'A Serious House On Serious Earth'

Church going among friendless churches. Also, McLuhan, Tarkovsky, Colette

I hope everybody had a calm and restorative Christmas weekend. Mine was just what I wanted it to be: chilly outside, with lots of sitting by the fire drinking warm beverages and reading books. And there was ham. Lots of ham. For Orthodox Christians, who have been fasting from meat since before Thanksgiving, ham is a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Today in Baton Rouge, it was bright and sunny and warm. Feh! I require figgy-pudding weather in late December! But we persevere… .

The other day I wrote about my daughter Nora’s glorious bûche de Noël, which she made for our family’s Christmas dinner. Nora is a massive fan of the New York pastry chef Christina Tosi, and sent her own baking into the stratosphere after watching the Chef’s Table episode focusing on Tosi. I sent this out on Twitter the other day at Nora’s request. Look at the answer:

I’ll let you know how this turns out. Nora spent yesterday floating around the house on a big pink cloud of happy. God bless Christina Tosi for her kind gesture. If people who are even a little bit famous knew how much joy their attention could bring to those who look up to them, they would send encouragement like this all the time.

Friends Of Friendless Churches

I found out via a friend’s tweet about a marvelous organization: Friends of Friendless Churches, a UK organization that, since 1957, has been caring for abandoned country churches in England and Wales. They now look after nearly sixty of them. The idea of a “friendless church” is very touching to me. Go to the website and see some of the beautiful old churches they love and tend. My idea of a good holiday would be to tour the countryside visiting these dear old ladies, and praying in them.

Here’s something from the Friends website (I suppose the organization’s director wrote this) about St. Baglan’s, an abandoned church she visited in Wales this past May. It is, she reports, a “thin place,” one in which the barrier between our world and the unseen world is nearly transparent. Excerpt:

What makes this place special? Is it the sentient landscape? The ancient, shady mountains that watched humans arrive. The clump of gnarled trees stretching their branches protectively around the church. The ever-changing sea breathing rhythmically, slow and deep.

When I visited the atmosphere was soupy with sea mist, low cloud and veiled, looming mountains. It was marvellous, mysterious and otherworldly.

For me, no other author evokes this sense of place and landscape, past and the supernatural than MR James. His ghost stories are inspired by the East Anglian landscape: ancient, fertile and unforgiving and on the rich folklore which surrounds it.

Is it the physical reminders of the past that gives St Baglan’s its transcendency? The systems of pre-historic ditched enclosures. The siting of the church within a pre-Christian settlement. The pillar-stone, discovered in 1855 built into the fabric, marked the burial place of one Anatemor, son of Lovernius, an inscription in well-cut Roman capitals.

Ffynnon Faglan – Baglan’s well – in the adjacent field with its healing powers. The medieval fishing traps. The ship graffiti and simple carved symbols that speak of meaning, values and beliefs. The polite, oiled woodwork of the 18th century families. The close interior. The damp walls.

Just so, St Baglan’s church is not simply the list of things I’ve rattled off above. My experience at the church was, as Roger Scruton describes, “… saturated with meaning, but whose meaning cannot be put in to words”.

Please go have a look at the entire post, which is filled with photographs of St. Baglan’s, which is not far from Caernarfon. It’s a very Paul Kingsnorth kind of place. Why would anyone ever abandon a church like this? I know, it’s a naive question, but it’s one that harries me every time I visit Europe, and go to light a candle or pray inside an ancient church. Something deep inside me always says, You belong here. Every time.

Do you know the Philip Larkin poem “Church Going”? It is spoken in the voice of a cyclist who stops by an abandoned country church, and considers its meaning in a faithless age. How it ends:

For, though I've no idea

What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,

It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

On Marshall McLuhan

My son Matt knows my interests very well. One of his Christmas gifts to me was a book titled The Medium And The Light, a collection of Marshall McLuhan’s reflections on religion. I read most of it on Sunday, and was repeatedly awed by how far-seeing McLuhan was. He died in 1980, well before the Internet arrived, but he intuited what it would do to us. McLuhan was raised as an indifferent Protestant, but converted to Catholicism as an adult, and remained devout all his life.

McLuhan wasn’t against electronic media, per se, but he did believe that few people today understood how revolutionary it was. More to the point, he believed that people did not want to understand, because if they grasped the truth of the matter, they would be terrified. He said that in the “electric” world — that is, a world defined by instantaneous communication — is one in which events happen too fast for any human to process, and to remain standing. McLuhan — and note well, he was saying these things fifty, sixty years ago — observed that the experience of time is fundamentally different today, because for the first time in human history, we have the capacity to know what is happening everywhere simultaneously. It is impossible, of course, for any individual to know this in fact; his point is that no human being touched by communications technology is unchanged by it. The Internet is the outworking of things McLuhan understood half a century ago.

McLuhan denied that he was either an optimist or a pessimist. “I’m an apocalyptic only,” he said. “Our only hope is in apocalypse.” He didn’t explain that phrase, but I take his meaning to be that we can only place real hope in knowing the truth — a truth that is now being unveiled (“apocalypse” means “unveiling” in Greek).

I can’t pretend to understand McLuhan’s overall vision, and I know enough about him to know that he is controversial. It is often difficult to know what, exactly, he means. But sometimes, he offers piercing insights. For example, this comment about dissenting Catholic intellectuals:

I never came into the Church as a person who was being taught. I came in on my knees. That is the only way in. When people start praying, they need truths; that’s all. You don’t come into the Church by ideas and concepts, and you cannot leave by mere disagreement. It has to be a loss of faith, a loss of participation. You can tell when people leave the Church: they have quit praying.

As someone who once held the Catholic faith, then lost it, I can say that he’s right — though I never stopped praying. For me, it was a loss of participation in that I finally ceased to believe that my salvation depended on being in communion with the Catholic Church. I have had over the years so many Catholic intellectuals, including friends of mine, express incredulity at that, and I have failed to be able to explain it to their satisfaction. It was not a matter of ceasing to find ideas, concepts, and logic convincing. That was not it at all — and this is something that intellectuals of all faiths, and no faith at all, have trouble grasping. I would have had trouble with it too, until it happened to me.

McLuhan digs down deeper in this passage from an interview. McLuhan has said that religion dies when it becomes “concept,” not “percept.” The interviewer asks, “If I were to say that the traditional Christian doctrine of the Incarnation can be expressed in the phrase, ‘Christ is the medium and the message,’ is that a percept or a concept?” McLuhan answers:

It is a percept because, as Christ said over and over again, it is visible to babes, but not to sophisticates. The sophisticated, the conceptualizers, the Scribes and the Pharisees — these had too many theories to be able to perceive anything. Concepts are wonderful buffers for preventing people from confronting any form of percept. Most people are quite unable to perceive the effects of the ordinary cultural media around them because their theories about change prevent them from perceiving change itself. It never occurs to people that a satellite environment can alter the perceptions of the entire human race. They have no theory that permits them to obtain such a concept of metamorphosis. In fact, we perceive the satellite environment whether we conceive it or not. The percept is what does the work in changing our experience and our organs of perception.

This is a fancy way of saying that we first have a direct experience of God, and then build concepts around it. That doesn’t seem to be all that controversial a claim to make, but my guess — and without knowing more about McLuhan, that’s all I can offer — is that his point is not so banal. He was a daily communicant, and surely knew that the Church and all its rites and dogmas grew out of the primordial experience of Pentecost, which was the charismatic culmination of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. If McLuhan believed that reclaiming the ecstatic experience of God was the key to Christianity’s survival, he would have been a charismatic of some sort. Rather, he believed that prayer was how ordinary people kept a channel open to God. You lose the ability to pray, or the practice of prayer, then your faith becomes a matter of desiccated concepts.

I believe this is true. The times I have felt farthest from God are the times when I ignored my prayer rule. I lost my ability to believe as a Catholic when my anger over the abuse scandal and despair over my inability to trust the institutional church replaced prayer as the main experience of faith. I thought I was a man of strong faith, because I held on to doctrine as my rock when I was tempted not to believe in Catholicism, but I finally realized that I was in danger of losing Jesus himself. My theories were my life raft, but I came to myself one day and realized that I was floating on it in a current carrying me and my family out to sea.

I bring this up not to talk about Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy, but rather to mention the primary importance of prayer for all Christians. I could just as easily lose my Orthodox faith if I allowed myself to fall into despair, and to stop praying. This happens to me sometimes, I confess. Most people, I suspect, find going to church to be a great comfort in times of distress and depression. It’s exactly the opposite with me, and I’m not sure why. I’ve tried to encircle this phenomenon with reason when I’ve gone through it, so I can control it, and dismiss it. But that has never worked. It’s not that I doubt God’s presence, or God’s love. So what is it, then? It is in times like these that I am grateful for concept, because I, in my own (temporary, one hopes) weakness, cannot perceive God.

The problem, though, comes when the percept never returns. You can live an entire life on concept, and still become a saint. Mother Teresa suffered many years of intense spiritual torment and dryness, as we learned from personal letters published after her death. Yet she persevered. Most of us are not Mother Teresa.

Back to McLuhan, I’m thinking about how we fail to perceive change around us because it doesn’t fit our theories. If I’m reading that passage above correctly, he’s saying that one lives inside the perceptions wrought by the change, even if one doesn’t consciously recognize the nature of the change. It has been my basic argument for years now that most Christians in our society don’t recognize the demise of Christianity among us because we have no theory in which America can become a post-Christian nation. Elsewhere McLuhan said,

There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved. Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions. 

Tonight I received a text from a prominent Christian intellectual who wrote to thank me for writing Live Not By Lies. He said he’s been talking about it to everyone he knows. “People know we’re in a battle but don’t understand it,” he said. I responded with that McLuhan quote about the deep-seated repugnance, adding that many people don’t want to understand it because to understand it requires taking responsibility for one’s behavior in the face of crisis.

My correspondent said he thought I was being too kind. He said that in his work, he sees Christians who have taken hard stands, and suffered for it. In light of his experience, he think that most Christians today are simply too in love with comfort to see what is happening right in front of them.

I’m sure he must be right. But I also think of myself, and how spiritually lazy I become when I have to deal with problems that seem to be unending, with no clear resolution. If I’m honest, I know that I have a tendency to sulk, to put off prayer because what’s the point? God doesn’t seem to be hearing me anyway.

This past spring, trudging through a slough of despond, I happened upon the 1984 Andrei Tarkovsky movie Nostalghia. I watched it late one night, bored, and though it is considered a minor entry in the Tarkovsky canon, it knocked me flat. The protagonist is a morose Russian writer working in Italy who is so lost in nostalgia for Russia that he cannot see the beauty in front of him. His Italian translator is in a similar situation regarding religion. Here is a link to the opening sequence, in which the writer and the translator visit a rural church to see a famous painting of the Madonna. The writer is so downcast that he can’t bring himself to go into the church. The translator goes in, but she is too worldly and self-conscious to pray, and thus misses out on the spiritual power there.

What got to me about the movie was a scene towards the end in which the brooding writer is stalking across the nave of a ruined abbey church, and we hear the voice of the Madonna begging God to speak to him, to reveal Himself to the poor man. God says that He talks to the writer all the time, and shows Himself all the time, but the writer has neither ears to hear nor eyes to see. I thought then: that’s me.

I went back to my prayer rule. Concepts will only keep most of us going for so long. We need to hear from God, and to see God — and we can only do that by steady prayer, which attunes our ears and hones the gaze of our inner eye.

Tarkovsky said once:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.

That’s true of religion also, don’t you think? Art cannot substitute for prayer, nor can good works. But beauty made manifest in art, and goodness incarnate, both have the power to render us capable of turning to God in prayer. At least I have found this to be true, though this is a lesson I have to learn over and over again.

Colette’s Missal

A reader sends in this charming, mysterious account by François Mauriac of the time Colette asked him for a prayer book:

Last Free Week

Friends, this will be the final week that I’ll be writing this newsletter for free. Starting Monday January 4, it will only go to paying subscribers (five dollars per month, which amounts to 25 cents per day). Please think this week if receiving this newsletter is worth it to you. You will be charged month-to-month, so you will not be responsible for an entire year’s subscription. I will also come up with some neat subscriber-only things too.

Unless Covid screws up the plan, I will be living in Budapest from early April through the end of the summer, and doing traveling and interviews throughout the region. Of course I will continue to write my TAC blog, as well as this newsletter, and I hope to delight you with stories and reflections from Central Europe.

Remember too that I always like to hear from you, although I can’t possibly reply to everyone’s e-mail. I am at roddreher — at — substack — dot — com. Don’t forget my rule: everything sent to me is something I can use in this newsletter, unless you tell me not to do so. I will never use anybody’s name or identifying details unless you explicitly ask me to.