My current reading has me head over heels in Lord David Cecil’s Melbourne, Lord Annan’s Roxburgh of Stowe, Muggeridge’s Chronicles of Wasted Time (all of them for the second, or tenth, time—it’s the exquisite prose), and Thomas Merton’s The Waters of Siloe, a history of Gethsemane and the whole Cistercian phenomenon.
But there is another item on the list. The other day I borrowed a copy of Vogue’s maiden issue (if you can call it that) of a magazine for men. What is one to say? Page after sumptuous page after opulent page of Ralph Lauren, Valentino, Gucci, Versace, Georgio Armani, and the rest of them. Cuff links (sapphire and white gold to be sure) for $12,000, a portable telephone for—steady now—$30,000, shoes for $11,000, and so forth and so on. Not to mention the sultry, voluptuous, very Mediterranean young male models, or the female models draped in scant tag ends of diaphanous materials, daring the viewer in the most sulphurous terms to “come hither.”
The thing is, one finds one’s head spinning. Let us juxtapose only Merton and this magazine for the moment. Here are two worlds: As a Catholic, of course, I know very well which world I am bidden to by the Most High; but the other one is so dazzling. Or, shall we say, briefly dazzling. When one’s head has stopped spinning, it turns out to be the apotheosis of fatuity. Who in his right mind supposes for one moment that these people have found the Well at the World’s End, much less the Civitas Dei?
One of the features in this pilot issue is an article on Swiss bank accounts and the sensationally wicked men who have many of them (no doubt a few honorable men also avail themselves of this luxury, but the article focused on the bad guys). As much as $1.3 trillion is laundered through Geneva every year. The point here is that, for recreation, these men seem to have little to do but pamper themselves aboard their yachts in the daytime (they don’t all live in Geneva), and whore their way through fancy clubs at night. Surely a somewhat truncated view of what human existence calls for?
On the other hand, we have these monks. One’s eyes pop out on stems at their draconian disciplines and endurance of hardship, although Merton is very good about insisting that it is the Divine Love that is the object of it all, and that animates their whole life. Vegetables, water, black bread, no heat, straw pallets, up at 2 A.M. for Matins and Lauds—one staggers at the regimen. And I found myself asking: What chance have the rest of us grunts in the Paradise sweepstakes with comrades like this in the race? One has to hang on to the Church’s teaching about the active and the contemplative life, neither one canceling the other, but the contemplative most surely being the superior way.
I suppose I must assent to this, since it is Church teaching. But I do not find it easy. It’s all very well to recoil at the grotesque excesses of Geneva; nonetheless, I go to sleep betimes in a soft bed, in a bedroom beautifully appointed by my wife, and eat three meals a day with bacon, eggs, pastries, wine, meats, potatoes, rice, pasta, and so forth. And I do not arise in the small hours to say my prayers. Will I make it? To what extent do I know anything of the One who remarked about Himself, “Foxes have holes,” and bade us follow this pattern?
Well, these two lifestyles (more accurately, life-substances) are the extreme poles. Most of us have never fully weighed the options. We land at our station in life in a somewhat higgledy-piggledy manner, and we hope that God redeems and turns to our sanctification what must, upon scrutiny, turn out to be a bit random. But, we believe, that is what redemption does.