There once was an excellent Jesuit boarding school in England by the name of Beaumont, which began admitting boys back in the mid 1800s. Soon after opening its doors, it decided to challenge a neighboring school to a game of soccer. And so the headmaster sent his counterpart at nearby Eton a letter suggesting a match. The latter’s response was not encouraging: “What is Beaumont?” To which the Jesuit headmaster fired off the following fabled reply: “Beaumont is what Eton used to be: a school for the sons of Catholic gentlemen.”
It is perhaps emblematic of much that has gone wrong with England in the last century and a half, that places like Beaumont no longer exist, there being so few sons of Catholic gentlemen left to educate. As for Eton, of course, for all that the happy outcome of the Battle of Waterloo owes to its playing fields, it might as well not exist either, since so little of a distinctively Christian heritage survives.
What will it take to turn things around? Is it even possible to reverse the direction in which, not just England, but the continent as a whole, has been moving? Because, more and more, these are places where life has grown so secularized, its spirit so flattened out, as to be practically post-Christian. Might there be, amid all that darkness, a shaft or two of light by which real hope for the future may be found?
These are questions I have been mulling over since returning from England and the continent a fortnight or so ago. And while there is no quick fix to the predicament it finds itself in, particularly since most people do not regard it as a predicament at all, I do think it worthwhile to try and set down a few reflections at least on the matter of English and European apostasy.
Widespread European Apostasy
And perhaps the first point to be made is that apostasy among the English is not all that different from the one that appears to have overtaken a good deal of the rest of Europe. I don’t have the exact figures for the countries across the Channel, but they can hardly be reassuring. If indices among the Brits are evocative of what has been for some time now emerging elsewhere, then for the first time what we’re seeing are societies where a majority of people have rejected even the most minimal identification with the Christian religion. The decisive shift, in other words, has now taken place: a world once Christian is no longer. What it will become is not yet clear, of course, but the fact of its relapse is unmistakable.
So what does it mean when a society ceases to be Christian? When the only evidence, certainly in England, of its ever having been Christian, are so many empty churches testifying to a time and place no one can remember? There is a vanished world out there, a world whose remains, however quaint and picturesque, will never be restored to its former glory. Not the glory of a lost empire, mind you, on which the world’s sun has surely set, but of things far greater than this world.
“When churches will fall completely out of use,” asks the poet Philip Larkin, to what end shall we then turn them? “A few cathedrals chronically on show,” he suggests,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Who, he wonders, will be “the last, the very last, to seek / This place for what it was…?” And what was that exactly? Larkin cannot say—indeed, his own sense of despair prevents him from knowing what to say—but it scarcely matters once all that was held to be sacred has been bleached out of the building, leaving behind only layer upon layer of dust, cobwebs, and the unignorable silence which tells us that no one is there.
“My people have committed two sins,” warns the prophet Jeremiah, who, in letting us in on the secret, gives an echo to God’s own voice: “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (2:1). Having given up on God, in other words, we turn to one or another spurious substitute, which will hold no water.
To know what’s wrong with today’s world—and whether you are living it in England or elsewhere does not finally matter—one has only to see how far we have come from the world we left behind, the world that once defined itself as Catholic and Christian. What it comes down to is the sad realization that, since the complete breakup of the unity of faith and culture—all that once sacramental glue cementing the lives of so many ordinary men and women—not much is left for people to do nowadays—beyond, that is, “birth, copulation, and death,” to recall a withering line from T.S. Eliot. And now that birth rates are plummeting across the West, even copulation appears ever more aimless. Which leaves, well, only death.
What Has Been Lost
What is really missing, of course, the thing that England and much of Europe seem to have truly lost, is any coherent or lively sense of God. It is the absence of that once blessed and quite palpable Presence, which their ancestors felt so keenly, and which they understood to be both necessary to the maintenance of human happiness in the world, and indeed of the world’s own existence as well. Pull that particular plug and everything drains away. It is only God who, to use the language of St. Irenaeus, Father of Western Theology, “holds all things in being, and who gives being to all things.”
This is what has been lost, or at least mislaid, in a people’s determined embrace of all that is new. They have simply ceased to notice, or to care, that in the mad rush to appear modern, a once vital and vibrant world has gone missing. Which is now casually written off as the cost of doing business, of aspiring to live life more fully, as it were, in the moment. Not the moment of grace, but of grunge; that which, in an unholy age, passes for being hip. And to think that from the very springs of that distant and long ago world, a whole universe once found itself watered by the Blood of the Lamb. How right Marx was about us, about the age he predicted we would soon enough inherit. An age, he said, in which “all that is solid melts into thin air.” The acids of modernity have a way of doing that to people. “We don’t know what we’re doing,” as Chesterton would say, “because we don’t know what we’re undoing.” People have so uncoupled themselves from their own patrimony that they now move, quite cheerfully, in complete darkness, unmindful of where they are going because, not having a sense of where they have been, it hardly matters at all where they end up going. Like poor little Alice lost in wonderland, who learns too late that, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
The stunning difference between the world England and Europe inhabit today, and the one their ancestors were once so at home in, is that along the way they lost God. Not much use in going back there, they may tell themselves, since they were such different people then. Still, they need to know. We all need to know. Someone needs to tell us what we have all lost. “We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man,” insisted Pope Saint John Paul back in 1995 in Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). Which is nothing less than, “the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism.” And because we have ceased to know who God is, we no longer know who we are.
The nexus is an enormously important one, although most of us, it seems, would prefer not to be reminded. John Paul, however, reminds us of what happens when we forget:
When God is forgotten the creature itself grows unintelligible. Man is no longer able to see himself as mysteriously different from other earthly creatures; he regards himself merely as one more living being… Enclosed in the narrow horizon of his physical nature, he is somehow reduced to being a thing, and no longer grasps the transcendent character of his existence as man. He no longer considers life as a splendid gift of God, something sacred entrusted to his responsibility and thus also to his loving care and veneration. (Art. 22)
What it all comes down to is quite simple. It is the choice between the anthill and the Mystical Body. Christ or chaos. Is life but an aimless concatenation of atoms, swirling mindlessly about the universe? Or is there a real if mysterious choreography to the cosmos, a pattern both elegant and efficient, by which we are to measure ourselves? And if it is the latter then, yes, we shall hear, amid all that blessed orchestration of sound, the very music of the heavenly spheres. Then we shall live life so fully and richly that, at every moment, there will be only the sweet rhythmic movement of one still point after another. “Except for the point, the still point,” says T.S. Eliot,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
What has happened to England and Europe, as indeed it has happened to so many whose lives are no longer circumscribed by Christ, is that they have forgotten how to dance. And there is no other way to restore the heritage of the Christian West than for a whole people to be able, once again, to learn the steps to that dance.
“To apprehend,” says Eliot, “the point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
A steep curve, to be sure, but it’s the only ascent finally worth making.