Brad Birzer, in his commentary today on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Russell Kirk, writes:
Amidst today’s whirligig of populist conservatism, crass conservatism, and consumerist conservatism, we conservatives and libertarians have almost completely forgotten our roots. Those roots can be found in Kirk’s thought, an eccentric but effective and potent mixture of Stoicism, Burkeanism, anarchism, romanticism, and humanism. It is also important—critically so—to remember that Kirk’s vision of conservatism was never primarily a political one. Politics should play a role in the lives of Americans, but a role limited to its own sphere that stays out of rival areas of life. Family, business, education, and religion should each remain sovereign, devoid of politics and politicization. Kirk wanted a conservatism of imagination, of liberal education, and of human dignity. Vitally, he wanted a conservatism that found all persons—regardless of their accidents of birth—as individual manifestations of the eternal and universal Logos.
I can’t recall the last time I read a more succinct statement of the kind of conservatism that I have, and that I want to live under. It brought to mind this valediction given to me when I left the Czech Republic from my host, Father Stepan:
I know, I know… the Czech Republic is neither Italy nor France. There is neither the sublime beauty of Lothlorien nor the grandeur of Gondor — but there is enough Shire for you, always. We’ll be waiting at Bag End.
That is surely one of the most beautiful and poetic things anybody has ever said to me.
Those lines, in light of Brad Birzer’s passage on Kirk, help me to understand why I returned from the Czech Republic with so much joy in my heart, despite the dire situation traditional Christians face there.
While once influential churches may be crowded with tourists, churchgoers in the Czech Republic are becoming increasingly sparse. Religious affiliation in the central European nation of 10.5 million is on a steady decline — churches are shutting their doors and low attendance rates threaten one of the world’s oldest establishments.
According to 2010 data from the Pew Research Center , a vast majority of Czechs— 76.4 percent — consider themselves “unaffiliated”. The other largest category represented are Christians composing approximately 23 percent of the population, with Catholics being the overwhelming denomination.
The unaffiliated category will continue to grow by 2040 where they will comprise nearly 80 percent of the population, according to Pew. This growing shift will establish the Czech Republic as one of the most secular countries in the world. Some researchers even predict that religion will become obsolete for Czechs, as well as for other European countries such as Austria and Finland.
The story goes on to say that many Czechs are not principled atheists, as interested in spiritism and the occult is very high. I was told the same thing when I was there.
Anyway, prospects for traditional Christian life in the Czech Republic are very dark — almost unimaginably so for many of us American Christians, who take so much for granted.
So, why the joy after having come from such a place?
Because of the Christians I met, and the little platoons they have formed.
I wrote here last week about spending an evening at the home of the late Vaclav Benda’s family in Prague. Benda was a leading Czech dissident, one who went to prison with Vaclav Havel. His wife Kamila still lives in their flat in Prague. Five of their six adult children came over to meet me — some brought grandchildren. We talked in part about how they made it through communist persecution with their faith intact. Excerpt from my post:
Faith, family, and books: that’s what the Bendas are all about. This room is an icon of a way of living.
It is also a holy place, at least to me. Kamila told me on Sunday, “Because we lived just down the street from the place where the secret police tortured people, victims would often come here as soon as they were released, just to talk.” They knew there would be comfort at the Bendas’ house.
This is the house in which they raised their children. Kamila told me that she, a university professor of mathematics (like her late husband) read to her kids two to three hours every day.
“Every day?” I asked.
“Every day,” she said. It was part of their intellectual formation.
J.R.R. Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings was a cornerstone of the family’s imagination. I asked Kamila why.
“Because we knew Mordor was real. We felt that their story” — the hobbits and others resisting Mordor — “was our story too.”
She told me that as a mathematician, she knows that the ideology of science is what drives the world today. “Tolkien’s dragons are more realistic than a lot of things we have in this world,” she said, wisely.
We sat around in a big circle, the extended family (plus two other friends), Father Stepan, and I, talking about the Benedict Option, and about the family’s life under communism. The kids told me that their father raised them to be morally responsible in a particular way. He warned them that anything they might do to get in trouble — public drunkenness, for example — would be used by the government against him.
“That’s a heavy burden for a teenager to carry,” I said.
“We don’t see it that way,” said Martin Benda. “For us, it was a matter of being responsible to something outside of ourselves.”
Kamila talked about how she once received a letter from Vaclav from prison. In it, he wrote of the possibility that they would emigrate in exchange for early release.
“I wrote back to tell him no, that he would be better off staying in prison to fight for what we believe is true,” she told me.
Think of it: this woman was raising six kids all alone because her husband was a political prisoner. Yet she told him that the cause they served was more important than the relief of their suffering.
The kids told about how their parents vaccinated them against the disease of communist ideology by raising them to know that the things they heard at school and in the media were lies. In other words, Vaclav and Kamila were consciously countercultural, and understood that they had to impart the same sense to their children, to keep from losing their children to propaganda.
One of the Benda grandchildren said that her own father still does something like that: assigning the kids a certain book to read each month.
This Czech Catholic family was and is a kind of Fellowship of the Ring. And they are luminous, still. They know Mordor always looms in the distance, and that we must be ever-vigilant against it. But they know how to resist it, because they have done it before.
In Brad Birzer’s book J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, he writes:
The worst [post-war] scenario Tolkien could imagine was a world divided by the brutal, totalitarian soviets and the commercially aggressive Americans. The world, Tolkien predicted, would become one homogeneous, cosmopolitan entity, with England a mere suburb. “May the curse of Babel strike all their tongues till they can only say ‘baa baa,'” Tolkien wrote to Christopher. “I think I shall have to refuse to speak anything but Old Mercian.” Here, Tolkien echoed Christopher Dawson, a close friend of Inkling R.E. Havard. Only a year earlier, Dawson had written: “The time is approaching when the cities become one city — a Babylon which sets its mark on the mind of every man and woman and imposes the same pattern of behaviour on every human activity.”
Birzer also writes:
Interestingly, during the 1980s Tolkien’s works served as handbooks for peaceful, Christian, anticommunist underground movements in Eastern Europe and Russia. One former Czech dissident, Michal Semin, writes:
Mordor was understood to be the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. It was also placed in [the] east. The rings, of course, represent the seduction of the devil to take everything into merely human hands with no reference to [the[ transcendent[al] end of man. They follow the path of the original “non serviam.” Then the special role of the [hobbits], creatures of no special or magical powers, very simple and to a certain degree worldly. This served to remind us that even ordinary Czech citizens may stand against the evil of totalitarianism without tanks and artillery. The whole book is anti-utopian. It helped us to understand that …. no paradise on earth should be expected.
Note well this passage from Birzer:
Evil does not always come in the form of war or totalitarian terror. Tolkien saw in the impersonal, machine-driven capitalism of the twentieth century, and especially its handmaiden, the democratic bureaucracies of the Western world, a form of soft tyranny almost as oppressive as fascism and communism. As much as Lewis in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength, Tolkien feared the democratic conditioners and the “men without chests” who planned for the sake of planning, draining life of its vast richness and wonders.”
I’m looking at you, EU.
Birzer, on the Shire:
No one hobbit or group of hobbits decreed new laws. Instead, the hobbits voluntarily obeyed the laws of a king who had been absent for one thousand years. These laws were known as “The Rules” because they were “both ancient and just.”
Ah, see? This is how we endure the madness and confusion of our time. We know what our traditions tell us (and if we don’t, well, let’s learn).
Finally, from Birzer:
[W]e cannot choose our time or place, only what we do with the time that is given to us. “I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron,” Tolkien told a Dutch audience. “But I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. yet, my gentle hobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.” Tolkien wrote to lewis, in defiance,
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends —
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
Think of Kamila Bendova, through the dark days and darker nights of the communist tyranny, her husband imprisoned in a dungeon of Mordor, holed up in her family’s high-ceilinged apartment, reading Tolkien to her children to form their imaginations. Now, think of how important doing the same thing is for children today, in our own bright, shiny Republic of Sarumans.
Another source of hobbitish joy and encouragement: learning the story of Hesperion, my Czech publisher. I didn’t know this until I got there, and didn’t hear the full story until my last night in country. Hesperion is a fellowship of five people — young Catholics (including Father Stepan) who love literature, are vibrantly orthodox in their faith, and devote their time to translating into Czech books they would like to read themselves. They don’t make money at it. Any profits they make from the sale of books they pour back into the company to buy translation rights to more titles. They do this out of love, and because they consider it a ministry. Some nights they stay up late, translating, editing, proofreading, even though most of them have families. Again: they do it out of love of God and of the written word, and because they think it’s important.
And you know, I am certain that they have no idea at all what a light they are in the darkness. But they are.
I think of them as younger version of the Tipi Loschi in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy. The Tipi Loschi began as a small fellowship of young Catholic men in college who came together to serve the needy in the spirit of the Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (founder of the original Tipi Loschi). They ended up sticking together after they got married. One thing led to another, and today, they are running a fruitful, joy-filled Catholic community in their town, one in which they educate and form their children according to traditional Catholicism, and, in large part, the vision of Chesterton and Tolkien. Take a look at the website of their community school, the Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton. (If you view it with Chrome, you can have it translated out of Italian.) Go read this post of mine from a few years back, and follow the video links. That is the Shire we want and need! Populated by brave and happy little hobbits who are not deceived about the challenges of our time, but who stagger onward rejoicing, guided by the traditional faith and gratitude for God’s goodness.
Here’s the point: yes, things are hard all over, and getting harder, but just think of what we and our children and our families can have if we not only refuse the darkness, but work to defend and to build our shires! Places where what the world scatters, we, by God’s grace, put back together. These are not utopias, nor want to be. Rather, I think of them as like what Russell Kirk meant here:
I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.
Let’s meet in our shire pub, called The Battered Gargoyle, shall we, and talk about a conservatism of the imagination. Let’s invite our neighbors into our own Bag Ends, serve good beer, and practice Benedictine hospitality and gratitude to God for all things.
Just look at these two Italian hobbits. Let’s be like them: