‘Something Is About To Be Illuminated’
I had such a positive reaction the other day to my post about Paul Kingsnorth’s wonderful, eerie short story “The Basilisk” that I decided this morning to share more Kingsnorth with you. He’s an English writer who lives in rural Ireland. For years he was part of the environmentalist movement, but came to believe that the world didn’t want saving from apocalypse. He dedicated himself to writing about the search for meaning through the apocalypse. Here, from his website’s FAQ, is some information about him:
Where are you coming from politically?
I have never found a tribe that I would want to be part of. But here are some things I believe.
I believe that the global industrial economy – what William Cobbet called ‘the Thing’, but what we might equally simply call the human empire – is destroying the life support systems of the Earth itself, razing and homogenising the mosaic of human cultures and increasingly using humans as fodder in a techno-industrial machine which may one day supplant us. This is known as ‘progress’. Its cultural arm, individualist liberalism, is meanwhile engaged in stripping all meaning, truth and traditional support structures from our lives, in a headlong plunge towards what looks to be a glorified nihilism disguised as liberation.
In opposition to this, I believe in a healthy suspicion of entrenched power, whether it is entrenched in leaders, states or corporations; decentralisation of economics, politics and culture; connection to land, nature and heritage; an attention to matters of the spirit; heterodox tolerance, freedom of expression and an appreciation of beauty. Hell, a man can dream.
What rude names have you been called?
I’m building a collection. Over the years, I’ve been called an anarchist, reactionary, communist, left-wing oikophile, crazy collapsitarian, woolly liberal, nativist, cave-dweller, Luddite, Romantic, doomer, nihilist, fascist and – my favourite – ‘lower middle-class eco toff.’
I am happy with all of these, and hope to collect more. I would like to be remembered as a writer who meets George Orwell’s description of Charles Dickens: ‘a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’
On the surface, it can indeed seem as if Kingsnorth is giving up. Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future. Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. “Why do I do this,” he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, “when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than most people do.”
It’s an ethic reflected in the novel he has just published. When he was a schoolboy, Kingsnorth told me, his teachers described the Norman Conquest, in 1066, as a swift transformation. An army of Norman and French soldiers from across the channel invaded England and swept away Anglo-Saxon civilization. The old ways vanished, and a new world emerged. He was surprised to learn, much later, that a resistance movement bedeviled the conquerors for a full decade. These resisters were known as the Silvatici, or “wild men.” Eventually William the Conqueror drove them from the woods and slaughtered every last one of them. They were doomed from the start, and knew it. But that hadn’t stopped them from fighting.
In Kingsnorth’s telling, it also didn’t stop them from wondering whether they should keep fighting. On the afternoon following the concert, standing in the wooden shelter, he described his novel as being both about the collapse of a civilization and about the collapse of long-cherished certainties about what it means to be civilized. His introductory remarks were lively and entertaining, but nervously so, as if he were reluctant to begin. Later, he told me it was the first time he’d ever read publicly from the book. He read a strange excerpt, a sort of dream vision about a young boy and a stag. “I have no idea which part of my subconscious I dredged this up from,” he later wrote me, “but the conversation they end up having is pretty much the conversation I have with myself at the moment when it comes to what the hell I can possibly do to be of any use at all”:
when will i be free saes the cilde to the stag
and the stag saes thu will nefer be free
then when will angland be free
angland will nefer be free
then what can be done
naht can be done
then how moste i lif
thu moste be triewe that is all there is
You can well imagine why I’m an admirer of his work. He’s like three-quarters Wendell Berry and a quarter J.R.R. Tolkien. Here’s a link to some essays and short stories Kingsnorth has written. Here, for example, is a reflection he wrote at the spring equinox in Covidtide. Excerpts:
The Irish writer John Moriarty wrote a lot about chthón. His life’s search was for ways to re-embed us in what we have lost, to take us around and down again, to correct the Western Error. In his autobiography, Nostos, he writes:
Chthón is the old Greek word for the Earth in its secret, dark, depths, and if there was any one word that could be said to distinguish ancient Greeks from modern Europeans, that word chthón, that would be it. Greeks had the word, we haven’t. Greeks had the pieties and beliefs that go with the word, we haven’t. Greeks had the wisdom that goes with the word, we haven’t. Greeks had the sense of spiritual indwelling that goes with the word, we haven’t. In the hope that they might continue in the goodwill of its dark but potentially beneficent powers, Greeks poured libations of wine, of honey, or barley-water sweetened with mint down into this realm, we don’t.
I would like to say that we forgot all about chthón, we with our space stations and our stellar minds, our progress and our clean boots, our hand sanitizers and our aircon units, our concrete vaults and our embalming fluid; that for a short period we escaped into aérios, or thought we had, and now we are going to have to go underground again, and you can be sure we will be dragged there by the Hag against our will, and we will fight and fight as the sun comes down the shaft and we see again what is carved on the stones down there.
You can forget about chthón, but chthón won’t forget about you.
I would like to say that I know what to do about all this, or what to learn. I would like to teach it to you so that you may learn too. I would like to be a prophet in a time when prophets are so sorely needed.
Unfortunately, I am not qualified for this role. I don’t know anything at all, and I am learning, painfully, that this was my lesson all along.
I don’t know anything at all.
My society does not know anything at all.
All the things I was brought up to label as learning : my A-levels, my Oxford University degrees, all the books I have read and written, all the arguments I learned how to formulate, all the ideas I learned how to frame, the concepts I learned how to enunciate. All this head-work, all these modern European ways of seeing, understanding, controlling, managing, directing the world:
None of that was it.
I am reminded of the story about Thomas Aquinas who, near the end of his life, at the pinnacle of his unparalleled theological achievements, had a mystical vision. Nobody knows what Aquinas saw, but he said afterward that all of his work is like straw.
Cultures that last are cultures that do not build. Cultures that last are cultures that do not seek to know what cannot be known. Cultures that last are cultures that crawl into their chthón without asking questions. Cultures that know how to be, that look at the sun on the mountain, and say, yes, this is the revelation.
People last when they do not eat apples that were not meant for them, when they do not steal fire they do not understand. People last when they sit in the sun and do nothing at all.
Let us learn from this! we say. Let us take this crisis and use it to make us better! Better people, more organized people, wiser people. Sleeker people, more efficient people. Let us become sustainable! Let us learn to tell new stories, for the old ones are broken now!
We should be saying: stories were the problem. We should be saying: no more stories, not from us.
We should be saying: break the stories, break them all. Nothing of this should be sustained.
We should be saying: no more normal. Not now, not ever.
We should be saying: we could die any moment, and this has always been true. Look at the beauty!
We should be saying: see the sunlight crawl down the passage of the tomb.
We should be saying: something is about to be illuminated.
We should be saying: watch.
I do not agree that “cultures that last are cultures that do not build” — or perhaps I don’t understand what he’s saying here. But mostly I do agree with this. What Kingsnorth is testifying to here is the bankruptcy of the Western compulsion — especially the modern Western compulsion — to penetrate mystery, to solve it, and to be done with it. What Kingsnorth is saying here is the same thing that Wordsworth said: “We murder to dissect.”
Earlier this morning I was having a text exchange with a friend in which I told him about my own surprising healing from anxiety and resulting physical sickness some years back, and the role contemplative prayer played in it. I told the story in greater detail in my book How Dante Can Save Your Life. Here’s an excerpt from that book, recounting a conversation with my priest, Father Matthew Harrington:
“Benedict, you asked me once for a prayer rule,” he said, using my patron saint’s name, as is the Orthodox tradition. “I have one for you.”
“Great!” I said. “What is it?”
A prayer rule is nothing more than a daily prayer discipline. It can be short or long, depending on the spiritual need and capabilities of the individual. I did not know what to expect from Father Matthew, but I certainly did not expect what he handed me.
This rule required me to pray five hundred Jesus Prayers a day, a demanding discipline. If done with the proper attentiveness, this takes about an hour. To pray in the right way, you have to clear your mind of all thoughts and images and let nothing but the words “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” (the shortened version of the prayer that I used) pass through your mind like the coming and going of the tide. Most people use a prayer rope, a kind of Orthodox rosary, to help them keep track of their prayers.
“Five hundred Jesus Prayers?” I said, nonplussed. “How long do you want me to follow this rule?”
“Every day for the rest of your life.”
This seemed ridiculous, but I didn’t show how I felt. I resolved to obey. It wasn’t like I could do much more than sit around the house anyway.
How hard can it be to sit still and pray in a focused way for an hour? Try it. Your thoughts will swarm around your head like a cloud of stinging wasps, distracting you every two seconds. Still, you press on. The goal is to achieve inner stillness and connection with God. On most days, I would lie in one of the alcove beds in the darkened bedroom, with the light out and the curtain pulled, and silently pray on my prayer rope.
As each tiny knot of the black woolen rope passed between my thumb and forefinger, I would breathe in on “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and exhale on “have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I felt stupid. I could not settle my mind. It seemed at first that I would have to stop after every five or six prayers to refocus. This was work! But after a couple of weeks, I noticed that I felt slightly less tense. The prayer worked like a hatchet, chipping away at the ice encasing my heart.
Until I began to pray the Jesus Prayer diligently, I had not realized how captive I had been to unwanted thoughts. In time, the prayer discipline trains your mind to deflect these thoughts to protect your inner stillness. One benefit of this technique is acquiring the skill to maintain inner stillness no matter how distracting or upsetting the world can be.
“Following a prayer rule helps us see the movements of our heart, movements of our soul,” Father Matthew explained to me. “It makes us quiet. We ask ourselves, ‘Why does my heart keep going back to that one thought?’ It allows us to see what we’re fighting. And then there’s the asceticism of it: ‘I’m going to make myself do my prayer rule.’ You have to fight through it sometimes, and it’s that asceticism that causes us to appreciate and deepen our life in the Church.
“This is a struggle of the heart, Benedict, not the intellect,” he said, as if he could read my mind.
Many months later, after I was restored, I asked Father Matthew how he knew that I needed the prayer rule, as opposed to something like, “Read the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and think about them.” He said, “Simple — I knew that you needed to get out of your head.”
Of course. But the simplest things are often the hardest to accomplish. And we often don’t learn. After a while, I let my prayer rule slip away. At the beginning of the Covid crisis, I once again developed symptoms of the Epstein-Barr Virus, which was brought on last time by deep anxiety, said the rheumatologist, and which came back because of the same thing. With no liturgies in my life, I pretty much stopped praying, and slipped further and further into melancholy. Last month, after hitting a kind of bottom, I phoned Father Matthew, now living in Washington state, and talked about all this, and went to confession (which Orthodox bishops allow now, as a concession to the Covid emergency). He told me that I absolutely must return to prayer. I said yes, you’re right, and resolved to do so.
That night, I decided to watch Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia. I don’t know why. I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out it’s about a Russian writer who is in the grips of melancholy, because he cannot get out of his head. A holy fool tells him that if he doesn’t stop smoking, he won’t be able to do the work he’s supposed to do. This is the fool’s oblique way of telling the writer that he has to loosen his passionate ties to the world. It’s not at an overtly Christian work, but the climax involves the writer carrying out a supremely simple, but incredibly difficult, ritual — an act of faith — that finally gets the writer out of the torments of his head. It costs him his life, but the scene brings to mind the words of Manfred in Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto 3, who died excommunicated from the Church, but was saved by asking for God’s mercy as he lay dying from battle. He tells Dante that “none is so lost/that the eternal Love cannot return/as long as hope maintains a thread of green.”
For the Russian writer, his was a struggle of the heart, not the intellect.
Don’t you think that’s true with most of us? Don’t you think that that is what Paul Kingsnorth is getting at?
I see that my country is failing. We are beset by plague, and cannot conquer it, because we refuse to give up the freedom to steal fire not meant for us. We believe that limits are intolerable, that we should be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want, without consequences. Money and technology will see us through.
Until they don’t. Yes, eventually medical science will conquer this thing, or at least make it more bearable. For that we should be grateful. But if we waste this trial and the gift it gives us, revealing to us our spiritual state, we will have made a profound mistake.
I agree with Paul Kingsnorth: watch.
You never know what is going to be revealed to you. You should live in such a way that you can see it when it manifests. The historian Tom Holland, not a confessing Christian, but now a churchgoer who is walking into a mystery, said in a recent interview:
I think I am naturally conservative. I think I’m more moved by things that have been than things that might be. I feel the power of what’s happening now as something that is rooted in the past.
So, essentially, what has happened is that I have lost my faith, and my faith was liberalism. I just don’t think it has any secure foundations at all. As Western power retreats, we’ve come to realise that these values that [we] had assumed were universal – human rights, the inherent dignity of Man, the obligation of the rich to the poor – are actually very culturally contingent. Our assumption that there are universal values is itself very culturally contingent – and specifically Christian, I think. I can find no basis for believing in any of this stuff at all that does not involve a conscious leap of faith.
I also feel that the legacy of Christian writings, of Christian experience, of Christian activism, of all the things about Christianity that stir and move me, [is] richer than anything that my secular liberal assumptions have to offer. I find it rich and beautiful and exciting in a way that as a child I found the Romans rich and beautiful and exciting.
And there’s a power to it. This is the most powerful way of explaining what humans are about that has ever existed, in terms of its impact, its influence, the numbers who’ve followed it. And so I feel an incredible tug. You know, if I’m not just going to become a kind of Nietzschean, let’s-revel-in-power! kind of nihilist, I have to take this leap of faith. And if I’ve got to take a leap of faith to believe this stuff that I viscerally believe in, I might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb.
You’ve said that you go to church but you don’t pray. When you take part in a service, what’s going on in your head? Is there always some mental reservation or is there a sense in which you say ‘Amen’?
Sometimes I think: This is just a fascinating cultural expression of something that’s been going on for hundreds of years. And then there are other times when I think: This is the key to why I think the way I do. Perhaps I just need to stop overthinking it.
Maybe I should just ‘surrender to the Spirit’. One of the things that really struck me writing Dominion was the vast [impact] that the idea of the Spirit has had – the idea that you can read something and suddenly the Spirit enables you to see things afresh, the idea of this fire that blazes and spreads across the world. There’s this tension between head and heart, between thought and Spirit.
The church I go to is London’s oldest parish church (it was founded by a jester of Henry I). It is absolutely a sacred place to me, because it’s a place where you can feel humble before the immensity of human experience. You know that people have wrestled with the issues and ideals that you are wrestling with, and maybe they’ve been hypocritical and haven’t measured up to what they believe. That is what I find powerful and moving about it, and with the lockdown I find I miss it far more than I would ever have imagined.
So, maybe that is the Spirit, who knows? ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases.’ I think it’s good to feel that you might be a leaf being blown on the wind.
In Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, the writer at one point skulks across the nave of a ruined medieval abbey. Here’s the clip — it’s in Italian. You hear the voice of a woman (presumably the Virgin) asking the Lord to speak to the poor writer, who is in a bad way. The Lord says the writer wouldn’t be able to hear him if he did. She asks the Lord to reveal himself to the writer, who needs to know that he is there. God says that he reveals himself every day, but the writer cannot see:
I was so deeply moved by this movie, which I began watching only minutes after my confession, and my confessor telling me to return to prayer. It felt like a revelation. After the movie was over, I searched online to find out where that amazing medieval ruin is. It turns out that it’s the Abbey of San Galgano. Who was St. Galgano? He was a medieval Tuscan who had led a passionate life, until he had two visions of St. Michael the Archangel. In the second, the Archangel told him to give up his worldly life, and devote himself to God. Galgano reportedly said that it would be easier for him to put his sword through a rock than to give up his worldly passions. He brought his sword down on a rock next to him — and it went through, almost up to the hilt. He immediately converted, and became a hermit. You can still see the sword in the stone inside the church the medieval Tuscans built in his honor. Later, some of his Cistercian followers built the great abbey dedicated to Galgano, though it later was abandoned.
Now, you don’t have to believe that the sword in the stone story is true (though I do) to understand the symbolism. Here’s why I bring it up. After discovering that the abbey in Nostalghia was St. Galgano’s, I believe I finally understood why an Italian engraver, Luca Daum, came to my 2018 talk in Genoa and gave me this, from his hand:
It’s called “The Temptation of San Galgano”. Notice how the serpent who tempts him to abandon his sacrifice comes from inside his head. From the rock where his cross-like sword stands impaled, a symbol of Galgano’s sacrifice, grows the Tree of Life.
I found Luca Daum’s email address and wrote to him about it. He responded, in part:
On what you confide in me about St. Galgano, I tell you what I have always known in words, but then on the practical side it always amazes and surprises me, and that is how God acts despite and despite us, but nevertheless often through us.
God is truly a good Father!
He loves us as we are but He wants to lead us to the Beauty of the Project that must be realized in us.
You have been caressed by God, dear Rod, through the image of an obscure Italian engraver, who only wanted to show you his esteem, and certainly did not imagine anything else.
God used this, as He could use anything else, to embrace and comfort you, and, I humbly say, me too.
We are generally so fragile and consequently superficial that we find it hard to recognize God’s hand in our troubled daily lives.
Yet Providence is there and acts, and every now and then it shakes us more clearly.
Dear friend, I am very grateful to you for putting me aside from your moving experience, I will remember you with greater affection, for I feel more deeply and mysteriously bound to you in a common destiny.
After all this, I felt so reassured by my return to prayer, and challenged to deepen my faith in this apocalyptic age. So, my message to you is: Watch. Pray. Practice inner stillness. Prepare yourself to see and to hear. Something is about to be illuminated. The world is filled with mystery. Do not seek to know what cannot be known — just receive it with awe and gratitude, and with the resolution to change your life.
Here’s the thing: this is what gets me out of bed in the morning — the theophanic pilgrimage of life, and the hope of stumbling upon inbreakings of grace and revelation. I don’t write about that much here, but it’s what I live by, and think about a lot. I think I need to find a way to write a book about it.
UPDATE: I still can’t figure out what Kingsnorth means by saying that “cultures that last are cultures that do not build.” Maybe I’m not understanding him. Or maybe he’s just wrong. One might say that cultures that last are cultures that do not build things for their own sake, but for some greater end. I dunno.