On Fields of Praise

There are mornings on God’s Earth when the truth of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” comes home to you:

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

(Give yourself a midsummer’s treat: listen to Thomas’s fellow Welshman Richard Burton’s reading of the whole poem, in which simple words like “young” and “fire” and “green” take on a magic that most of us lose as “adults.”)

I don’t live on a farm, but we recently moved to the country, just 10 miles farther away from Washington. Still, that has made all the difference. Our sometime colleague Joe Wood jokes that I’m living in Roytopia – like Roger Scruton’s Scrutopia, but we have only two acres not 300, and won’t be riding to hounds.

People around us, though, have horses, cows, and goats. A herd of deer was munching on my back yard the other day. Hummingbirds buzz around. Red foxes zip in and out of the woods.

I went out walking recently. Clouds were low and dark, rain just holding off, temperature in the high 60s and a steady wind. I worked my way through stands of trees and multiple streams. You could have thought you were on the Camino or in the North of England. A restful hour, therefore.

An oddity of our current moment is that you might almost feel guilt for enjoying this created world in midsummer. The world and the Church are both in such an uproar that – even if you wanted to (I don’t) – there’s no escape.

I’m now about halfway between the Pentagon and the Marine base at Quantico. So if nuclear war breaks out, both sites would be hit. And in either direction, I’d be inside the blast radius.

This weekend, not far away (Charlottesville, VA), a stupid 20-year-old white supremacist/neo-Nazi ran over anti-racist protesters, using the very tactic that Islamic terrorists – whom I’m sure he detests – employed in London, Paris, and Berlin. It’s not hard to predict that this is just the beginning of something awful.

In the Church, American Catholics who have made common cause with Evangelicals for the defense of life and marriage have just been accused of practicing “an ecumenism of hate” by some of the pope’s closest confidants.

Austin Ivereigh, papal biographer and partisan, has even accused zealous converts of “neurosis,” (though many active, “cradle” Catholics in America believe and act similarly). Yet another firestorm erupted, and Ivereigh has had to issue a lame apology for lack of “civility” in his manner of disagreeing with opponents.

Nice, if failed, try. But no one will believe it: he said what he thinks. Those of us with questions about parts of the Francis program (as Ivereigh sees it) are mentally ill.

The Passing Storm, Shenandoah Valley by Alexis Fournier, 1924 [Virginia Historical Society]

I list these troubles – the list could continue – not to repeat what many already know, but to point to a problem: a human, spiritual problem. And I know I’m not the only one who feels it.

Given all this, can we step aside, even briefly? Can we take walks in the woods and come face to face with the mysteriousness of what lurks there as it grows dark every evening?

Is it frivolous to go outside in full darkness and look up at the sky, especially in these August days when the Perseid meteor shower, one of the most spectacular of celestial events, is at its peak?

To say yes is to succumb to a kind of violence and a spiritual temptation that must be, somehow, resisted.

It’s not easy in our circumstances to find ways to turn away, regularly, from our necessary engagement with all these threats and challenges, and to practice the discipline of what Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) called “resting in God.” Rod Dreher has tried to offer some solutions in his book The Benedict Option, though it’s easier to describe the problems than solutions.

But they must be found, individually and in community. Threats to the very existence of Christianity are rising – and must be met with vigorous action. But the action must be formed by a deep Christian spirituality and peace – even “silence” as Cardinal Sarah has warned – or the other guys will have already won a first skirmish in putting us off kilter.

My wife and I chose to move, now that our youngest, like a good millennial, finally moved out of the basement; not a long distance, but enough to make a vast difference, which I’ve only begun to suggest.

Most people will have to stay put and make some sort of internal pilgrimage. Means aren’t lacking. Read The Imitation of Christ, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Lorenzo Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat.

I’d even suggest Plato’s Phaedrus and Josef Pieper’s brilliant commentary.

If you read, slowly and attentively, things will suggest themselves. Spiritual practices, daily acts.

And also, I never tire of saying, don’t just be a bookworm. Get outdoors while the weather is good. The Fathers of the Church spoke of nature as God’s second book of revelation. We should try to “read” that too. Often.

One distortion we particularly suffer from in technocratic societies is to think that the really human things are all on the Internet (says the editor of an online column series), or TV, or in cities. These are goods (properly used), but given the nature of our difficulties, we would do better to look more to deeper realities.

Seeing similar things in his day, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “And for all that, nature is never spent/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Or: go to the source and take heart from the first words of Genesis:

“In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.”

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.