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Why Conservatives Need to Engage in ‘Cathedral Thinking’

It's about investing in the fulfilling unfinished project, and against the deification of progress for progress’ sake.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to take my time on a road trip through Italy. I wrote a column at the Caffè Florian in St Mark’s Square in Venice, ate the best tiramisu in the world in Siena, got drunk on Chianti in Tuscany, survived the hangover by praying in Assisi, fell in love with painting in Florence, and knelt with my hat against my chest, like in a John Ford film, in the four major basilicas in Rome.

Everything I touched had a certain sense of eternity about it, with the exception of those modern smart lights in my room at the hotel in Florence, upon which I would have wished a quick but painful death like the one it almost caused me when I got up to go to the bathroom just before dawn (you know that you’re living in the wrong century when you find yourself dancing flamenco in front of a light sensor before daybreak). But the atmosphere of Caffè Florian and its 300 years of history involving Goethe, Dickens, and Stendhal, the legendary tiramisu recipe in Piazza del Campo, the renewed classicism of Uffizi Gallery, or the majestic sight of St. Peter’s Basilica, evoked the heroic survival of the past. None of this was built in two days. Not the tiramisu, not the Renaissance painting, not St. Paul Outside the Walls. Everything had been bequeathed and guarded for many generations. It was the first time I felt that being conservative meant more than winning an argument on Twitter this afternoon with the type of guys Wodehouse was talking about when he said, “he had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.”

Travel writer Rick Antonson has rescued for us a lost concept, cathedral thinking, which alludes to the way of thinking that characterized the builders of medieval cathedrals, who planned and worked on temples that they would never see finished but would serve later generations. In the mentality of a man of the Middle Ages, the important thing was to do one’s task well, without the obsession for comparison and competition that characterizes life today. Those medieval masons didn’t stack blocks of stone looking out of the corner of their eyes at the next man to see if he was doing it better or worse. That saved them all the time that multinational executives now waste on convincing their bosses of how incompetent the rest of the management is and how good their own promotion would be for the company.

The key was in the thinking of the era. The saints taught it. St. Ambrose in the Hexameron invited us to contemplate creation from the total and providential view of God, not from the partial view of man. In the same way, the builders of medieval cathedrals cooperate in a great and divine undertaking, even if they’re positioned so close to the building blocks they are not able to see the final result, and even if it takes more than a hundred years for the work to be completed. The medieval mystic Master Eckhart wrote of how things depend on something higher: “All creatures are pure nothingness. (…) All creatures have no being, because their being hangs on the presence of God.” Thus, the construction of the cathedral was inseparable from the image of God. Its deadline, eternity. This is the Creator’s timeline. 

In The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga wrote: “Everything that becomes a form of life—the most common customs and uses, the same as the highest things in God’s universal plan—is considered a divine institution.” As an example he cites the rules of palatine etiquette handed down by Alienor of Poitiers, which were “instituted one day through deliberate election in the courts of kings, to be observed for all times to come.” The concept of institution, although of Latin origin, is closely linked to the thought of the Age of the Cathedrals. Composed of the prefix in (attach), statuere (parking) and the suffix -tion (action), institutio means “establishment or foundation of something.” Something, in short, conceived with an enduring vocation, as opposed to the frivolity of a passing thing. On a different scale, it is the difference between the Parthenon and a McFlurry in the sun.

I’ve seen thousands of pilgrims arrive at Santiago de Compostela. I was born by the sea, but only 70 kilometres from the Cathedral that marks the final destination of the Way of St. James, a centuries old route across Europe ending at the Apostle’s tomb. The construction of the cathedral began in 1075, by the hand of the best Romanesque builders, and was consecrated in 1211. However, it continued to receive improvements up until the 18th century. It is, of course, a good example of cathedral thinking. Before the cathedral, the church that guarded the tomb of James received thousands of visits from pilgrims. That’s why they designed a larger temple. And they built it from generation to generation, respecting the legacy of their ancestors, and knowing that they were working towards something for the future. In a way, they instituted the cathedral. 

Although Santiago has grown, the silhouette of the cathedral still rules in its skyline, competing with some of the 20th century buildings that, on the other hand, seem to be designed by friends of Satan. The echo of its bells still reconciles us with the past. The writer Gonzalo Torrente Ballester described it masterfully: “Compostela is made around the bell. The bell creates everything day by day, century by century, more than sounding the hours.” Johan Huizinga also explains how the bells were the queens of time in the medieval city: “a sound that dominated over and over again the murmur of everyday life and, no matter how repetitive it was, was never confusing and elevated everything temporarily to a sphere of order and harmony.”

In opposition to this harmony, modern history seems to pass by like a clock that needs to go faster and faster. Since the eighteenth century, the Age of Revolutions has dedicated itself to gradually undermining what had been instituted, not stopping to consider whether it was a good or a bad thing. The new god is urgency; the same perhaps for any man who hopes to be rewarded in this world. In our century the paradigmatic ideal is immediacy, a fever diagnosed by Chesterton long ago, when he said, “One of the great disadvantages of hurry is that it takes such a long time”.

From the beginning progressivism has been based on a deification of change. Change to where? Change to what? Change for what? There are many things that work well. If you destroy Notre Dame to build something more modern and functional in a fortnight, everyone will agree that in addition to a crime, you have committed a stupidity. Why don’t the progressives with all the ideas see this? 

It is no coincidence that in his 1981 inaugural speech, Ronald Reagan alluded to the foundational importance of the ceremony: “The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” Thirty-six years later, in Obama’s transfer of power to Trump, the left seemed to have lost its respect for that ceremonial custom. It could be an anecdote, but it is paradigmatic. It could be a slip-up, but it is symptomatic. It’s not strange that a progressive should be tormented by abandoning power. In essence, his program begins today and ends today, even though strategic communion with the apostles of climate change has led the left to become involved in future generations. Nonetheless it is the conservative who has a genuinely long-term project. The values that underpin our way of life do not sway with the winds, like the buttresses of a cathedral.

As conservatives, our vocation is to conserve. I admit it is not a Pulitzer winning sentence, but it is true. One of my favourite lyricists, the Spaniard Santi Santos, with his group Los Limones, sings in one of his songs something that could well be the hymn of a conservative cathedral thinker: “I don’t like things that change / everything moves around me / I feel that the current drags me along / I feel that the rudder doesn’t respond / what I most feel is regret that we still can’t stop the clock.” Yes. As a conservative, our reward is not always an immediate sensory pleasure or an urgently-satisfied need. Our clock is a church bell. Our war is for eternity, tradition, legacy, transcendence. We know that honesty does not expire, and freedom does not go out of fashion. We know that we are guardians of the good and the beauty we have received from our ancestors, and that our horizon disappears from view over the high seas.

I suppose that, the sum of it is that we must defend the long term with the same fervour with which we dislike tax hikes. 

Itxu Díaz is a Spanish journalist, political satirist and author. He is a contributor to The Daily Beast, The Daily Caller, National Review, The American Conservative, The American Spectator and Diario Las Américas in the United States, and a columnist for several Spanish magazines and newspapers. He was also an advisor to the Ministry for Education, Culture and Sports in Spain. Follow him on Twitter at @itxudiaz or visit his website www.itxudiaz.com. 

Translated by Joel Dalmau