Christmas Season and the Pandemic of Loneliness pt 3

Sisyphus by Titian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

We all desire to be connected, respected, and loved. Aristotle was absolutely right, humans are political animals, we are made for connection, and for living together. It is the rare individual who can go off and do it on their own. Those who do this successfully from the point of view of the Church are those who are immersed in prayer with the God of love. St. Seraphim’s exodus and return to the world was one marked by love and compassion, echoing with the Paschal greeting, “Christ is risen!” 

But there is something even more fundamental that Dr. Fried’s patients point towards. The need to live “lives of value.” How hard is it for us to live lives of true value if there is nothing to bring value? So much of the malaise of modern life is that our horizons are locked on the immanent. Why do we do what we do? In order to make money. Why do we vote for who we vote for? Economics, silly! Why don’t we pursue what we want to do? Why… who could afford to do such a fancy thing! 

If this is not the horizon we are locked into, then we are locked into the flights of fancy typically associated with Romanticism. I mean this term in very broad terms, not an argument about British or German variants, but a general modern tendency to bracket the questions around what is real and to escape into the misty regions of fantasy.1 Value is something which is purely self made. Because of this a meaningful life is something that one must produce alone. As a retreat from the structural pressures of modern life, so much of our lives are spent in trying to bring about some meaning, squeezing it out of every small moment. This is why poetry, film, and other arts have become such incredibly valuable domains because certain aesthetes have placed the entirety of existence upon the faint glimpses of transcendence found therein. Think of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. In fact, if you haven’t, read his poem “Sunday Morning”. 

Lives of Value…Without Value?

Behind the immanent horizons, the “iron cage” of modernity (Weber), there is the loss of He who infused meaning into the world. This is now the default assumed position for so much of the North Atlantic. 

If God is dead then life has no meaning. If God is dead then I am free to do as I want. If God is dead then the entire weight of the meaning of existence rests firmly on my shoulders. The pangs of contemporary loneliness are only heightened by the eclipse of belief in God. What could be more depressing than the belief that everything is meaningless and that death is the ultimate end for humanity? Camus and Nietszche both affirm the need to affirm life in the face of this void, but both also realized it required superhuman ability to do so. 

Nietszche’s criticism of Christianity was that it belittled mankind. Christianity was a slave’s religion for it reeked of a slave like mentality. Christianity was too ascetical, restrictive, moralistic and therefore is in reality just shackles for men. Men were meant to rove over the earth in great displays of self-willed glory and feats. Not to cower in humility. Value was not something given from above, as Christianity was for Nietszche simply a “platonism for the masses.” Value was something self-created and expressed, it was the true and free expression of natural desires. 

Party in the Iron Cage!

So how is life going in the iron cage of modern life? How are the self-created values and the glory of man freed from the shackles of Jesus Christ?

The exhilarating freedom of the early releases from the shackles of belief as we see in someone like a Percy Shelley seems to pale compared to the extremities of perversity and violence found in the freedom of a Marquis de Sade. Have we found the man that Nietzsche lauded? Have we found the rational, economic man freed from the restraints of morality? Have we found the man free from guilt, tradition, and the past? 

As we come to close out 2020 it seems that it is the prevalence of the Doomer variant of the Wojak meme that is the real eye opener. 

In the height of the pandemic, while the SXSW Film Festival had been cancelled, Amazon Prime picked up many of the films that were to be shown at the festival and then released them to subscribers. One of these films I stumbled across opened up a whole world I had heard about but had not yet seen. See this trailer of “TFW NO GF” for a peek. Warning: not necessarily safe for work or kids.

 

What freedom we have come to! What a world of self-expression! What a world built upon the great machines of modernity! 

This is of course at the extreme end of things. But caricatures point to realities. The world which offers so much, an excess even of things, is also a world that has millions sharing Doomer memes. The party in the iron cage is turning into a nightmare. 

Lives of Value: The Expectation of Fasting and the Joy of Feasting  

Orthodox Christians should be known for their feasts. We should be dancing, singing, and doing so in riotous fashion because we know that God is with us! In the face of the iron cage we should be glorying in the light and meaning coming down from above, from the Father of light! The light of the Feasts should enfuse our lives with incredible meaning. Joy in the resurrection – that which redeems all of our sorrows and turns our fear to faith and jubilation! Exhilaration in the solidarity of God with us in the Nativity of our Lord!

It seems that we are too often known for being downcast, ascetical, and piously serious and fastidious. The fasting and the training of expectation to be fulfilled in light of the Feast is a rule of the Church’s Typikon of life according to Fr Alexander Schmemann. We should fast and we should do so in order to truly train and order our desire rightly. To free us from the imminent horizon and open us to the true transcendence of God.

It is painfully obvious that fasting for Americans is incredibly hard. Our culture is built on excess, its ethos exists light years away from the Church’s ethos. It should also be clear to us that we do not know how to feast. We are addicted to efficiency and immediacy. We do not know how to feast because we are used to imitations and cheap versions of things. Our feasting is also typically done privately and for a short period of time. Who do we gather around our tables? For how long do we extend to the world a chair to sit and eat of their fill? We are to keep the fast to ourselves…but the feast? It should be shared with neighbors and those passing by! 

We will accept Christmas as a single day of feasting rather than a succession of days of feasting. We will bask in the joy of Pascha and then lose that radiance in less than a week. We limit ourselves and our feasting because we have no imagination for feasting! We gorge ourselves quickly and forget to truly celebrate in spirit and truth! 

We do not know how to feast because we do not understand the weight of glory. We do not comprehend the fullness that has been so abundantly poured out upon us. 

In the face of the challenging imminent horizons, life lived in the iron cage, we need to restore full feasting. Joy should be one of the premier gifts we cherish and share. In a world lacking connection and even now some basic human instincts, we need to refresh our humanity with the true leisure of the feast. The feasts should underline to the world that we are truly alive and joyous because of our redeeming and loving God. 

Some suggestions?

We need to return to singing together, for what refreshes and communicates joy to our bodies more than a robust round of caroling or hymns sung together! And, yes, it should be done OUTSIDE of the nave! 

We need to return to dancing together! We need to find spaces for convivial joy and the moving of our bodies together in a symbolic and significant pattern. Not done in licentiousness but in sober joy. 

We need to return to creating the small traditions and life that flowed from the hearth that marked the hospitality and live giving world of our ancestors. We are not brains on sticks! We need to embrace the joy of the feasts as communities in order to fully live lives full of meaning! And, yes, it seems to me that this path is to resurrect older practices and things done during the analog age. Watching a movie together or playing video games together will not suffice. We need to intertwine our voices and move our bodies in unison. We need to rejoice in spirit and in our bodies.  

Need a jumpstart to help thinking through how to feast?! Our family has this past year put into practice with great joy and relish the work done by the Sheehan family and published by Artefact. Take a look! Take up! Sing! Dance! Rejoice in the glorious feasts of the Church! 

 

 

  1. I am not here commenting about the running debate regarding the fantasy or faerie of a Tolkien, Lewis, or Macdonald