Five Hundred Years

We live in a material culture that, in the extreme, is not conducive to a high civilization.

This should be obvious but is not understood because fundamental questions about human life are not raised, publicly or often privately. Catholic Christians and some others have the advantage of the Mass, and prayer, through which they are removed in moments from the workaday, “practical” life – of earning a living and taking “breaks” from it in the hope of remaining fit and sane.

Those in priestly or monastic vocations have at least the opportunity to regulate their lives in such a way that “work” (in the contemporary sense of “doing a job”) takes its proper place. And yes, we still have some, and they are praying for us, and if they were not, I should think things would be worse than they are.

But the number of vocations, in relation to the population at large, has been constantly shrinking, these last decades; indeed, they began to plummet about the time of Vatican II.

Which is not, to my mind, to be blamed on the Council, or certainly not entirely either on the Council or on any specific action in the wake of it. These things may be grasped more as symptoms than disease – a disease that has afflicted the Church and Christendom alike since at least the time of the great schism of the Reformation, and had its beginnings long before.

We – those of my generation and older – have lived through another “tipping point” along the downward slope, at which the path of descent became steeper; in which the Sisyphean task of re-climbing the mountain became by some factor more appalling, more discouraging than it had been before; in which more and more the rocks split, and in the mass we descend as gravel.

The material culture can itself be presented as a symptom of this. The natural world remains and re-grows wherever it is left untended, but the human world I see all about me is not beautiful. It is the product of supply and demand, as any economic order will be, but on the side of demand, our requests become ever more crass.

It is a painful paradox that as materialism expands in our souls, the actual material products of our labor become shoddier and shoddier.

Man cannot live by bread alone, yet when he tries, the quality of the bread does not improve. It may become cheaper, in proportion to our income, or more expensive if any quality is required. But in the main, it becomes a changeable product of fashion, like everything else in the marketplace today.

This has a spiritual cause, as ultimately everything in our environment and beyond. Man, deprived of the consolations and disciplines of a true religion, becomes a whim of fashion. The fashions themselves are spilt religion. They represent a craving for something no fashion can finally satisfy: for a kind of pseudo-redemption.

The World Turned Upside-down by Jan Stein, 1663 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]
I often fulminate against “progress” and “progressives,” and will not stop. By making all of our ambitions worldly, we empty the world of meaning. Nothing we have now will do after the passage of a few years, sometimes a few months. This pertains not only to the design of cars, and all other disposable products of our economy, but to all our omnipresent media of entertainment, and to our (by now entirely “secular”) political order.

What we wanted yesterday will not do anymore, and in following the developments in politics through the years I have become acutely aware of this spiritual transience.

In fact, I first became aware of the phenomenon as a young adolescent, in the summer of 1968, as I watched such authority as schoolmasters and university administrators still had, crumble before frivolous student demands. It first occurred to me then, that the demands were insatiable.

A “world turned upside down,” in the words of the old ballad, sung in obstinate resistance to the “reforms” enforced by Cromwell’s Roundheads, which turned English society upside down in the middle of the seventeenth century. And there were like protests in the century before, as a Calvinist “Reformation” in Scotland then England swept all the old things away, leaving a people rootless.

There were restorations, have been many attempts through the centuries and to the present day, to put things right again; to restore up and down. Yet through five centuries we have known no peace.

For, once the idea is abroad that the changeless things can be subject to change, no peace is possible. It takes centuries to undo the ill work of centuries, and in the absence of a publicly recognized God and cosmological order, the task is quite impossible.

That, to my mind – the only one I have with which to follow the events of this world, until I open it to something higher – is at the poisoned root of what we cheaply call our “consumerism.” We, as a civilization, decided both subtly and overtly, that the truth going forward would be up to us; and this world of passing fashions in their emptiness followed.

And now the world from which we came is beyond sight, beyond memory, beyond retrieval. Even among the religious, today, the thing has become almost impossible to imagine. One walks through the narthex, after the Mass, and back onto the busy street, and everything that could be thought there is shattered. Instead: noise and ugliness in every direction, the shoddy reality of inverted values; of a world that doesn’t care.

Except in moments, heroically sustained. The genuine works of charity remain possible, as the genuine works of prayer. Let us ask Grace to expand them, even in confrontation with a world upside down, and let the efforts join gradually together in the fullness of Christ.

Let us work to some purpose, and resume the leisure by which changeless Truth can be thought humbly through.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: