Searching For Ithaca
I received an e-mail this week from a sometime correspondent, an academic in the Midwest. I’ve been thinking about it all week, wondering what to say in response. We’ve arrived at the start of Walker Percy Weekend, and I have no time left. With the writer’s permission, I’m sharing it with all of you. He’s hoping that maybe some of you will have an answer for him.
This is an extraordinary letter.
Today I’m writing because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about sacramentalism, especially as you discuss it more and more on the blog. This interest in sacramentalism has dovetailed with a crisis of faith of sorts, as I find it more and more difficult to sustain my participation in Catholicism. It has also aligned neatly with my revisiting of The Odyssey, surely the most important narrative in the history of literature. And as I ponder various strands, I can’t help wondering just how many people out there are feeling the same thing: a yearning for something greater, even as they find it difficult to break out of the metaphysical prison created by Enlightenment liberalism.
Like you, I am profoundly interested in the experiences that make our lives more sacramental. We are both admirers of Laurus, and of that book’s manifestation of a vastly more enchanted time and culture. I’ve been reading Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey (it has gotten lots of attention for being the first by a woman, but independent of all that it’s just a great translation), and have been listening with my young son to an audiobook version for kids. I have found in revisiting the work for the first time in probably five years that it is, like Laurus, a snapshot of a culture that was decidedly more in tune with the divine. It’s been amazing to read and hear about the daily involvement of the gods in the lives of humans. Whether accurate or not, it’s astonishing to hear men talk about bad luck as a consequence of irritating the gods, or as a recognition that some part of the man/god balance has been altered.
It’s rather like reading accounts of karma in Eastern philosophy; when one acts with pride, for example, he can expect retribution from a power higher than him. The gods are not seen as some distant, removed force that merely want men to be happy (as in MTDeism). Rather, they are part and parcel of everyday life, present in plants and waves and animals and emotions and, of course, in the form of other humans from time to time. The world is enchanted with the divine. The gods permeate all things; the divine is not some other place but this very place we occupy. It’s wonderful in the same way Laurus is wonderful, because it reminds you that humans have led such enchanted lives before, and perhaps we can again.
But this leads me to the sadder part of this experience: the fact that I want so badly to believe in the truths of Christianity, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Nor can I bring myself to believe (and I mean truly believe, at the level of the soul’s core) in the gods of Olympus, or in any other form of supernatural thought. The reason I can’t, despite years of effort and regular prayer and Mass attendance, is because I too am a prisoner of Enlightenment thought. I too am a modern, as much as I wish I could truly create a premodern sensibility. I wish I could believe that Adam and Eve existed, that Moses parted the sea, that Noah sailed an ark, that Jesus rode a donkey into town, that the skies darkened as his soul ascended, that the Lord will come again to judge the living and the dead.
But I can’t. Oh, I try – you don’t go to Mass for years and hit the knees in prayer every morning if you don’t actually try. I want so badly to be devout, and I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve been talking with other cradle Catholics my age (mid-thirties) who express the same thoughts. We so envy the people who can truly believe, who can accept the teachings without the skepticism created by an upbringing in philosophical liberalism, who can go to Mass each Sunday and be moved by the words and rituals. Perhaps they’re all faking it. I don’t know. I’ve tried faking it with the hope that it will transform into pure faith, but so far I have not found it.
I still live what I consider to be a more enchanted life than most. Each morning when I walk the dog in the pre-dawn light I give thanks to whatever is out there – not with a Catholic prayer, but with a line from the poet Mary Oliver: “It is morning, and again I am that lucky person who is in it.” I greet birds and rabbits with the knowledge that they are part of the divine, as am I. I treasure my family and my friends and my garden and my humble work in my community, and I reject liquid modernity and its trappings of wealth and progress and technology. I read many books, drink many glasses of Pinot Noir on my porch while watching the sunset, and greet many neighbors with many hellos. I focus all my efforts on what is closest to me, and try to shore up my own little platoon while ignoring the sound and fury of national affairs as much as I can. I am, in other words, living something like the Benedict Option – I’m just missing the Benedict.
This is frustrating precisely because I am exactly the sort of person who should be leading a BenOp group here in my Midwestern college town, which is rife with progressive screeching and puritanical campus thought police. I am a father and husband, a gardener and friend. I am frequently moved to tears by poetry and certain Cezannes and the beauty of Bach; when Odysseus’ 21-year-old dog Argos gives a joyful bark, jumps in his arms, and dies, I weep at the beauty of the scene. I want to be that BenOp person who can bring beauty and culture and truth to others, but I am not. And in some way that seems to me to be the great tragedy of my life.
The two guiding themes of The Odyssey are quo vadis (where are you going?) and amor fati (love/acceptance of fate). When I was still a college professor, I relentlessly drilled these themes into my students’ heads. Where are you going? What end are you aiming for? Accept the fate you are given and you will never be unsatisfied! Place yourself in harmony with events as they happen to you! Control what you can control and leave the rest to the divine! Good notions all, and I would give virtually anything to practice what I preach. I would give anything to be a Catholic who knew where he was going, who accepted God’s plans for him. It kills me that I cannot.
The point of all this: what are people like me to do? How can we make our lives sacramental when we cannot bring ourselves to accept the ontological basis of the sacraments? Is there hope, BenOp or sacramental or otherwise, for people like us? I know I would love the chance to have a truly numinous experience, something that irrefutably confirmed for me that the Christian God exists as I’ve been told. But there’s the problem right there – confirmed. I’m right back in the Enlightenment mindset, right back in the banal empiricism of modernity. Is there no escape? Is there no flight to something higher?
Many of us want more than anything to believe, and we are receptive. I’m already more religious than most people I know, and I already see the world as more enchanted than anyone I know. I want truth. I don’t want to be told, dismissively, as I often am, that the story of Noah’s ark is mere metaphor to illustrate a larger truth – I want the truth itself. Esse quam videri – that’s what I want. There must be others like me, but I don’t know where they are. Perhaps they are the people responding strongly to Jordan Peterson. Perhaps some of them are bewitched by the alt-right. Perhaps they are tree-huggers and localists. How do we find each other? I know they’re not at my parish, whose Masses are as rote and lifeless as a calculus seminar and whose parishioners are blinkered by our city’s preening culture of activism (our bulletin even has a “Social Justice Corner”).
So: what to do? Where to go? I am no agnostic; I accept wholeheartedly that a higher power exists. Quo vadis? I am aiming for a higher end – that much I know. I’m just not sure anymore where that is. Amor fati? I accept it; I just wish I knew its source. We humans crave enchantment and sacrament, and I know I’m not the only one yearning to accept the underlying bases of those forces in the way Arseny and Odysseus accepted them. But like so many moderns, I just can’t take that final step.
That question near the end of The Odyssey gets me every time: “And tell me this: I must be absolutely sure. This place I’ve reached, is it truly Ithaca?” I yearn for Ithaca; I yearn for home. I only wish I knew how to get there.
UPDATE: If anyone wishes to correspond with this writer, he has provided this e-mail address: cyanocitta.cristata.bromia [at] gmail.com