I have had a few emails and other notes regarding my recent articles on Providence and a non-modern spiritual life. To speak about a life that is not understood in terms of progress, but in terms of its struggles and weakness is the antithesis of the modern ideal. No matter how bad things might be, at some point, we are always assured that they can get better. “Getting better” has become the modern version of salvation itself. But if this is not the promise held out for us, if it is not a reasonable or necessary expectation of the spiritual life, then it sounds like we are being asked to give up and surrender ourselves to some form of abiding misery. I have been told that such a message cannot reach people in the modern world, or that life understood in such terms will be unhappy and depressing. I offer here a few thoughts.
First, the gospel of success and prosperity, of the ever-improving spiritual life, frequently fails to reach people in the modern world, except for those who are all too willing to be deceived. Second, given the present rates of anxiety and depression, drug overdoses and suicide, it would seem somewhat hollow to suggest that life in the modern world is not already unhappy and depressing for many. The narrative of progress and success fails to describe life as it truly is. To make matters worse, failure and suffering in our culture can often make us the objects of shame. The gospel of progress is the gospel of never really being ok – and being ashamed of it. The few who are described as successful and making progress mostly serve as examples that condemn the rest of us. We imagine ourselves working towards becoming the spiritual one percent.
The gospel of Jesus Christ does not offer us an imaginary existence. It speaks to us precisely where we are. It is not so much a message that tells us that we must change the world, but that we are living in the wrong world, or, perhaps, living wrongly in the world.
Can we use the image of progress in the Christian life? Undoubtedly. But doing so can make us particularly vulnerable to the distortions of modern culture. We should recognize that our cultural narrative offers nothing for the humble, the meek, the weak and those who fail, other than condemnation. These same qualities are, in a variety of places, extolled as essential in classical Christianity. The difficulty is learning how to live in such a reality.
Any number of times I have defended the existence of monasticism to outsiders. They wonder “what good does it do?” Many modern, Western monastics have turned to human service, making them more palatable to the modern mind. It strikes me as strange that simply saying that monastics “live,” is an insufficient justification for most people. The same is true for ourselves: life is itself is worth living. We are not put here to prove our worth or to make progress towards worth. Life is a gift whose purpose is to be thankful for the gift.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann, himself, observed this “helpful” aspect of modern life and had harsh words:
For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer “insufficient help,” but precisely because they “suffice,” because they “satisfy” the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die—and not just live—for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be. Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained.
Much of what I offer in the critique of modernity is the unmasking of the “helpful” world of secularism and the revelation of death for what it is. When death is revealed for what it is, the result can bring a form of despair. But that same revelation also reveals the truth of life.
The writer of Ecclesiastes observed, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” He saw the emptiness of our existence as it passes away. The Psalmist said: “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Ps. 103:15-16)
The Christian life should not be marked by despair. It is, however, rightly marked by a sober assessment of the truth of our existence. In the face of death and its threat, we see Christ Who tramples it down in triumph. Because of Christ’s victory, we live in hope. But we live with hope in Christ alone. Christ’s victory over death secures for us the gift of life and makes the life of thanksgiving possible.
Modernity makes constant efforts to tame Christ, to make of Christianity a “religion,” a “spiritual” tool for aiding in the comfort and encouragement of its citizens. Christianity thus becomes a “helping profession.” This is often a very benign, innocent process. The closest thing to morality in the modern world is to avoid making people uncomfortable (unless it’s making people uncomfortable about making other people uncomfortable). If death makes people uncomfortable (and it does), then it is very tempting for Christians to want to soften the blow as well.
The world we live in is constructed in such a way that the reality of death (literally and metaphorically) never disappears. There may be a temporary ‘sleight of hand’ in which we hide from the devastating truth of our existence, but the truth remains: people die. We live on an edge and people tumble off all the time. For that reason, the truth of the faith does not disappear. It is never irrelevant. Indeed, in the light of the truth of our existence, Christ’s Pascha, His death and resurrection, is the only truly relevant thing. Only if Christ has trampled down death by death can we face the naked truth of our existence with hope.
It is worth noting that the monastic tradition of the Church tells us constantly that the spiritual life should be marked by the remembrance of death, and the constant remembrance of the name of God. It is the Paschal life, the life that follows in the footsteps of Christ. The common practices of prayer, fasting, repentance and almsgiving intentionally introduce a small measure of suffering into the Christian life. These do not mean to make our faith difficult – but to make it real.
In this life we will have successes and failures. We will make progress and fall backwards. Give thanks always for all things. Christ is risen.
I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet, not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Set your affections on things above and not on things of the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.