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.