That in itself concedes too much. Has to come from a renewed quest for God and the nature of man in the ruins of this civilization – and that that quest is going to require specific forms and practices.
That was extraordinarily helpful to me. Among the many things Dante taught me in my own difficult, unfixable situation here was how to bear it like a Christian, and how to turn that suffering into an occasion of grace and conversion. The key was not simply that Dante taught me the skills for enduring the situation, but more than that, he taught me how to embrace it as an opportunity to become more Christ-like. It was hard road to walk, and required a lot of dying to self and self-righteousness, and meant that I had to reconcile myself to the fact that things were never going to be just in this world. But in the end, on the day my father died, I thanked God for all the pain He allowed me to endure over the last four years, because it really was for my salvation. Had He not taken me through it, I never would have been able to be present holding my father’s hand as he breathed his last, and I never would have been able to thank him, and thank God, for all things.
I see now what my professor friend meant about the Benedict Option. It has to be about building a Christianity — and Christians — who can not only endure, but embrace the trials to come as the will of God, for our purification and salvation. Stoics can endure, but it takes a Christian to rejoice amid suffering.
This morning, a Catholic friend sent me this interview from a Russian Orthodox website, with an Orthodox bishop in Tajikistan. In it, he criticizes what he calls “pink Christianity,” which sounds a lot like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Here’s how it starts:
Your Eminence, what are the “comfortable Christianity” and “pink Christianity” you talk about in your sermons that we publish on our site [Pravoslavie.ru]? Could it be said that comfortable Christianity is the spiritual illness of our times?
What did the Lord say? Take up your cross and follow Me. This is the meaning of Christianity. Comfortable Christianity is, first of all, not wanting to carry your cross.
This illness is endemic not only of our times, but began immediately. As soon as Christianity came to be, there were both zealous Christians and lazy Christians.
The first centuries of Christianity were by nature very uncomfortable—there were persecutions, and only the most zealous remained Christians. But those who were among the Christians simply by chance either renounced Christ, or, as many philosophers or scholars, did not want to change themselves to conform to Christian teaching. They instead wanted to change Christian teaching to suit themselves.
That is how the first heresies arose among the Gnostics. This was also a form of comfort—they wanted the convenience of thinking however they liked, without denying themselves anything.
And when Christianity became a permitted religion, from the time of St. Constantine the Great, this phenomenon of “comfortable Christianity” began. Why did monasteries become so widespread then? Because zealous Christians left the cities, where it had become impossible to preserve zeal.
Comfortable Christianity has always been around. But what I was talking about in my sermon was “pink Christianity”. This term appeared in the nineteenth century among the Slavophiles—thinking people who roused an interest in Christianity in an already quite secular society (similar to they way it was here in Russia at the end of the Soviet era), and there were people who wanted to live however they liked, denying themselves nothing, but nevertheless calling themselves Christians.
“Pink Christianity” is a kind of diluted Christianity. At the beginning of the twentieth century it led to renovationism, but fell under the grindstone of atheistic ideology. Not finding any response from the people it withered on the boundless spaces of the Soviet empire.
At the end of the twentieth century—in the late ‘80’s, early ‘90’s—many intellectuals again ran to the Church. But why did they run? Not to follow Christ, but because it was fashionable. The Church was regarded as an opponent to the government—although the soviet government had always been an opponent of the Church, and not the other way around.
So this huge number of people from the intelligentsia poured into the Church, not coming for Christ but for something else. Now these people are leaving the Church.
A similar situation can be seen in the monasteries. In the 1990’s, many people came to the monasteries. They lived there for ten to fifteen years, some even became priests, but now they are leaving. This is because they came not for Christ but rather to escape difficult lives, because they had nowhere else to go. Many people came from impoverished republics to join Russian monasteries. Their spiritual directors blessed them to join the monasteries. So a person having no monastic calling ended up in a monastery, suffered through it for ten to fifteen years, and then left.
People are now leaving who came to the Church for something else, and not for the sake of salvation. And of course, sooner or later they are disappointed. If they don’t come to the Church for Christ, temptations begin immediately.
Some don’t even make it in the door—they come and some granny leaps at them, and they walk away. These grannies are a crude filter in the church. They are often scorned and criticized, but they filter out those who came to Church not for Christ but for something else.
Many today want the Church to be a “Church of good people.” But the Church is a hospital. Here all the masks, all the curtains fall away, and a person is seen for what he is. And of course what he is rather unsightly.
People who don’t come to Church for Christ are looking for some kind of comfort, a peaceful state of being. There will be a peaceful state, and comfort—but a different kind. However, we have to grow into that state.
But the tragedy of our times is that we are incapable of being disciples.
Fr. Raphael (Karelin) said it well: The last Glinsk elders were dying—those spiritual giants with enormous experience and priceless treasures that they wanted to pass on to us. But we, he says, were not able to receive it; because of our feebleness we couldn’t take it on.2
People have become weaker, they can’t receive this rich spiritual experience, because it is a cross—a very heavy cross.
This break between elders and novices can be seen now: Why are there practically no elders left? Because there are no obedient disciples, no people who are capable of receiving this wealth of experience.
Everyone has become very feeble. This whole aggressive informational milieu, modern technology, computers—all makes us very feeble. Young people never put down their telephones, they are constantly looking at something or playing computer games, and this paralyzes the will.
This is all aimed at entangling people in cunningly placed nets, so that they can’t break out of them.
Specifically the will for asceticism is paralyzed. Everyone knows and understands all this very well but they can hardly do anything about it. It is because this web has ensnared all of us, and only the Lord can somehow interfere and change it all. Thus have we gotten stuck in these nets—and this includes you and me.
That definitely includes me. This bishop, +Pitirim, goes on to say that the young people of Tajikistan are Islamizing very quickly, becoming zealous in their practice of Islam because it is so demanding of them:
In Tadjikistan, I have seen people who lived through the civil war. This is a terrible thing; they are scarred for life. But the youth who have never seen war have gone mad over ISIS!
Just today I heard information that some teenagers in Tadjikistan hung out an ISIS flag. They don’t understand, and it’s useless to explain anything to them. They now have a goal, a reason to exist.
They now have a goal, a reason to exist.
One more thing Bishop Pitirim says, one that ought to speak to us in our situation:
You see, you have to take one thing into consideration—something mysterious, metaphorical, if you will. The situation now is very much like what we had on the eve of the 1917 revolution.
Before the revolution, it was also as if people did not understand what they were doing. They couldn’t imagine at all what lay ahead for them—that hideous catastrophe—how it would all end. They were like madmen, fighting for freedom. Everyone was fighting, every social class, including many of the clergy. They were fighting against autocracy. The best ones became new martyrs, and others only began to understand—in the prison camps—just what sort of freedom they were fighting for.
And there is one aspect that has never been specially researched: it would be very interesting to follow the fates of these people—what those who were against the autocracy said, and what turns their lives took after the revolution. It is as if each one who participated in the revolution was preparing a horrible tragedy for himself in the future.
Read the whole thing. Many of you are not going to like it.
This exiling of Christianity from public life that we are now undertaking in the West, and this hollowing-out of Christianity from within via MTD — it is preparing a horrible tragedy for the future in what St. John Paul II called a Culture of Death, and Pope Benedict XVI called a “dictatorship of relativism.” I believe this, and I believe it cannot be stopped at this point, only endured. God will give us modern people what we want, but I think of Teresa of Avila’s line about more tears being shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
The Benedict Option must be about not only enduring what is to come, but finding the blessing in it, and the means of deepening our conversion. The only way the Ben Op can do what it is supposed to do is if it makes unity with Christ our absolute telos, and orders everything else to that goal, guiding us in the practices necessary to keep ourselves on the straight path into the light despite the growing chaos and darkness around us.
“All these people who weep while they are singing
followed their appetites beyond all measure,
and here regain, in thirst and hunger, holiness.
“The fragrance coming from the fruit
and from the water sprinkled on green boughs
kindles our craving to eat and drink,
“and not once only, circling in this space,
is our pain renewed.
I speak of pain but should say solace,
“for the same desire leads us to the trees
that led Christ to utter Eli with such bliss
when with the blood from His own veins He made us free.”
A reader sends this most excellent Dreher bait: the story of Lisa Chase, a woman whose dead husband contacted her in eerie and undeniable ways. Excerpts:
Up until a year ago, I’d never visited a psychic, never had my palms or tarot cards read. I wasn’t exactly a skeptic, but you have to trust the people who practice such things, you have to buy into their cosmologies, and I didn’t, quite.
But for a few years, in my thirties, I called an astrologer around my birthday. I had a hippie aunt who, when I was 16, gave me a present of an astrological chart. It was fun; it seemed to confirm who I am—a pragmatic Capricorn—and the ancientness of the art, the systematicness of it, the universality, appealed to me.
The last time I talked to the astrologer, I was told two significant things. One delighted me. The other I put deep in the vault of my subconscious. That’s how we in this Anthropocene era interface with the paranormal and the metaphysical. If we get a prophecy we like, we keep it at our fingertips, bring it out at dinner parties, tweet it to our followers: “@amazingpsychic told me I’d meet my soul mate next month. #cosmic #blessed.” If we get bad news, we can decide that it was delivered by a charlatan and disregard it. Because our navel-gazing, technology-is-God culture doesn’t fundamentally believe in anything bigger than ourselves (What could be bigger?), we don’t have any rules of the road to evaluate what we hear and who is delivering our para-, meta-messages. We’re each on our own recognizance.
It was a little over a decade ago. I was 39 years old, 10 weeks pregnant with my son—though after a previous miscarriage, I wasn’t telling anyone about this pregnancy. The astrologer read my chart and said, “You’re having a baby now or very soon.” Wow, she is good, I thought. We talked about how Aquarius was in my marriage house, and so it was no surprise that my partner was an Aquarius. She told me that he was “a difficult path.” Was I sure I needed to go down it? I assured her I did, because for all the difficulties, there were many more amazing moments in my life with him. Okay, the astrologer conceded; maybe he was my “destiny.” Then she told me that something “wild” was going to happen around the time I was 50. “It’s almost like someone around you is murdered.”
That’s the one I sent deep into my Gringotts vault, to be ignored and nearly forgotten.
Well, her husband Peter died of cancer. And then the crazy synchronicities began. You have to read the piece to see the screen grab of the time her phone sent a message to itself. They kept building up, and Lisa Chase couldn’t escape the sense that Peter was trying to contact her. On the advice of a couple of friends, she telephoned a medium named Lisa Kay. The widow was skeptical, but then things started pouring out of the medium, things she couldn’t possibly have known about him and his marriage:
Lisa would be talking to me directly, then talking to … Peter? And sometimes it was if she were Peter, talking to us both. Channeling would probably be the best verb. Sometimes she said things that made no sense to me. Maybe a third of what she said could apply to anyone who’d lost a spouse; things like, “I want you to marry again,” and “It’s okay that you cried in front of me.” But there were many more specific things she said that she couldn’t have known or Googled, as several people have suggested to me.
Anyway, try Googling the name of a person you know nothing about. It takes a lot more than five minutes to navigate to the page with the right information and absorb it all—the names and details and events.
LK: He says he controlled too much. He says, ‘Take the good with the bad. I had my faults.’ He’s learning to be better at not criticizing.
Then she said something that shocked me.
LK: ‘I’m a lucky guoy. I got the better end of the deal.’
What was amazing about this was the way Lisa pronounced it: “guoy,” not “guy.” It was precisely the way Peter said it, with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent. He’d use that expression when we were making up after a fight: I’m a lucky guoy…to have you. At this point I began speaking directly to him; I couldn’t help myself.
The story gets even weirder. Finally, Lisa Chase meets the medium, Lisa Kay, for lunch:
I began to ask her about how it works, the mechanics of reading, of seeing spirits.
“First,” she said, “I don’t talk to dead people. I don’t see dead people. I hate that.” It drives her nuts. “Spirits are energy—energy can’t be destroyed, just read the quantum physicists. Max Planck. They’re just on a higher vibrational frequency, and I have to tune in to that.”
Read the whole thing. It’s worth it. I don’t know what to make of it, frankly.
I certainly don’t dismiss it as false, though I do believe that we are strictly forbidden from trying to contact the dead. In my view, this really did happen. It’s only a question of whether it is what it seems to be, or if it is a deception worked by malevolent spirits.
If this account is valid, and I’m inclined to believe that it is, the story suggests that there is a transitional state, a kind of Purgatory. This would explain how Peter is “learning.” As a believing Christian, I am naturally troubled by the lack of any Christian content in this phenomenon, but I was just the other night talking with a group of Christians, including a Catholic priest, about stories like this, and I said that some of the things I’ve seen myself don’t fit easily into my theology. I mentioned that a well-known Catholic priest once heard a ghost story from me, then shared one of his own. That priest told me that he has simply accepted that there are some things from that world that are real, but for which our theology has no adequate account.
This story of Peter and Lisa could be one of them. I hesitate to endorse the story, not because I think it’s untrue, but because I have a strong belief that God forbids us to consult mediums (Witch of Endor, ‘memba her?). I don’t want at all to be read as endorsing that kind of thing. That said, a friend of mine once inadvertently found herself accompanying a friend to a consultation with a medium (my friend didn’t know that’s where they were going until they arrived). Things happened that opened the door to contact with someone they both knew well, who had died decades earlier. I can’t give more details, because my friend swore me to secrecy, but it all ended in an old abandoned barn, with something discovered buried where the spirit of the dead man said it would be. Except when my friend and those accompanying her stood on the indicated spot and felt the ground give way slightly, indicating that something was under the surface, they became terrified, and ran away.
They never returned. The barn was eventually torn down, and grass grew over the site. They couldn’t find it now if they wanted to. They never learned what was buried there. After that, the spirit of the dead man stopped coming to my friend.
I dunno. This is a world of wonders. I’ve told the story here many times of the Cajun Catholic grandmother who had a powerful gift of spiritual discernment, one that she only used in serving a priest as he helped people with supernatural, er, problems. In How Dante Can Save Your Life, I tell the tale of how she and the priest helped resolve the difficult situation of my grandfather’s spirit lingering around my father immediately after his death. I hadn’t thought of it till now, but that woman, who passed away years ago, was a medium. I wouldn’t have used that term to describe her, because she was deeply, deeply Catholic, and would have objected to linking her work to anything that smacked of the occult. She only used her gift under the direction of her priest, and then only in specific situations. Still, that’s what she was: a medium. And it was through her that my father learned that his father could not move on until he, my dad, forgave him for the way he mistreated my dad in the final years of my grandfather’s life.
I say stay away from this stuff if you at all can; this book, about the spiritual darkness that enveloped a Greek man once he began fooling with the occult, is a very good reminder not to go looking for trouble. But sometimes, this stuff finds you. I once asked Father Termini, the old priest who ministered to people suffering from spiritual oppression, how he convinced people that these things were real. He said, quietly, “By the time they find me, they don’t need convincing.” True dat.
What do you make of Lisa Chase’s story?
UPDATE: A Twitter follower sends in this 10-minute short narrative film by the Dominicans, warning against opening doors that cannot be easily closed. It’s pretty scary: