I have been engaged in an interesting reading project. The first part started with the travel accounts of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who made a walking journey from Holland to Constantinople (as he always called it) in 1933. His work (3 volumes) is considered one of the best of its genre in our times. He was only 19 when he started and was far from being settled and mature. However, he had a deep interest in culture, history, language, and people. His curiosity flows across every page of the journey. As such, his work is more than the story of a very long walk: it is a fascinating description of a Europe that would shortly explode. Many of the people whom he met would not only not survive the war, but their communities and way of life would disappear. I recently finished my second reading of his volumes.
The second part of this project (as I’m calling it) has been to read about another hiker (Nick Hunt), writing in 2011-2012, who followed Fermor’s path across a very changed Europe. To say things had changed is an absurd understatement. Very little was the same or even comparable. The Danube had flowed freely during Fermor’s time, while today a series of hydroelectric dams has changed its very character. As Fermor crossed Germany, he had ominous encounters with the growing Nazi presence. The war that followed in the next decade left many of the things he described in ruins. For the lands East of Austria, the war was followed by the brutal changes of Soviet communism, destroying a way of life and leaving a strange detritus in its wake.
Fermor’s Europe was almost devoid of cars. Outside the cities, they received little notice and were encountered as rare and exotic things. Nick Hunt, on the other hand, struggled to find a path for walking. Highways and paved roads were everywhere, automobiles, like a new species of animal, dominated everything. The clash of these two accounts is the heart of my reading project. They represent hikes across the twentieth century and into our own time. Equally incongruent are the hikers themselves. Fermor is only 19, yet to attend college. You would be hard put to find a 19-year old of our time with anything like his general knowledge and grasp of history. His facility with languages was remarkable, even for its time (after three weeks, his Greek was becoming passable – he made conversation with Russian monks on Mt. Athos by using the bits of Bulgarian he had acquired hiking). His later counterpart is little like him. There is little need for language skill, as English is now nearly ubiquitous. Fermor reads like a hike through culture itself, with constant observations about ethnic history, architecture, art, food, clothing. He not only describes a world that has disappeared – he is a world that has disappeared. His successor’s story reads more prosaic: I came, I saw, We drank. Parenthetically, there was something new in the landscape that was missing in the 30’s: plastic trash. It somehow seems a proper metaphor for our time.
As I have read, another image comes to me. The richness and depth of the earlier account has been replaced by a very thin one. It is not simply a difference in writers: it is a difference in everything. As the century has gone by, the world and the people in it have been attenuated – stretched and blended into a world culture that is marked less by diversity than by sameness. Global markets require global people. With it, humanity itself seems to have diminished.
Fermor is not particularly religious, though he doesn’t seem a stranger to the monasteries and Churches he visits. His successor barely notices religion (even when he’s at a monastery). A night in the woods of Austria, however, offered an image that stood out for me. Hiking through a bit of a blizzard, Hunt comes close to being lost in the woods:
…this night would plunge to minus fifteen, and I needed shelter. My anxiety grew when the path tilted uphill, drawing me deeper into the woods. The familiar thrill of wildness tipped towards real fear.
And then came a moment of magic so pure I was back in the realm of legends. In the middle of the darkening forest appeared a little wooden hut; no hunting hide this, but a miniature house with curtains behind glass windows. The snow on its stoop was undisturbed and the door unlocked. I lifted the latch and peered inside, half expecting to see three bowls of porridge with three wooden spoons.
What lay within was just as good. There was a bed covered in duvets, piled high with pillows. The walls and ceiling were carpeted, and on the windowsill lay a first-aid kit, a few nibbled biscuits and a bottle of frozen lemonade. There was even a pair of slippers waiting by the door. I hesitated only a moment before pulling off my boots and burrowing beneath the mousey blankets, unable to believe my luck. The next day, I was to learn that the forest path was part ofthe Jakobsweg, the pilgrimage route that winds through Europe to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, and this perfect little house had been built to give shelter to wanderers like me, lost in the woods on snowy nights. The world felt impossibly kind.
It is perhaps the most civilized moment in the whole of his journey. What he cannot see, however, is that the “perfect little house” was there because there is a heart that recognizes that everyone who wanders is a pilgrim whether he knows it or not. The prayers of St. James (Santiago) had left him a timely shelter from the storm. It could also be a cabin from Narnia or Middle Earth. Certainly, it was a cabin built by Christian Europe, a reality not lost, but hidden beneath the thin crust of modernity.
The change in architecture and landscape, as well as the change in people demonstrates that the “modern” world, though only a set of ideas, has become the creator of our infrastructure. Those who choose to live in any other manner will be “swimming upstream.” In Fermor’s books, there is an encounter with an elderly gentleman in Austria, complete with a prophecy:
‘Everything is going to vanish! They talk of building power-dams across the Danube and I tremble whenever I think of it! They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the East – they would never come back. Never, never, never!’
The fate of the Danube was the fate of Europe. The Christians swimming upstream will encounter seemingly insurmountable walls.
That said, we have to be aware of where and when we live. The suburbanized life of the modern automobile (and everything that comes with it) is not going to disappear. The new urbanism among many millennials (in which they prefer city life to any other) is, strangely, its own rebellion against the modern suburban world.
I remind myself in the services of the Church that what I am privileged to experience once had a place outside the walls, that the life of the Church was once the life of a larger civilization. Today, it is not a relic of the past but a visitation in the present of the Kingdom of God, of which everything in this world can only be a shadow, some more precise than others. It is in the clearer light of day that shines within the sacramental life that we see the true patterning of the world. That the landscape of Europe once thought such a pattern to be a worthy model is a reminder that such a thing is possible, even if it increases our grief for its loss.
God, give us more cabins.