Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Living According to the Myth

In my last article, I described the effects of bourgeois culture and its utilitarian mentality upon the aesthetic and religious ways of life. This is not an uncommon theme in Romantic and religious critiques of industrial society (or even our society which is changing from an industrial society to a merely financial society). Writers and artists such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens, Ruskin, Morris, Eliot, have contributed much to the critique of capitalism, claiming that it empties society of cultural richness, a sense of beauty, transcendence, romance, contact with nature, etc. Not all of these critiques were directly religious; authors such as Ruskin and Morris are known to have struggled with their faith, even become agnostic or atheistic at some point in their lives. But the religious motivation even of atheistic Romanticism never fully disappears; lurking behind their love of the old Gothic cathedrals is a tragic sense of loss, a yearning for the encounter with a transcendent God that once took place in now ruined churches. Industrialization and commercialization had reduced the life of human beings to a plethora of stale, mundane, and unromantic occupations altogether devoid of the mythical and epic grandeur of the medieval Gothic.

What was the old grandeur of the Gothic? In what did it consist? What were the Romantics seeking to retrieve, when they hearkened back to "pagan creeds" and the ruins of Tintern Abbey? Some hints can be gathered about this lost way of life, this deep spirituality, from the poetry and art of the Romantics. But much more can be learned, I think, from observation of how deeply liturgical the life of the medieval Christians was. The significance of a liturgical life ought not to be understated. In modern bourgeois Christianity, liturgy is little more than an occasional interruption of the ordinary course of life, in which men are occupied with material pursuits of a utilitarian nature: money, status, health, productivity, the maintenance of a household, or merely an indifferent and comfortable routine of existence. These things are not, of course, to be condemned. But the mind reels when it discovers what a stark contrast such a life bears to that of the Christian middle ages, whose ordinary course was imaginatively saturated with the myths of Christian and Jewish religion.

The myths of Christianity are those exemplified, not merely in the Gospel stories of Christ and his disciples, but in the epic tales of the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, tales full of dark and mysterious forces, almost magical and fairy-like in their aura, grand in their scale and terrifying in their manifestation of the power of God. I would compare these mythic histories to the epics of Homer or the Metamorphoses of Ovid - only I would add that as works of mythological literature the scriptures far surpass those of any other religion or civilization, embodying a far greater terror - the power of a far greater God - than what any other myth has ever portrayed. What is more, the biblical myths are true and historical in a way that the pagan myths are not. The false modernist apologists of Christian myth that myth a great injustice when they insist that it is not historical. What is the weight of such grand and unearthly tales if they are not historical? With what power are they supposed to strike us when we read them? If the scriptures have taught me anything, it is that the purpose of all literature is not to pretend, or to make-believe - this would be a narrow escapism; on the contrary, it is to reveal that reality itself is far greater, far more infused with cosmic and divine energy, than we might be given to realize. Therefore we should want the great myths of religion to be true; and we are fortunate that the myths of Christianity are true. False escapism is nothing but a concession to what one knows is not real; but true literary escapism is the escapism of Plato: towards that which is more intensely real.

But I digress. The point is that the terrifying and fantastical drama of the scriptural narrative is real, not an imaginary fable; and that if it is real it puts a enormous and weighty requirement upon people who believe that it is real. How does one live as if gods - nay, God Himself - has led his people through the desert disguised as a great cloud of smoke, or a pillar of flame; or if God has appeared in a burning bush, in a whirling storm; if God has really parted great oceans, destroyed empires and cities, spoken with a voice of thunder from the heavens, lay down the laws of great yearly and multi-yearly festivals and cults - how does one live if one believes that these are the real and historical acts of God? How does one live as if God could reveal himself in the same way again, today or tomorrow or the next day? As if all the drama, romance, tragedy, and cosmic events of the Old Testament could take place at any minute?

The Romantics longed for nothing but to live such a life, or to see life with such a vision. William Wordsworth famously commented in his poetry on the pagan version of this way of seeing the world, as a space within which cosmic and demi-divine forces interacted with terrifying effect. Commercialism and consumerism, in Wordsworth's judgment, had blinded men to this religious and dramatic imagination. 
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Tintern Abbey

Likewise, in Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth comments on how the intense nostalgia and escapism that alone could comfort him in the midst of the din and business of commercial city life. He remembers the "beauteous forms," which seemed almost animate and personal, like gods, noting that "oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din / Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, / In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; / And passing even into my purer mind / With tranquil restoration." 

For Wordsworth, the image of  the Gothic Tintern Abbey amid the scenery of the Welsh countryside brought forward images of antiquity, when heathen peoples saw all around them as suffused with divine life and energy, the stories of their mythologies coming true in sign and symbol. But for the medievals, the imagery was not pagan; it was rather the imagery of the Old Testament, true not only in symbol but in actual historical fact, a lived experience that ordered their entire lives at every level of existence, principally through the performance of the divinely instituted cult of the Christian religion. This cult, performed with majestic ceremony and filled with the fragrance of thick smoke and the sounds of bells and angelic song in giant Gothic or Romanesque citadels, was a forceful reenactment of the cosmic drama embodied in the pages of the scripture: the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, whose death darkened the heavens and shook the earth; but not only this sacrifice, but also the sacrifices of the Hebrew rituals that were revealed by the God who spoke from within a pillar of flame; and also the eternal sacrifice of the Lamb, in the unspeakable glory with which it was portrayed in the apocalypse. All of nature joined in this great cult. The colossal churches of medieval Christendom signified the solidarity of the entire cosmos with the sacred actors on this holy stage. And just as Wordsworth thought that he could "have sight of Proteus rising from the sea, or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn," so too did the medieval Christians behold Jehovah in a pillar of incense smoke, as the Hebrews did; hear the voice of Isaiah's angels crying "Holy! Holy! Holy!" from the heavens; witness the death and death-defying resurrection of Christ; hear and feel the earth quake with thunderous sound in the darkness of Tenebrae; behold the creation of light at the Easter Vigil; follow an unknown God to the threshold of the Tabernacle; follow their God in procession out of Egypt, through the Red Sea of baptism, through the desert of Lent, around the gates of Jericho, through the gates of Jerusalem, along the way of the Cross, up the mountain of Calvary... These were the mysteries that the medieval Christians regularly lived and relived, by participating in a culture that was thoroughly suffused with liturgy. The world of medieval Gothic Christendom was nothing other than the world of scriptural mythology. 

The nostalgia and escapist yearning for myth that permeates Wordsworth's poetry is far surpassed by that of the holy liturgy of the Church, through which Christians have for centuries partaken in the unearthly myths of their ancient religion. And what a contrast it paints! how foreign it is to the bourgeois culture that permeates the secular society of late capitalism! To the pragmatic citizens of this secular society, the image I have painted of the lived mythology of Christianity, yearned for by the Romantic poets, is little more than a useless and unrealistic dream, a refusal to come to grips with the demands of "real life," a recipe for unproductivity, inefficiency, and dissolution. It is, moreover, a regressive ideology that refuses to keep pace with modern progress, advancement, and Enlightenment, through which we have been liberated from the primitive superstitions of the medieval and the ancient past. Thanks to the discoveries of modern science, we see things now as they are in fact, no longer under any illusions of magical or mystical forces that animate them. We know how to harness the natural world for our material advantage, no longer under the illusions that we undergo any kind of spiritual transformation by the performance of impractical (and sometimes unhealthy) cultic rituals. This is the enlightenment of the bourgeois mind! - which is the mind of modern Western society. 

But as J.R.R. Tolkien, a truly Catholic Romantic, told to his friend C.S. Lewis, the bourgeois Protestant: "I will not walk with your progressive apes, / erect and sapient. Before them gapes / the dark abyss to which their progress tends - / if by God's mercy progress ever ends..." Like William Wordsworth, Tolkien was deeply animated by the anti-modern desire to see the world not simply in  the factual terms to which modern scientific progress had reduced it, but in mythical terms: as the embodiment or incarnation of unearthly, angelic, and divine powers - the powers represented by the fairies and magical creatures of ancient myth, and the magical creatures of Tolkien's own fantasies. He protests the rationalistic literalism of modernity, which pretends to be progressive and enlightened; and he insists, in characteristic Neoplatonic language, that:
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.
"A jewelled tent myth-woven and elf-patterned..."
It is a radical claim: that the vision of the world according to which the myth is more real than the fact. Yet it is a deeply Christian claim as well: the cult of the sacred liturgy would be senseless if it consisted of nothing more than smoke, bells, processions, and the plethora of motions which make up its rituals - if these things were more real than the mythical and symbolic imagery which they evoked. In other words, the Christian must believe that the actions of the sacred liturgy, and indeed the activities of Christian life as a whole, as well as the movements and behaviors of the natural world itself - all of this is a work of God; it is indeed better described as a work of God than as merely the swinging of thuribles, the eating of unleavened bread, the interaction of various physical bodies or chemical particles... Not that these latter descriptions are untrue, but that they are partial and subservient. The old medieval tradition of the four senses of scripture embodies the firm belief that the literal and factual appearance of things is but the vehicle for allegorical, moral, and metaphysical realities that transcend everything mundane. 

The radicality of such belief can only shock complacent minds who inhabit the bourgeois culture of modernity - a culture which discourages the mind from opening up to the mythical and metaphysical drama that directs all life. Going about the daily business of material affairs, immersed in a culture of ruthless pragmatism and utilitarianism, the children of secular modernity are forgetful of the radical transcendence that animates all things and makes them move. The cosmos is not seen for what it most really is: the space in which Demiurgic forces work - and in which diabolical forces of the deep sometimes rise up to resist them, only to be thunderously defeated in a battle of epic proportions. Complacency blinds secular minds to these truths; they can only be broken out of their complacency by the sheer shock of a religious cult and culture that makes no concessions to bourgeois culture. 

Even those of the bourgeois culture who do profess religion, even the Catholic religion, have little appreciation for the metaphysically and morally radical demands of their faith. Religion serves almost as a mere appendage or an accessory to their lives, which are otherwise occupied in servile pursuits. This is sadly due to the fact that liturgical cult in modern Catholicism has indeed made great concessions to bourgeois culture. Modern liturgy is subject to the democratizing and flattening trends of secularization, and the refusal to acknowledge in a concrete way the terrifying presence of the Absolute, the Transcendent, in the midst of the visible world itself. Consequently, a liturgy - and a whole way of life - that does not hold back from the acknowledgement of this presence is undoubtedly a great shock to complacent souls. The demands that such a liturgy makes upon the lives of believers are great, no doubt intimidating to those who are habituated to mundane pursuits and worldly endeavors. Unwilling to break out of the comfort-zones of worldly pursuits, bourgeois Christians cannot abide the demands of a ritual, let alone a whole way of life, whose only purpose is to make present and tangible the unearthly activity of an infinite God.

The Liturgy at Notre Dame de Paris. (Source: newliturgicalmovement.org)
The metaphysical radicality of the Christian way of life has been nowhere better expressed in moral terms than in the words of Christ Himself. An honest reader of the Gospels would know that Christ speaks no longer in parables, not only when He teaches of His presence in the Eucharist, but also when He teaches of the Christian life as an urgent journey towards the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom which is also, in some sense, in our midst through the Church just as Christ the King is in our midst through the Eucharist. The imagery of the Kingdom is no mere parable, though it is certainly in some sense mythical to the imaginations of democratic modernity. Yet it is a myth that is, like all the myths of scripture, deeply real. And the commandment which Christ delivers to all of His followers is to seek that Kingdom first. The context in which He gives this commandment is perfectly suited to bourgeois culture, so preoccupied as it is with worldly and pragmatic pursuits. From the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6:
25 I say to you, then, do not fret over your life, how to support it with food and drink; over your body, how to keep it clothed. Is not life itself a greater gift than food, the body than clothing? 26 See how the birds of the air never sow, or reap, or gather grain into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them; have you not an excellence beyond theirs? 27 Can any one of you, for all his anxiety, add a cubit’s growth to his height? 28 And why should you be anxious over clothing? See how the wild lilies grow; they do not toil or spin; 29 and yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 If God, then, so clothes the grasses of the field, which to-day live and will feed the oven to-morrow, will he not be much more ready to clothe you, men of little faith? 31 Do not fret, then, asking, What are we to eat? or What are we to drink? or How shall we find clothing? 32 It is for the heathen to busy themselves over such things; you have a Father in heaven who knows that you need them all. 33 Make it your first care to find the kingdom of God, and his approval, and all these things shall be yours without the asking.
Christ does not condemn the concerns of food and clothing and other such worldly concerns as evil in themselves; yet He means to put them in subordination to pursuit of the Kingdom of God, which often demands that real but lesser goods - the goods of the earth - be sacrificed, so that they might serve greater ends. This is, in fact, the entire logic of the liturgical cult: the earthly goods which appear in great variety there do not all serve the immediate profane purposes which they serve elsewhere. Indeed, often those elements which someone seeking his mundane material advantage might avoid are actually compulsory in the celebration of the liturgy. (One who eats a low-carb diet must still receive the bread of the Host; or who abstains from wine must still receive the precious blood; or who avoids ingesting smoke, even for an allergy, must be immersed in the smoke of incense; or who avoids germs must receive the host from the hand of the priest, or dip his hand into the holy water font into which many before have also dipped; or who is frugal with his money must place his tithe in the collection basket; etc.) All material interests melt away before the face of the divine King who rules the universe, who alone decides the ultimate destinies of material things. But only a man who has the sort of faith which posits a divine Demiurge, which believes that such a Demiurge can reveal Himself visibly and terribly, with a majesty before which all must bow, can thus offer up his earthly needs to the demands of the liturgy and its incarnate myth. 

This is the ethic of the liturgy: a profoundly unworldly ethic, that can only stand in utter opposition to the worldly ethic of bourgeois modernity. It is the ethic of the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, in which an entirely transcendent drama is enacted, whose actors are gods and angels and demons, as well as human bearers of divine, angelic, and demonic powers. It is the ethic of the Romantic poets, who cared little for the ordinary course of worldly existence to which industrialization reduced modern society, and longed instead to participate in the mythical dramas of pagan and Christian antiquity, whose memory was embodied in the Gothic ruins of Tintern Abbey. 

Today the memory of these mythical dramas is still embodied in such ruins - not only the physical ruins of broken churches, but also the functional ruins of churches who still stand, yet no longer fulfill their former function. Churches spoiled by commercialization and secularization, profaned by the influx of tourists and consumerists, have been practically emptied of their substance, even while they still bear the faint imprint of the Demiurgic dramas that were once performed at their altars. Those dramas are sometimes now performed there only in grossly impoverished forms. Indeed, the liturgy itself, as it is celebrated in late modernity, is something like a Gothic ruin of its own: a skeleton of its former self, a tragic reminder of its own former glory. 

The unworldly, mythical ethos of the liturgy, which is the ethos of the Christian way of life as a whole, requires Christians to "despise the goods of the earth" (despicere mundum et terrena). This ethos has a long history in the Christian tradition, deeply rooted in the living of the scriptures through participation in the sacred liturgy. The prayers of the ancient liturgy are full of such sentiments: "Full-fed with the food of spiritual nourishment, humbly we beseech you, Lord: by participation in this mystery, teach us to despise earthly realities and to love celestial realities." (Postcommunion from the Second Sunday of Advent) The celestial realities are those which manifest themselves in the grandiose forms of the liturgy itself, through the imagery of the sacred ritual and its many sacred objects, as well as the architecture of the great churches - microcosms - in which it is celebrated. Every church is a place where ancient and cosmic energies coalesce to perform an act of creation - transubstantiation, the transformation of earthly things into divine things. 

I have tried to describe, or at least to evoke, what it means for Christians to live as if these mysteries or myths were actually true. I constantly feel as if my descriptions are not radical enough, not true enough to the sublime transcendence which makes itself known in the Christian way of life, the liturgy. The force of myth, and of living according to the myth, as the Christians of bygone ages did, cannot be easily communicated by words. The best words to communicate it are those of the poets - nay, those of the liturgy itself. Far better still is it to be immersed in and therefore shocked by the sheer weight of the myth, to find oneself caught up in a great battle between titanic forces, Gods and demons, of far greater power and terror than the gods of pagan antiquity. 

1 comment:

  1. This post is tuned to how I have been thinking lately. Trying to live in the world of myth and legend, the true myth of Christianity. To live in the Kingdom of Heaven here below so that we can enter into the eternal heaven above. Trying to live the faith in legend, poem, prayer, and song.