Matthew Schmitz—maybe the finest columnist of my generation—has written a delightful piece for the latest issue of First Things on his experience at a New Age healing ceremony. It’s chock full of all the solipsistic drivel we’ve come to expect from the spiritual-not-religious crowd: “Inca values,” hemp prayer mats, and a striking melanin deficiency. The whole calls to mind that Chestertonism: “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing: he believes anything.”
I read the piece during my family’s annual reunion in Canada, and took the opportunity to sound out my 14-year-old cousin about religion. After a few vague but patient answers, she came out with it. “Well,” said she, crossing her arms, “we can’t really know whether there’s a God one way or the other.” That was, evidently, that.
The more I thought about it, the more her answer disturbed me. It’s none of the paranoid agnosticism of Irish-American schoolgirls or the brooding post-Christianity of Stephen Dedalus. It’s not the lefty goddess-worship fashionable among older Millennials, or even the scientistic atheism handed down by public educators. Just a blank, unstudied indifference.
Apparently, some people do believe in nothing.
Nor do I suspect she’s alone. Kids today (bah!) seem to lack that spiritual aspect. It’s like the gene became recessive. They don’t play with dolls, let alone Ouija boards.
And, really, how could it be otherwise? Their parents don’t bring them to church, make them read, or take them to museums. They don’t engage them at an intellectual level—they hand them a smartphone and tell them to be quiet.
God knows the education system isn’t interested in fostering their imagination. As long as their charges pass their MCAS and don’t smoke crack on school premises, teachers have fulfilled their contractual obligation. To take an interest in them personally could be misconstrued as some gross character defect, like pedophilia or conservatism.
It’ll be interesting (and probably depressing) to see if that spiritual aspect blossoms later in life. Maybe they’ll realize that, even when their bodily appetites are perfectly satisfied, their soul will hunger and thirst for righteousness. Maybe they’ll stumble across the truth of J.S. Mill’s slightly pedantic line: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”
If so, I hope the Catholic Church is there for them, patient and majestic—not trying to be “on fleek” or “extra” or “Gucci.” [Insert obligatory Tebartz-van Elst joke here.]
No one swims the Tiber (at least not seriously) hoping the Church will “meet them where they are.” They don’t want to stare into a mirror, content with their own little being. That’s why we have… well, mirrors. If someone makes the effort to become Catholic, it’s because they want to gaze up at some terrible Gothic cathedral and feel helplessly small. They want to become a better person, not to be told what a wonderful person they already are. They want to exchange fashion for what Eliot called “the Permanent Things.”
Which is why Fr. James Martin’s Building a Bridge is such a depressing read, especially compared to a masterpiece like Brideshead Revisited. Modernism somehow manages to be both more debauched and less sexy than traditionalism. It wants us to be more understanding toward the “LGBT community,” but glosses over our common denominator: that we’re all sinners in desperate need of a Savior. If any Millennials struggling with same-sex attraction do approach the Church, I promise you: they’ll prefer Waugh’s treatment. They’ll want to be Catholics, not gay Catholics.
It’s why I and other Millennials are flocking to the Latin Mass, despite the Holy Father’s accusations of “rigidity.” As Paolo Gambi so ably put it:
We, the younger generation, need some rigidity, surrounded as we are by weak systems of thought and “liquid societies.” If we perceive the Mass as something rigid, uncompromising and rigorous, it can be attractive. If it is just something social, then we have better social places to go.
But traditional Catholicism isn’t really rigid. Nothing that survives roughly 1,600 years ever could be. Name a great poet, novelist, sculptor, painter, or architect; odds are he attended the Latin Mass. Little wonder bright young minds sick of tedious nihilists like Duchamps and Foucault turn ad orientem.
And it’s why, as a recent piece in National Review pointed out, we’re experiencing a renaissance of traditionalist conservatism among college students. They’re “more interested in, and connected to, the Catholic faith and Catholic social teaching.” They’re reading St. Thomas Aquinas and Russell Kirk. They’re “trying to reorient Americans toward ideas and ideals that nourish the whole person: community, truth, goodness, and beauty.”
That was me in 2013, when I was studying for my Bachelors at the George Washington University. My friends and I attended the annual Mass in honor of Blessed Emperor Karl of Austria at St. Mary Mother of God. We founded the College Monarchists club and ran a candidate in the student body elections. (And we came in second, behind the College Democrats and in front of the College Republicans.)
Were we just goofy undergrads, dressing up in tweed to smoke pipes and rip on Oscar Wilde? Yeah, that was definitely part of it. But we weren’t, God forbid, hipster extremists. We took ourselves deadly seriously. We saw ourselves as the “catacombs culture” Sir Roger Scruton witnessed in the Eastern Bloc. We preferred the True, the Good, and the Beautiful to sex, drugs, and Macklemore. We picked up a fair few converts, too—fellow refugees from the Millennial generation and a society that does nothing but appease and coddle us.
That’s why it drives me nuts seeing older Catholics grow embarrassed by the Tridentine Mass, and conservative thought-leaders sidestepping issues like marriage and abortion—all in the name of accommodating lefty youffs. Please, for the love of Christ, stop trying to be cool! We don’t even want to be cool! We’re not interested in moral relativism, commodity fetishism, or the “Church of Intersectionality.” We want virtue, order, and wonder. We want to escape the dreary prison of individuality, even if at first the air is too bracing and the light too harsh.
If the Church can’t (or won’t) help us be free of our mere selves, who will?