Shelter From The West’s Long Winter
I'm in the west of Ireland today, gallivanting about with the writer Paul Kingsnorth. We went earlier today to visit the cave dwelling of St. Colman Mac Duagh, an early medieval Irish saint, then had oysters and Guinness at a seaside restaurant, prayed the rounds at a holy well of St. Brigid of Kildare, and then Paul dropped me at the airport hotel. Early flight home tomorrow. Here is a link to Paul's latest Substack newsletter -- it's subscriber-only (paid), but I tell you, if I could only keep one of my Substack subscriptions, it would be his. In the newsletter, Paul talks about the power of nostalgia, which he feels has too strong a hold on him. (Same for me.) In the newsletter, he quotes this poem by C.P. Cavafy, which one of my reader friends sent to me, and that I passed on to Paul. It's called "The God Abandons Antony," and it's about the death of Marc Antony in the Egyptian city Alexandria, in defeat:
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation —to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
It's a poem about facing inevitable loss with courage and dignity. Paul believes that this is wise counsel for us as the Empire falls around us:
In both of the spiritual traditions in which I have immersed myself over the last decade - Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity – this spirit of necessary detachment, this sense that to tie yourself too closely to the churning affairs of the world is to invite destruction, is the precursor to the work. To a Buddhist, the ongoing effort to ‘detach’ yourself from created things is the only way to sidestep the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: that ‘to live is to suffer.’ From an Orthodox perspective, to live after the Fall is also to suffer. The work of the Christian who wants to find the way home again is to ‘die to the world’: to rid himself of the ‘passions’ of worldly attachment as the essential prelude to walking the narrow path which leads to theosis: union with God.
The theologies of Zen, Orthodoxy, Mark Anthony and Robinson Jeffers differ wildly, and yet they alight, all of them, on this same reality. So does every other religious tradition I know of. To watch the great fall, to say goodbye to Alexandria, to accept that nothing gold can stay: this is the task of people who find themselves living through the falling years. It is the prelude to doing anything useful with our time. If we spend that time lamenting the fall, or trying to prevent it, or stewing in bitterness at those we believe responsible, we will find ourselves cast into darkness. If we ‘degrade ourselves with empty hopes’ of some form of technological or political salvation yet to come, the darkness will be just as deep.
No: the only way out is through. To dance with the way things are moving. To watch the great fall, accept its reality, and then get on with our work. What that work might be, in the age of the Total system, will differ for each one of us. Rebellion, restoration, protection, the building of new structures: I’m going to explore each of these in coming essays. But before anything can happen, we have first to get our inner house in order.
Me, I have to watch my tendency towards nostalgia. The things we mourn can be the things that make us human: the source of poetry and song, of the crooked places and small things, of everything that we hold dear against the Machine. Sometimes it is a pleasure to dream of the hawthorn lanes and the stillness before the engines. But it is necessary to dance only lightly with any of it. We are all sojourners here. Nothing gold can stay, and dreams can easily blind us.
As I wrote somewhere before, many lifetimes ago: there is a fall coming. Now, I think, it is here - and it is civilisation itself, at its very foundations, that is on the rack. The modern experiment has failed. The tower is coming down. There are opportunities to be found in all of the cracks that are spreading upwards from its foundations. In the rotting of the old world is the seed of the new. But only if we let go - of both the past and the future.
Nothing is coming back.
We are not going where we thought we were.
Beyond Progress and Nostalgia is the third stance: I will meet you there. We can watch the fall together.
I tell you, there's nothing that rebalances your chakras quite like sitting alone in a remote limestone cave that was once home to a hermit, 1,200 years ago, and praying the same prayer he prayed, and looking out of the entrance to see and hear the world pretty much like it was when he dwelled there. Yes, the Burren, where his cave is, was thickly forested in Colman's day and is mostly bare now, but the part where his cave is to be found, along with a small chapel and his well, still has moss-covered trees and ferns growing there.
It won't surprise you to hear that I agree with Paul that we are living through a fall. We commiserated on how frustrating it is to be called a defeatist because you don't see how humanity is going to turn all this around. My view -- this is in The Benedict Option -- is that we are not going to stop what's coming, but we can come through it with our faith intact if we take lessons from what the early Benedictine monks did, and create structures and ways of living that prove resilient under the tectonic stresses that will shake everything to its foundations.
Mind you, St. Colman was not a Benedictine. He was born about twenty years after Benedict died. Benedictine monasticism hadn't yet taken off. He was an Irish hermit who became a wonder-working abbot and bishop. I'm not saying that we should head for the mossy caves, though if that Grammy crap I've been reading about on Twitter is as bad as they say, retreating to a cave in a gentle Irish forest sounds better and better all the time. What I'm saying is that all the fighting we're doing isn't stopping the general movement of the culture. Believe me, I'm going to fight wokeness until I move to the cave, but I can't convince myself that even if we beat wokeness, we can or will resurrect our sick and exhausted civilization. I wish it weren't so, but there we are.
Kingsnorth has been writing for some time about the great dissolution of our civilization. Here's a link to a piece I did in 2021 about a superb essay he wrote on Oswald Spengler, who wrote The Decline Of The West. Here's a link to the original -- or if it's now paywalled, UnHerd republished it. In the piece, Paul writes that wokeness is a sign of a deeper sickness:
Why is this happening and what is going on? Looked at through a wide lens, it is a deeply weird (not to mention WEIRD) phenomena. What sort of country is ashamed of itself? What people wants to be governed by a ruling class that holds it in contempt? What historical precedent is there for a lasting culture whose story-makers are embarrassed by their own ancestors? How can any culture continue into the future if it is teaching its children a deeply disturbing form of racialised self-loathing?
Defenders of the current moment will usually respond that such accusations are hysterical. What is happening in the West, they say, is a long-overdue ‘reckoning’ with our culture’s past: the empires, the colonies, the imposition of our ways of life on the rest of the world. They’re not wrong about much of that history, however partially they tell the story. We know, or we should, that there were plenty of dark chapters in the Western past. If any culture takes to the high seas with cannons blazing and proceeds to paint half the world red (on the map and often on the ground), then at some point a reckoning will arrive. Actions have consequences. God is not mocked.
But this is not a good enough explanation for what is now clearly a process of accelerating cultural disintegration. After all, plenty of other parts of the world – pretty much all of them in fact, humans being what they are – have dark pasts too, but you don’t see Russia’s cultural elites collapsing into spirals of performative shame over how Lenin and Stalin brutalised eastern Europe or killed millions of their own people (on the contrary, Uncle Joe is very popular there these days.) Japan’s murderous history in southeast Asia doesn’t seem to have led to a desire to dismantle its historic identity, and China is certainly not about to start apologising for the last four thousand years – count them – that it has been engaging in imperial expansion.
No, something else is surely going on in the West, and especially in the Anglosphere, which can’t be explained purely by historical karma. Over the last few years, a new and still-coalescing ideology, which has been gathering steam in the post-modern catacombs of America for decades, has burst out onto the streets and into the studios, and is now coursing through the culture, overturning what was until recently uncontroversial or unquestioned. The energy around it is not that of the self-declared love and justice. It tastes of deconstruction, division, intolerance, hatred and rage.
As he goes on to write, this decline is highly unlikely to be arrested, so the sensible thing for people to do today is to send down deep roots so we can regrow when the crisis has passed -- certainly long after our lifetimes. If you want to understand why we are falling apart, here's good insight from the Kingsnorth essay:
What is a culture? It is a story that a people tells itself. Whether or not that story emerges from the Earth and then creates a people to tell it - as Spengler believed and I am tempted to believe too - we build and rebuild our cultures every day, in the stories we tell to our children and ourselves. Stories about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Stories about the deeper meaning of human life, about what matters, about what we stand for and will not. Stories, ultimately, about Truth. When the story stops being told, the people will disappear; and vice versa. And when the story is turned in on itself, when its tellers lose faith in it, when it is mocked or abused from within, or when it simply burns itself out - then the people begins to dissolve: to come apart, to slough away from the centre, to stumble and eventually to fall.
We are having a culture war because we no longer have a culture. We have this:
I know, I know, there is more going on in Western culture than this sick dude's pop Satanism. I would just point out, though, that pop Satanism was all the rage in pre-Bolshevik Russia, among the elites, who weren't going to black masses (as far as I know), but who were embracing transgression for the sake of destroying everything around them. So are we. If you summon demons, they will come. We have been summoning them for some time.
When I say we have no culture, I mean it in the sense that Spengler meant it: there is no form anymore. Alasdair MacIntyre and Philip Rieff, in their separate ways, discerned that there is no solid basis for culture in the West today. Look, when you have a situation in which we are teaching our children that there is no such thing as male and female, you have a culture that has lost its mind. In Mexico, a Catholic former member of the legislature has been fined by the state for calling a male-to-female transgendered legislator a "man" -- this, after the male-masquerading-as-female showed up in the legislature dressed as a Catholic bishop, and saying he was going to push for new rules that would criminalize anti-LGBT discourse in and from churches. We could go on and on, but you get the point: this is not a culture that is going to survive, or that deserves to. I was telling Kingsnorth that one thing that living outside the United States, and outside of western Europe, has shown me is not that we are decadent -- I knew that already -- but how imperialistic we are with our decadence. I hope the rest of the world is looking at us and deciding that there has to be some other way. When I talk to confused and sad older people in the former Communist countries of eastern Europe, they really can't wrap their heads around how in their lifetimes, the United States went from a country that they believed in and admired, to one they now fear, on the cultural front. I completely understand where they are coming from.
I sat in St. Colman's narrow cave this morning and prayed for about twenty minutes. When I emerged, I made my way down the slick, damp hill, and found Paul lingering around the ruined stone chapel. As we left the forest to return to the vast limestone plain, we talked about the end of this civilization that we're all living through. Paul said that the only thing that makes sense in this time of convulsive and accelerating change is to turn towards God. Yes, it's an old remedy, but it's also one that works. That's what the early Benedictines did. I read this very counsel tonight in the wonderful book Winters In The World: A Journey Through The Anglo-Saxon Year, by Eleanor Parker. Here is her translation of a portion of an Old English poem called "The Wanderer". It is found only in the 10th century Exeter Book, but scholars believe it is older. Parker brings it up as an example of how deeply the idea of winter went in the Anglo-Saxon mind. She says that the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet speaks her to anyone, of any era, who is seeing desolation:
Where is the horse? Where is the young warrior? Where is the treasure-giver?
Where are the seats of feasting? Where are the joys of the hall?
Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior!
Alas, the glory of the prince! How that time has passed
grown dark under the cover of night, as if it had never
There stands now in the tracks of the dear troop a wall,
wondrously high, decorated with serpents.
The warriors were taken away by the power of spears,
weapons greedy for slaughter, wyrd [fate] the famous;
and storms batter those rocky cliffs,
snow falling fetters the earth,
the tumult of winter. Then dark comes,
night-shadows deepen; from the north descends
a fierce hailstorm hostile to men.
All is full of hardship in this earthly realm,
the course of wyrd [fate] change the world under the heavens.
Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting,
here man is fleeting, here kinsman is fleeting,
all the foundation of this world turns to waste.
Every aspect of human society is laene, a word which implies "fleeting, transition", but literally means "on loan": friends, wealth, family have been lent to us for a while, but can be taken away at any time. The only place to seek stability, the poem concludes, is with God, eternal and unchanging. Its last lines offer the prospect of finding "comfort from the Father in heaven, where for us all permanence stands."
If you want to root yourself in the permanence of God in the face of the storm-battered crumbling world, what should you do? When I was in London late last week, I heard many lamentations from Anglicans about the foolishness and utter irrelevance of the Church of England -- their own church! Here's fresh news today:
God could be referred to in 'non-gendered' terms during Church of England services for the first time, it can be revealed.
Breaking with centuries of tradition, bishops have announced they are launching a major 'project on gendered language' this spring.
It may suggest that priests can stop using the male pronouns 'He' and 'Him' when referring to God in some prayers, or even that they can drop the famous phrase 'our Father' from the start of the Lord's Prayer.
However, such a radical rewriting would have to be agreed by the whole of the church's governing body, the General Synod, and would be fiercely resisted by traditionalists for breaking away from the words of the Bible.
The landmark move has been revealed today in a question presented to the committee that develops the wording used in church services, called the Liturgical Commission.
Based on current numbers, both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in England are going to go extinct in the 2060s. Now in England, the new thing is "champing" -- renting out churches for campers to sleep in at night. Whatever. Better than putting a helter-skelter in a Norman cathedral and watching the vicar make a fool of herself, I guess.
In Ireland, I heard about this Dublin priest who ended Christmas midnight mass by exiting through the nave on an electric scooter, to the applause of the worshipers. Look:
Catholicism in Ireland today is a wreck, as even faithful, orthodox Catholics acknowledge. This writer points out that the decline started before the sex scandal exposure, and speculates that much of Ireland's fidelity in the past was mere social conformity. John Duggan, reviewing a book about Catholicism's collapse in Ireland, draws a similar conclusion, quoting approvingly something an old church lady told the author: that people were just waiting for a reason to leave. Duggan goes on:
Casting a cold eye over the deeper past, Scally provides an excellent analysis of the ways in which Ireland’s calamitous nineteenth century provided the impetus for Church and people to embrace a form of moral perfectionism: it seemed the country’s best stay against returning to the abyss. A new Catholic Ireland, emancipated but highly disciplined, in possession of both the land and a watertight moral code, would never again succumb to squalor.
I finished this chapter confirmed in things I have long believed. The Irish Church provided a precious gateway to the transcendent. However, it often enforced a severe price of entry in terms of behavior and compliance—a price that many could not or would not pay, and that others only pretended to (itself a recipe for all kinds of nasty pathologies). Irish Catholicism was unable to find its way to being both orthodox and humane, both popular and intellectual; to both engaging and withstanding modernity.
If you want to see where merging church with state gets you, look at Ireland. The Republic's constitution gives a special place to the Catholic Church. The first words of the constitution are:
"In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Eire, Humble acknowledging all out obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial... ."
Later, the constitution was amended to recognize the "special position" of the Catholic Church. Hardline Irish integralists thought this was too liberal, but by the early 1970s, social mores had changed, and this part of the constitution was struck. The point is, though, that the Catholic Church in Ireland behaved like an arm of the state -- so many Catholics tell me -- and too often abused that privilege. As an Orthodox Christian, I don't speak Russian and don't really know what goes on in the Russian Orthodox church, but from time to time I will hear fears expressed by Orthodox friends in Russia that the institutional church there is doing the same thing, digging its own grave with future generations. Whatever the case, it is clear to me that there is no path forward by tying the church -- of any confession -- to state power. In Ireland today, sighed one Irish friend, "the Church has lost all confidence in itself."
So, what then? It will not be enough simply to keep "going to church" -- especially not when so many churches either beclown themselves (see above), or are living in denial about the seriousness of the crisis. What would not living in denial about the seriousness of the crisis require? If you think I mean constant homilies about the decline and fall, you're wrong (though some sermons like this would be helpful to wake people up). I'm talking about rooting yourself in a Christian way of life and worship that will train you in spiritual resilience. Paul and I talked about how since Covid, both of our parishes (well, my former Baton Rouge parish) have seen an upswing in people seeking out Orthodoxy, mostly because they are hungry for something deeper than what they are used to -- a Christianity that has what it takes to endure, because it has done exactly that for so many centuries.
I don't proselytize, and I urge you not to read this as proselytization. Still, I want to raise it as I prepare to leave rural western Ireland, because seeing the legacy of so much ancient monasticism here is deeply inspiring. I don't know that Ireland will turn to Orthodoxy -- side note: you might not realize that for the Orthodox today, Ireland was Orthodox until the Great Schism of 1054, just as to Catholics today, Greece was Catholic until then -- but I hope that those who want to hold on to the Christian faith in Christianity's bleak winter here will go deep into Irish history and monastic experience. I don't know enough about the Irish Catholic experience to know if such a way of life is still available in Catholicism here, but I'm eager to know it if possible (write me: rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com). I just learned that there is a young, traditional Benedictine monastic community in Ireland called Silverstream Priory, which sounds wonderful. But I know for sure you can find it in the small Orthodox communities here. It's just how it works in Orthodoxy.
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Walking away from St. Colman's cave today, I marveled at how normal that sort of thing is to the Orthodox mind, even today. There are still hermits living in caves on Mount Athos, but it's certainly not the case that the hermit life is common in contemporary Orthodoxy. The point is that the Orthodox imagination sees the beating heart of our faith as the monasteries and monastic communities. It's not that we regard monks and nuns as somehow better than we are before God. It's rather that we see them as spiritual athletes whose intense prayers and asceticism set a mark for the rest of us, and benefit the community. If Christianity is going to be reborn on this island, I have a feeling it is going to require a return to monasticism and monastic spirituality, even among the laity, as it was in the first six hundred years of Irish Christianity. The depth, the discipline, the antiquity of it all.
Ireland has made itself a spiritual desert today. But Christianity was too long in this land, and too deep, to blow away like the topsoil on the Burren. If you go visit the cave of St. Colman, you will be somehow in touch with the sacred soil of this holy land, from which saints and wonderworkers grew. Don't give up -- go deep! Deep into the world of monks and wonderworkers and hermits, of ancient liturgies, of a way of life that somehow, has still been preserved of us. It will last, because it has proved its durability. Most of what you see around you today will not last. The long winter of the West is upon us. Seek shelter.