Home Sweet Home
Orthodoxy is a religion of memory, but conservative America (rightly reacting to statism) is dedicated to nostalgia. The past is framed with a sentimental, hallmark peachy filter, where the blemishes and moles are airbrushed away. Nothing happens in the past of nostalgia, except a succession of Norman Rockwell prints. The whole montage is narrated by the whisky voice of Thornton's Our Town narrator: birth, youth, romance and marriage, hearth and home and death. Stephen Foster sings offstage.
I love this montage: I am drawn toward it like a siren. For me, the Sirenum Scopuli are not between Scylla and Aeaeia. They are at Almanzo's farm in New York, or at Walton's Mountain with the little old ladies and those inimitable mason jars and the Big Chief Tablet (I had one of those, just as graphite-smudged).
Nostalgia and sentiment are perilous reactions to Babylon and its progress: going home and trying to find the little house on the prairie, with the apple-wood smoke curling up from the chimney and crunchy leaves and a ham on a marble slab and the silence of winter chill groves, draped in silver gauze is a place you want to visit now at your peril, and can, despite the morose fact that you were never there.
Christianity is history, which is always forgettable: the imaginations of nostalgia are easier come by. Christianity is history: history is Christianity.
Sadly, Christianity is also a very urban, revolutionary thing. It is urban in that it cannot be thought of outside of fellowship. Moreover, it claims that human nature is rooted and must flourish in communion. There is no sense of rugged, Marlboro Man, Wyatt Earp individualism in Christianity: many Americans – and I'm one of them – dream dreams of riding into the sunset, but are awakened rudely by the knowledge that we couldn't cut it, we're too humane.
It is revolutionary. It is the only revolution. All other movements that took on that name failed to deliver on the fantasies they whipped up like gas on a fire. In the two thousand years since the Risen Christ paraded the old gods like wizened strumpets down Time's gate, the false revolutions have raised up hopes and deferred them and made hearts sick. Not so with the Christian Revolution: it alone invaded the heart where all other movements failed to answer, and it alone established the peace the passes understanding there. It alone made men, male and female, slave and free, Greek and barbarian, citizens of a trans-global heaven … not a utopian dream for sociologists who can't stand the Creed, but a hard and blinding Reality which thunders from Hope and makes rumble the soul.
It is not very conservative: if it is conservative at all, it is only conservative in a typological way. Old things and memories are meaningful insofar as they are gathered up and together into the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Christianity is teleological: it is aimed by the past toward an end. Nostalgia is a visitation of ghosts and attics, like Chevy Chase in a mink fur stole at Christmas.
But Orthodox Christianity is history, and it is memory, and the only home to go to is the city we're looking for. The city we sometimes see.
I wonder how nostalgic is the Front Porch, and the American narratives I find sweet, deep and frosting to the mind's touch? How sentimental is American Gothic? Wyeth? Tom Sawyer? Copeland?
Sure it is, if I try to draw religion out of the stories and the evocations. It is sentimental if I try to run from the gray press of the world pell-mell into an emotional, semiotic ghetto. I am afraid that this is why some people are agrarian. It is also why some converted to Orthodoxy. In both cases, time will scour away all that does not co-inhere with the Word (as is its wont), and they will fail. Sentiment and nostalgia cannot found belief, only memory can and sacramental vision.
But, it turns out, memory and vision constitute the true and only relationship with the Land that there ever was. Adam the Steward discerned, through the balance of his powers (intelligence, appetite and emotion), the logos of every creature and thus he named them – simply because a name is the articulation in human speech of a creature's logos. Adam discerned, through his complete attention on the Logos as Jesus Christ the Son of God, one more reality – a discernment and reality that eludes the attention of lapsarian historians, scientists and philosophers of all strips … and that reality is nothing less than Time itself.
I go back to Adam because he is, after all, the proto-agrarian (and, come to think of it, proto-Orthodox). Except for the ineffable Christ, Adam, along with Eve, was the only human who was naturally human. As immature as St. Irenaeus said he was, Adam was at least fully and completely natural – something that cannot be said of ourselves. Thus, Adam knew of and cared for his fellow creatures under his pall. He understood the design of yesterday, and how it was enfolded into today, and how the not-yet future was known by God and was anticipated as an unfolding of beauty and peace.
The nights were for meditation and memory. The mornings for expectation. The evenings for prayer, face to Face, when all things were surely brought up in thanks, and blessed. It was, so to speak, the primitive Eucharist. All experience was remembered and articulated – history, don't you know – and spoken to the Word, Who was and is spoken by the Father to the world.
Now here I am in a decidedly non-rural place. Once upon a time I baled hay and shoved them up bat-infested haymows. I did not like it, but I did like the sweetness of cut timothy in the amber dusk. I liked the cold quiet of the snow cast fields that stretched forever gray blue into the sky behind our four towering hemlocks that used to wave, pentecostal, praise to the northwest wind.
That was my place … but not still -- for the Trees have been felled and the no-place of surburbia has sprung up in that "there." None of my old places, for that matter, are still there. Things have happened, bad and good, mostly melancholy if you want to know the truth. Asphalt and blue-light specials have plastered themselves, and the children who used to build hay forts and live in the summer are now stuck in the web, exhibiting themselves to the Google Cloud, volunteering themselves to Bentham's old fantasy of the Panopticon, now a reality, and banging on the door like the foolish virgins to the Wedding Feast: but this time the door opens, but the Master is not the Bridegroom and the Feast is not very nuptial, and the virgins are not just foolish but very non-virginal, but this time they are welcomed in, especially because of their want of oil and the deadness of their light.
Ferdinand Tönnies, one of the first sociologists, thought he could see a future in which the world would become "one large city," a "single world republic, coextensive with the world market, which would be ruled by thinkers, scholars and writers and could dispense with means of coercion other than those of a psychological nature." (Ferdinand Tönnies, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, cited in Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, p 141)
Please, your pardon for that apocalyptic lapse. I fear not a Mayan 2012, a Palin/Beck ticket or Obama's embrace of a muezzin. I fear no socialist or fascist or even a wahhabist/salafist putsch. These are all stupid fantasies – science-fiction nostalgias if you will. What I fear is the coming of an anti-Jerusalem, a dis-mental no-place where memory is vanquished and the Word – the principle of all thought – is expunged.
What I have, against this fantasia, is this Place and my Time, and my memory of all the places and times before and a history that strings them together. What I have is a real embrace, a vision of certain smiles, and a field of stars projected from a little yard. What I have is an amateur garden and a church where iron sharpens iron with full communion. What I have is a glimpse of the One Place, the New Jerusalem, which glimmers through this Pittsburgh in which I live.
What I have is the locality of Tradition in a very contrary and modern now. I have my wife's voice and smile, and the laughter of daughters. I have a choir and a council, and communicants that receive God from a service that I barely apprehend but fully commend in fear and love.
And I, who somehow missed for ages the evening walk in the first garden, pray my Place to Him. My locality thus becomes forever.