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For a New Middle Age

The Benedict Option and recovering a monastic spirit

In his 1923 book The End of Our Time, the Russian thinker Nikolai Berdyaev says that modernity has spiritually exhausted mankind, and that the time is ripe for a return to interiority, to a world in which the spiritual was more important than the material. To enter into this “new middle age” requires, he says, a “revolution in spirit.” Berdyaev says the Middle Ages have been wrongly disparaged as a time of darkness:

In reality the medieval civilization was a renaissance in opposition to the barbarism and darkness which had followed the fall of the civilization of antiquity, a chaos in which Christianity alone had been the light and the principle of order. For long it was believed that this complex and rich period had been a great void in the intellectual history of mankind and of its philosophical thought, when as a matter of fact these centuries had so many excellent thinkers and such diversity in the realm of their thought that noting like it can be found at any other epoch; the things which were substantial and living for them are counted as superfluous luxuries in modern times. A return to the middle ages is then a return to a better religious type, for we are far below their culture in the spiritual order; and we should hurry back to them the more speedily because the movements of negation in our decadence have overcome the positive creative and strengthening movements. The middle ages was not a time of darkness, but a period of night; the medieval soul was a “night-soul” wherein were displayed elements and energies which afterwards shut themselves up within themselves at the appearing of this weary day of modern history.

Berdyaev has no patience for idealizing the past, saying that we must not lie to ourselves about the brutality and violence of that era. But we also must not allow the brutality to blind us to the spiritual depth and brilliance of that era. Says the philosopher, “Those ages did not waste on exterior things energy that could be concentrated on interior.”

In modern times, he says:

“the hierarchical subordination of the material to the spiritual is inverted. … All energy is concentrated outwardly: that is the change from ‘culture’ to ‘civilization.’ All the sacred symbolism of culture dies.”

He describes the 20th century this way — a description that, nearly a century later, is even more apt, in my view:

[F]aith in the ultimate political and social salvation of mankind is quenched. We have reached settlement-day after a series of centuries during which movement was from the centre, the spiritual core of life, to the periphery, its surface and social exterior. And the more empty of religious significance social life has become, the more it has tyrannized over the general life of man.  … The world needs a strong reaction from this domination by exterior things, a change back in favour of interior spiritual life, not only for the sake of individuals but for the sake of real metaphysical life itself. To many who are caught up in the web of modern activities this must sound like an invitation to suicide. But we have got to choose. The life of the spirit is either a sublime reality or an illusion: accordingly we have either to look for salvation in it rather than in the fuss of politics, or else dismiss it altogether as false. When it seems that everything is over and finished, when the earth crumbles away under our feet as it does today, when there is neither hope nor illusion, when we can see all things naked and undeceiving, then is the acceptable time for a religious quickening in the world. We are at that time… .

“The call to a new middle age is a call to this spiritual revolution, to a complete renewal of consciousness,” Berdyaev writes. You may think of this period as a long night, but that is a time of rest and rebuilding, he says. Me, I think of how the penitent pilgrims on Dante’s mountain of Purgatory must rest when the sun goes down. They cannot make progress without the light of the sun; when darkness surrounds them, they must rest. But they know the light remains outside their field of vision, and will return. Berdyaev:

That is why the source of that light will subsist however dense the surrounding darkness. And we must look upon ourselves not only as the last Romans, faithful to the past, to eternal truth and beauty, but also as the watchers for the dawn, looking towards the yet unseen day when the sun of the new Christian renaissance shall rise. Perhaps it will show itself in the catacombs and be welcomed by only a few. Perhaps it will happen only at the end of time. It is not for us to know. But we do know beyond any possibility of error that eternal light and eternal beuaty cannot be annihilated by any tempest or in any disorder. The victory of number over goodness, of this contingent world over that which is to come, is never more than seeming. And so, without fear or discouragement, we must leave this day of modern history and enter a medieval night. May God dispel all false and deceptive light.

The Benedict Option is the term I use to describe this rising movement for a new Middle Age, a spiritual revolution in a time of spiritual and cultural darkness. The monk was the ideal personality type of the Middle Ages. Few of us will be called to the monastery, but all of us who profess orthodox Christianity are called to rediscover a monastic temperament, putting the service of God before all things, and ordering our lives — our prayer and our work, and our communal existence — to that end. We are going to have to recover a sense of monastic asceticism, and do so in hope and joy, together.

When you observe the art and architecture of the Middle Ages — Mont Saint-Michel, say, called “the Wonder” by the French — you behold what spiritual profundity and grandeur informed that era. We need to find our way back to the Wonder, to the source, and pioneer ways to receive and to bound that spiritual vitality in our own very different age.

We can do this!

(Remember, readers, I am traveling overseas today, and will not be able to approve comments quickly or easily. I wrote this post on Sunday, in the airport, and scheduled it to appear Monday. Please be patient; I’ll approve comments as soon as I find a wi-fi hotspot.)