the Good God will of course take into account the age and conditions in which we live

From With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man by Saint Paisios the Athonite:

Question:

Geronda, why does St. Cyril of Jerusalem say that the Martyrs of the last days will surpass all Martyrs?

Answer:

Because in the old times we had men of great stature; our present age is lacking in examples—and I am speaking generally about the Church and Monasticism.  Today, there are more words and books and fewer living examples. We admire the holy Athletes of our Church, but without understanding how much they struggled, because we have not struggled ourselves.  Had we done so, we would appreciate their pain, we would love them even more and strive with philotimo to imitate them.  The Good God will of course take into account the age and conditions in which we live, and He will ask of each one of us accordingly.  If we only strive even a little bit, we will merit the crown more than our ancestors.

In the old days, when there was a fighting spirit and everyone was trying to measure up to the best, evil and negligence would not be tolerated.  Good was in great supply back then, and with this competitive spirit, it was difficult for careless people to make it to the finish line.  The others would run them over.  I remember once, in Thessaloniki, we were waiting for the traffic light to cross the street, when I suddenly felt pushed by the crowd behind me, as if by a wave.  I only had to lift my foot and the rest was done for me.  All I am trying to say is that when everybody is going toward the same direction, those who don’t wish to follow will have difficulty resisting because the others will push them along.

Today, if someone wishes to live honestly and spiritually, he will have a hard time fitting in this world.  And if he is not careful, he’ll be swept by the secular stream downhill.  In the old days, there was plenty of good around, plenty of virtue, many good examples, and evil was drowned by the good; so, the little disorder that existed in the world or in the monasteries was neither visible nor harmful.  What’s going on now?  Bad examples abound, and the little good that exists is scorned.  Thus, the opposite occurs; the little good that exists is drowned by an excess of evil, and evil reigns.

It helps so much when a person or a group of people has a fighting spirit.  When even one person grows spiritually, he does not only benefit himself, but helps those who see him.  Likewise, one who is laid back and lazy has the same effect on the others.  When one give in, others follow until in the end there’s nothing left.  This is why it’s so important to have a fighting spirit in these lax times.  We must pay great attention to this matter, because people today have reached the point where they make lax laws and impose them on those who want to live strict and disciplined lives.  For this reason, it is important for those who are struggling spiritually, not only to resist being influenced by the secular spirit, but also to resist comparing themselves to the world and concluding that they are saints.  For when this happens, they end up being worse than those who live in the world.  If we take one virtue at a time, find the Saint who exemplified it and study his or her life, we will soon realize that we have achieved nothing and will carry on with humility.

Just as in racing, the runner speeding for the end line does not look back toward those lagging behind, but fixes his eyes forward, so too in this struggle we don’t want to be looking back and thus left behind.  When I try to imitate those who are ahead of me, my conscience is refined.  When, however, I look back, I justify myself and think that my faults are not important compared to theirs.  The thought that others are inferior consoles me.  Thus, I end up drowning my conscience or, to put it better, having a plastered, unfeeling heart.

strange vacuum covered by this truly demonic word

Today no one, except the peculiar and esoteric race of men called “liturgiologists,” is interested in what was in the past a major preoccupation for Christians: the feasts and the seasons, the cycles of prayer, a very real concern about the “kairos“–the time of liturgical celebration. Not only the average layman, even the theologian seems to say: the world of Christian “symbolism” is no longer our world, all this failed, all this is gone and we have more serious affairs to attend to; it would be unthinkable, ridiculous to try to solve any real “problem” of modern life by referring it, say, to Easter or Pentecost, or even to Sunday.

…The real tragedy of Christianity is not its “compromise” with the world and progressive “materialism,” but on the contrary, its “spiritualization” and transformation into “religion.” …Christians were tempted to reject time altogether and replace it with mysticism and “spiritual” pursuits, to live as Christians out of time and thereby escape its frustrations; to insist that time has no real meaning from the point of view of the Kingdom which “beyond time.” And they finally succeeded.

…We must understand, therefore, that the intensive, almost pathological, preoccupation of our modern world with time and its “problem” is rooted in this specifically Christian failure. It is because of us, Christians, that the world in which we live has literally no time. Is it not true that the more “time saving” devices we invent, the less time we have? The joyless rush is interrupted by relaxation (“sit back and relax!”), but such is the horror of the strange vacuum covered by this truly demonic word, “relaxation,” that men must take pills to endure it, and buy expensive books about how to kill this no man’s land of “modern living.”

There is no time because Christianity, on the one hand, made it impossible for man to live in the old natural time, broke beyond repair the cycle of the eternal return. It has announced the fullness of time, revealed time as history and fulfillment, and has truly poisoned us once for all with the dream of a meaningful time. There is no time, on the other hand, because having announced all this, Christianity abandoned time, invited Christians simply to leave it and to think of eternity as of an eternal rest (if not yet “relaxation”). To be sure, one can still adorn the meaningless time with “beautiful symbols” and “colorful rites,” preferably “ancient.”

…The cross of Christ signified an end of all “natural” rejoicing; it made it, indeed, impossible. From this point of view the sad “seriousness” of modern man is certainly of Christian origin, even if this has been forgotten by that man himself. Since the Gospel was preached in this world, all attempts to go back to a pure “pagan joy,” all “renaissances,” all “healthy optimisms” were bound to fail. “There is but one sadness,” said Leon Bloy, “that of not being a saint.” And it is this sadness that permeates mysteriously the whole life of the world, its frantic and pathetic hunger and thirst for perfection, which kills all joy.

From chapter three in For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann (48-49, 54).

our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous

It is customary to complain of the bustle and strenuousness of our epoch. But in truth the chief mark of our epoch is a profound laziness and fatigue; and the fact is that the real laziness is the cause of the apparent bustle. Take one quite external case; the streets are noisy with taxicabs and motor-cars; but this is not due to human activity but to human repose. There would be less bustle if there were more activity, if people were simply walking about. Our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous. And this which is true of the apparent physical bustle is true also of the apparent bustle of the intellect. Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognised by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the grey matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

From chapter VIII, “The Romance of Orthodoxy” in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

old nurses

A flash back to some earlier Chesterton today that reminds me of many passages by Lewis such as this and this.

That is what the moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,” because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.

From the “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

an offering for the Dryads

C.S. Lewis in “Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest (1952):

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.” For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

Marble relief of a bull prepared for sacrifice. 1 century AD.
(Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Credits: Ann Raia, 2006.)

I heard this first passage last week in a lecture by Ken Myers. This second passage (also by Lewis, from Prince Caspian) caught my attention over the weekend as I read to my kids. In it Doctor Cornelius shares his hope that the “old days” might be restored. (He even gives Caspian a touching little regimen to follow: “be kind to the poor remnants of the Dwarf people … gather learned magicians and try to find a way of awaking the trees once more … search through all the nooks and wild places of the land to see if any Fauns or Talking Beasts … are perhaps still alive in hiding.”) As Lewis watches the dissolution of a post-Christian West, he is longing for a pre-Christian world.

In reflecting on this, it strikes me that every child starts out with the potential to make a devout pagan. Childish worlds are full of wonder and fear of the most passionate and lovely kinds. They are capable of being overwhelmed by a world that “is charged with the grandeur of God.” In some respects (particularly given the plasticized and fast-paced modern lives that we tend to live), it could even be said (by way of analogy) that the primal paganism in children must first be guarded and nurtured before they can start maturing into true Trinitarian Christianity.

From Prince Caspian, chapter 4:

“Never in all these years have we forgotten our own people and all the other happy creatures of Narnia, and the long-lost days of freedom.”

“I’m – I’m sorry, Doctor,” said Caspian. “It wasn’t my fault, you know.”

“I am not saying these things in blame of you, dear Prince,” answered the Doctor. “You may well ask why I say them at all. But I have two reasons. Firstly, because my old heart has carried these secret memories so long that it aches with them and would burst if I did not whisper them to you. But secondly, for this: that when you become King you may help us, for I know that you also, Telmarine though you are, love the Old Things.”

“I do, I do,” said Caspian. “But how can I help?”

“You can be kind to the poor remnants of the Dwarf people, like myself. You can gather learned magicians and try to find a way of awaking the trees once more. You can search through all the nooks and wild places of the land to see if any Fauns or Talking Beasts or Dwarfs are perhaps still alive in hiding.”

“Do you think there are any?” asked Caspian eagerly.

“I don’t know – I don’t know,” said the Doctor with a deep sigh. “Sometimes I am afraid there can’t be. I have been looking for traces of them all my life. Sometimes I have thought I heard a Dwarf-drum in the mountains. Sometimes at night, in the woods, I thought I had caught a glimpse of Fauns and Satyrs dancing a long way off; but when I came to the place, there was never anything there. I have often despaired; but something always happens to start me hoping again. I don’t know. But at least you can try to be a King like the High King Peter of old, and not like your uncle.”