Editor’s Note: Following a discussion of Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s recent essay, “Preparing Now for What the Future May Hold,” 1P5 contributor Hilary White brought to my attention a piece she’d written earlier this month along the same topical lines, but from a somewhat different perspective. After reading it, I really wanted to share it with all of you.
The following was originally published at the author’s site, Hilary White Sacred Art. Hilary makes her living painting works of sacred art by commission along with the occasional essay about the process of producing said art, or about living the faith in the modern world. We hope you will support her efforts there. – SS
“Every time we go through a situation such as this pandemic and the lockdown that followed, we could look at this – if we are willing to see the positive in things, and if we are willing to constantly grow in our spiritual life – we can look at this as an opportunity to go back to the beginning, to go back to that foundation of all spiritual growth, our separation from the world and our focus on who we are before Christ our God.” – Fr. Seraphim Aldea
We’re being proved, as gold in a fire
There’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that there is a class of billionaire oligarchs working as hard as their money can work to make the Covid Crisis go on as long and in as destructive a manner as they can manufacture. Manipulation of information is their biggest weapon, as well as their control over political machinery. All that stuff is really happening. I know because 20 years ago I took a job that involved me finding things out that I knew most people wouldn’t believe. All the things I learned then were obviously pointing in this direction.
Yes, there are very powerful people doing some very bad things, and they’ve been doing it for a long time, manipulating the course of geo-politics to bring about a particular state of things. But there is more to the picture than those guys and their power. There’s all of us, for one thing, and there’s the Even Bigger Picture that involves powers that operate through and at the same time against these bad things. The huge swirl of events, the great struggle between good and evil goes on in heaven and on earth. Maybe it’s coming to a head, and maybe it isn’t. I don’t know, to be honest. But I do know what to do about it.
Some years ago a Catholic news organisation did an unforgettable, haunting series of documentary style videos of the terrible, but at the same time deeply moving, story of the imprisonment of Romanian Christians by the Communists. Romanian gulags were truly the very bottom of the well of human evil you can imagine. But it was under those conditions – perhaps the most extreme examples of evil any human mind has ever conceived – that some of the most miraculous cases of sanctification came about that I’ve ever heard of. The light of Christ reached down into that hell-on-earth and kept making saints. The very worst possible worst-case-scenario made some of the greatest saints of heaven, the very happiest possible ending.
We have had in the “West” a pretty friendly and easy time of things since the end of World War II. Despite a lot of serious problems, despite the emotional and psychological harms the modern condition has created (won’t get into it now; I’m sure you can create a long, long list) we “Westerners” have prospered like no human beings have in our recorded history. But morally, what has this material prosperity created? Frankly, we are teetering on the edge of auto-destruction. Demography alone should have told us decades ago that we were heading for a cliff.
Our wealth and material security has come at a great cost; we have nearly entirely abandoned the spiritual dimension of our lives and at the same time as we are ruining our souls we are living well on the misery of others. Millions of people labouring to produce all the stuff we consume never themselves see the benefits of their work. I saw a thing a while ago where a news crew brought some chocolate for the men cutting cocoa in Africa. They’d never had any. Didn’t even know what it looked like.
Our civilisation – inasmuch as there is one over-arching “economic civilisation” that overshadows all of our different cultures and nations – has been unsustainable, rushing towards its own destruction, for a long, long time. (With “population reduction” a key principle of the New Order, this is quite literal.) And now that elastic has stretched to the very end of its endurance. If it hasn’t snapped yet, it soon will.
The Industrial Revolution never stopped to consider the damage it was doing. But cumulative damage, whether spiritual or material, cannot continue to accumulate forever. Eventually it will come to a point where the framework supporting it collapses. If that isn’t happening now, we have at least seen in the last year how it can happen, how it probably will happen.
Should we not at the very least take 2020 as a warning? If we are being given another year or another decade, could we now say that we know without doubt that the way we have been living cannot be sustained, and start to give very serious and constructive thought to figuring out a new way? Can we start to consider that what we were doing, the way we were orienting our priorities and aims, was collectively what brought us to the brink in the first place?
We gave them this power over us; we can withhold it
Why and how did China and their ideological, political western supporters gain so much power? In part, by producing things we want to buy, by luring us with cheap trinkets. By fuelling the consumerist, materialist culture that has smothered the world in worthless plastic junk, and turned every human being into an open, never-satisfied maw of greed and determined, hardened covetousness. How did this catastrophe happen, really? How much of it was to do with our own desire to satisfy our appetites, our passions? Our greed for “convenience”?
How much power would these powerful evil people have if we all just learned to want something else? To want a different kind of thing? What if we all learned to want the kind of thing you can have anywhere? The kind of thing you can acquire while sitting in a pitch black cell of a Communist prison? How much could they take away from us if we wanted only the things of heaven?
I have no power to stop the oligarchs doing their Great Reset – they have all the worldly power and money, and I have none. I did spend 20 years of my working life trying to alert as many as I could about what was happening… what was coming. And now here it is. But even as I was starting that work I understood, with a conviction that grew stronger and stronger the more time I spent in the “activist” world, that this was not the solution. It was good and useful to try to warn as many as possible. But we were providing no alternatives – we never talked in a positive sense about how we ought to be living differently. I suppose we understood that we had no power to re-create society – but I think much more we had no real confidence that we had a solution to offer. Some of us came to understand that even if we had the power to do so, we also had no power to create agreement, even among believers. People are contentious, and cannot be herded.
“Later” has finally arrived, and is here to stay
What’s left? The last year – with much of our time spent restricted in space and greatly reduced in powers – has taught us, perhaps, to look to the interior for the things we really can affect to the good. We still have the power to create a change in ourselves. I want the world to be different, but I’m lazy and selfish and I want other people to make it better so I can have an easier time. I don’t want to change myself to want material security less. I don’t want to increase my courage or my trust in God. That’s all difficult work that requires efforts that won’t produce immediate material results – or any material results at all. But these are the concerns of children, and of people who are determined to stay children forever.
What if, letting go of that hope that someone else will fix things to make it so I don’t have to change myself, I did the much, much harder thing and made the effort to change myself?
I had a conversation with a good friend the other day and we shot back and forth for a while about how the “whole world’s melting down and I’m freaked out about it” – as you do – and she flattened me with, “Hilary you can’t waste this opportunity. When are we ever again going to be able to say, ‘I have to spend all my time at home, and I’ve got nothing to do but make art.’?”
So to my friend’s question I feel compelled to add, “When are we ever again going to have an opportunity like this to spend time praying and doing the interior things we’ve always put off?” I’ve spent my life in busy-ness, doing lots and lots of things, going lots of places, writing lots of things. And always, always thinking, “There will be time for the deep dive into the spiritual life later”.
Well, isn’t “later” finally being forced on us, right now? “Later” seems to have arrived, and it certainly does look like Later will be going on for quite a long time yet. Is it possible that the “2nd Wave” of the Covid nightmare has a treasure of possibility hidden inside? There’s a tiny voice in my head that says, “More time with everything in the external life suspended? Oh thank God I still have time to not blow this opportunity.”
Fr. Seraphim Aldea, the founder of my favourite Orthodox monastery in Scotland, said something similar about the uses of this time for the spiritual life.
What I’ve learned through this horrible year is that the world is ripe and ready to receive the word of God and to hear even someone as humble and silly as myself. If we open up, if we truly open up, and we do not put on a show and we do not speak at a level that is beyond everybody’s heads, including our own, and that speaks to no one. We need to share the little that we were given. And the more you share, the more you give of yourself, the more Christ will give you.
I’m telling you that from my own experience; if God gave you one coin, give it away with the fullness of your heart’s generosity. Just waste it by sharing it with the world, with your brothers and your sisters. And if Christ sees that act of love in you He will give you two coins. Share those as well and He will give you five coins. Share those as well and then he’s going to pour more and more blessings more and more grace upon you.
The more you share, the more you waste by giving, by sharing with your brothers and your sisters the more Christ will bestow grace upon you. The more you keep it to yourself, the more you define that grace and what you think you have by rejecting your brother and your sister, by creating space and distance, by putting up walls and bridges between you and your brothers and your sisters, the more even what you think you have will be taken away from you.
Waste in the name of love because what you have, my brother and my sister, the grace and the experience you have, does not belong to you. You are just the receptacle of God’s gift. Use that gift for the benefit of the world, of your brother and your sister, and Christ will keep bestowing grace upon grace upon grace upon grace upon you.
There’s only so much wailing and lamenting that’s worth doing
At some point we have to accept that this is the situation and we have to deal with it. There certainly is no way even now to avoid the tremendous economic consequences of those decisions of the last year. So, this is a reality that we must now deal with, whether it was justifiable or not. We have no power over the past year in the same way we have no power over what will be decided for us by these men. So, what DO we have power to decide and do? What can I do, right now, in this place and in these circumstances?
I’m just now reminded of the fact that a few very stoic-minded, very clever and level-headed men in the 1930s looked at the situation of panic over the economic collapse and instead of panicking themselves asked how they could turn it all into a fortune for themselves.
I’m not advocating here, of course, that you become a millionaire by exploiting the misery of others. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is merely, keep your head. Don’t panic. Start thinking as hard as you can, understanding the situation realistically and planning concretely. If you can’t solve the huge problems of the world, and can’t avoid the situation these people are pressing on us, start thinking about how to use this bad situation to best possible advantage.
We ask with dread, “What if it goes on for years? What if they never let us go back to normal?” Well, let’s consider that calmly for a moment. What if? Whether it is justified by this virus or not, and whatever the legal or constitutional considerations are, this might well be an outcome of the political decisions made far above our heads. So given that, what are we going to do?
It’s easy to be terrorised by this, perhaps the strangest situation we humans have ever created, and that seems to be turning into a disaster that is rolling down a hill completely out of everyone’s control. But we have our families and friends to think of. Even if we are totally alone in the world, without friends or family, we still have responsibility for ourselves and our own goods, and for using whatever powers we have for others. So, what can we do? What is within our powers?
We are not of this world and our goods, material and immaterial, do not belong to us.
We have been given a perspective, a way of thinking, (even if we tend not to use it enough) that can defeat any of the calamities of the world – because we are not of this world. If we can align our thinking and desires and perceptions to those of heaven, we will be completely impervious to anything the world can throw at us.
Luke 16: 9-12
And I say unto you, make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much.
If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?
And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?
The commentary on this chapter tells us that it means the unrighteous are better at using money – that is, material things – to make friends in the world than believers are at using material things to make friends for the Kingdom of God. At death, “when you fail,” the needy will welcome their benefactors into the everlasting home. The money we consider our own is actually another’s; that is, it belongs to God. The things of this world don’t last and don’t come with us where we are going to end up. Maybe this is a time we are being given to remember that rust and moth can’t destroy the true treasures.
What can you do with this time that is forced on us that you couldn’t do while you were busy with All The Things? What can you do in your mind and spirit so that what is happening will not crush you, will not stop you doing what you have to do, will not paralyse you into despair or even mere indecision. We will be forced to rethink things, particularly methods, but it’s more than possible that this will turn out for the good in the longer-term.
I can’t help but feel there is something bigger “going on” with all this. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve sort of felt for a while now that this Whole Big Thing is a message from God: “Get your act together. The time is now.” Whether the Billionaire Oligarchs are setting up a One-World-Order of global totalitarianism is beyond my ability to deal with. It’s probably true – it’s the sort of thing these people have talked about quite openly for a century or more. But what, concretely, does that have to do with me right now? Some of it affects me, certainly. Some of it will restrict what I can and can’t do. OK, fine.
“But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.”
Maybe the message from heaven is that we were being distracted by too many choices and too much ease, comfort and convenience. Maybe what we’re afraid of losing are things we didn’t need. And maybe those things were keeping us from seeing clearly and learning properly and living the way we were always supposed to live.
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Habakuk 3: 17-19:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and no fruit is on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though the sheep are cut off from the fold
and no cattle are in the stalls,
yet I will exult in the LORD;
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!
GOD the Lord is my strength;
He makes my feet like those of a deer;
He makes me walk upon the heights!
Job 13: 15-16:
Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.
I will still defend my ways to His face.
Moreover, this will be my salvation,
for no godless man can appear before Him.
Romans 8: 5-8:
For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
This last is from the 1st Nocturn of the Matins readings for the Vigil of the Feast of the Epiphany.
After two dream-like years living in Norcia, the cradle of Western Monasticism, Hilary moved unexpectedly with her three cats to the area near Perugia, where she gardens a great deal and tries not to worry too much.