As a person naturally prone to pessimism and yet equally geared for the long and stubborn grind of societal combat, I find it necessary to sort out my thoughts and observations towards a clear goal in these disorienting times. I take great comfort from the dearth of excellent current writing trying to diagnosis the crescendo of confusion and rage currently plaguing our society. While Paine’s now almost cliché statement that “these are indeed the times that try men’s souls” once again rings true, things are now moving well beyond this stage. The soul, indeed, has been “tried”, found guilty, and executed by the mainstream of society, replaced with the officially sanctioned specter of a purely material chemistry-set brain trying to make sense of the vagaries and intensities of existence. In the process of such officially sanctioned “progress”, the west has transitioned from being a unique vehicle of culture and authentic spiritual progress into a place uniquely suited to demoralize and ultimately drive men mad. What we once collectively believed – despite religious and philosophical fractions and no shortage of great social flaws – was in a general eschatology wherein man had a spiritual origin and a spiritual destiny, wherein there were callings and fates and responsibilities, heroes and villains, virtues and sins, and ultimately: judgment. It was a world in which Archbishop Viganò’s recent statements on societal division might have been met with more wisdom and understanding:
On the one hand, there are those who, although they have a thousand defects and weaknesses, are motivated by the desire to do good, to be honest, to raise a family, to engage in work, to give prosperity to their homeland, to help the needy, and, in obedience to the Law of God, to merit the Kingdom of Heaven. On the other hand, there are those who serve themselves, who do not hold any moral principles, who want to demolish the family and the nation, exploit workers to make themselves unduly wealthy, foment internal divisions and wars, and accumulate power and money: for them the fallacious illusion of temporal well-being will one day – if they do not repent – yield to the terrible fate that awaits them, far from God, in eternal damnation.
What the average man now believes results in an “enlightened” (quotes to indicate sarcasm) but deeply painful cynicism for some, debilitating anxiety for most, and confusion for all. It is a world in which Solzhenitsyn’s powerful Harvard address in 1978 has become a fulfilled prophecy:
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
So we find ourselves in the truly maddening place where a society capable of contemplating the building of a colony on a distant planet is likewise no longer able to build a viable culture on its own terra firma. Despite the continued efforts of a handful of digital and scientific elites (the only kind still loosely tolerated in our atmosphere of confused egalitarianism), the height of the average existence may be a new Netflix series tonight, a virtual hook-up tomorrow, and perhaps a few real estate acquisitions down the road, while virtue and higher meaning are laughed away and the children for whom one might actually mature for do not exist or are pushed to the wayside. Little wonder that we have become an over-anxious, over-medicated, unlettered, vapid, media guzzling, perpetually victimized, undisciplined wreck of a society which cannot even be convinced to reproduce itself at adequate levels despite its outsized sexual appetites. And all the while, the exaggeratedly vulgar soundtrack of “WAP” (or whatever wap-istry comes next) is playing in the background to further deaden our senses.
Such people — the uncritical denizens of a rootless and destinationless culture — are ripe for manipulation. Their anxiety is understandably high, while those with more traditional eschatological perspectives – who understand and are accepting of the inevitable imperfections of any age even as they work to assuage and improve them – become a natural mortal enemy to those who are in desperate need of trying to create a perfect existence right here, and right now, while they are still young enough to hedonistically enjoy it. For those without heaven, every earthly imperfection becomes a hell nearly impossible to endure. Like us, they perceive the yawning gulf between our reality and our potential. Unlike us, they don’t understand why things can’t be nearly perfect now, and the rage and anxiety this builds is utterly debilitating to the creation of a beautiful life. And so a young man who may be of an age where he should be tucking in his children to sleep and contemplating making love to his wife instead lives a lonely existence, one where the inevitable shortcomings of his favorite entertainment devices ultimately lead him to take his isolation, anguish, and existential frustrations into the street to partake in mayhem. In this environment, a cleverly crafted narrative with enough truth sprinkled in to initially agitate and enough outrageous falsehood to ultimately inflame is a lit match unto the ashes of our crumbled society, and the sight of burning buildings and shattered lives is no surprise to those who have been paying attention all along. Nowadays, you’re one slogan and a small group of twisted statistics away from the next rebellion.
It may seem difficult to find a bright spot and optimistic angle upon which to finish such a commentary, as we are truly in a time where we must live by faith and hope alone. Even in the Church intended to be our home, refuge, and Mother, we remain at the apex of our civil war, as our Bishops and leaders have generally proven themselves to be entirely and comfortably co-opted by the spirit of the age. These ecclesial agents of the Zeitgeist would like to hang a few more felt banners, strum a few more major chords, and convince us that everything is going to be ok if only we accept the next great idea.
It is a wonder that anyone would convert in these times, and yet therein lies our hope. While we are hemorrhaging members in our Church, the steady stream of former Protestants and secularists now entering the Barque of Peter represent the best of their former kind. Furthermore most of these converts entering the Church today bypass the Susan-manned welcome committee and head straight for the basement, where Tradition has been relegated and is now being lovingly dusted off. Many, such as in the case of the famously cancelled University of Kansas Humanities program, have searched for the seeds of reason, the fruits of Beauty and the bulwark against insanity, and unsuspectingly found themselves at the door of mankind’s greatest ally in these efforts. They are a brave bunch, to voluntarily enter a burning ship with bucket in hand, and yet here they are. But in helping to douse fires and remove rotting planks, they often discover various roving stubborn misfit bands of believers who have written great literature, created meaningful art, raised faithful families, and even started new educational institutions in spite of both societal and frequent ecclesial rejection. And herein lies our ultimate hope for this age: the growing bands of the anti-rebellious men and women determined to right the sinking ship, roving militia to populate the Church Militant once again. Some escape to open lands via the Benedict Option, others stay in the midst of city and strife. Some move towards the Latin Mass or the Eastern Rites, while other feel compelled to try to maintain the JP2-era “conservative” version of Catholicism (and traditionalists should give them every bit of patience and love, as these are our future allies if we now treat them well.) Either way, we are quickly moving to a place where the new Zeitgeist will become an all-encompassing and deadening reality outside of the Christian communities where faith and culture are maintained, just as what happened during the last dark age. And in turn, if we do the jobs the Lord is now assigning to us, we will create small but powerfully compelling cities of light, shining out as a welcome antidote in the darkness.
Lately I’ve come to realize that the old blessing: “May you live in interesting times” may also be perceived as a curse, as there is little comfort and much strife to whom such times fall. If our own times are unique, it is in that our society’s general relativism along with the tentacle-like slow creep of evil and the nature of soft persecution have all combined to make it very difficult for even men of good will and sound intellect to identify – let alone effectively organize to fight – the enemy: the battle is brutally asymmetrical and full of deceptions.
When Paine wrote “these are the times which try men’s souls”, he at least had the luxury of being able to face his enemy on a battlefield. No such luxury awaits us now. But it is precisely this time of wildly spinning confusion and the rage it breeds, this time of spiritual sorting and the upheavals of the passing of an age where we find ourselves. The hopeful bedrock is already laid for us in Christ and the Tradition of the Church, while the myriad of efforts in culture, education, theology, art and family life bear witness to the slow turning of the tide. We can hope for a Godly intervention to speed this along, but we should realistically accept the glacial and grinding work which is likely ahead of us. We may not see the promised land – if indeed that is even where this is even headed – but we have the glory of being the workers in the vineyard in a time of encroaching famine, while there is a potent spring at the heart of the vineyard whose output has lately increased.
So what to do? Drink deeply of this spring. Pray. Be calm. Do the work. Carry on.
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a scholar and composer whose music has been performed internationally and released on the Gramophone-praised Naxos Records album, “Blood, Forgotten.” His writings on Catholicism, music, aesthetics, and music technology appear in numerous publications regularly, while he also maintains an active schedule as a composer and professor of music. A proud native of Chicago, he currently lives with his wife and three children in Ohio.