The more silence can become a way of life in this noisy age, the more a new culture will radiate from its blessings…
Last week I suggested that, despite the drift of Western culture, a time like ours can actually shelter a deep hope for renewal. The Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, with his long perspective, has a particularly strong insight into what this hope might look like.
In his work The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, Dawson reminds us that the West has seen times as bad as ours, if not worse: “The heartless, hopeless Rome which found its monstrous expression in the Colosseum and the gladiatorial games became the Rome of St. Leo and St. Gregory, a city which laid the foundations of a new world while its own world was falling in ruin around it.” It is an important point to remember on this Feast of the First Martyrs of the See of Rome.
At the root of Dawson’s insight is his recognition that “in all ages the first creative works of a culture are due to a religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end.” If we are now engaged in making a new Catholic culture—the central purpose of Wyoming Catholic College—then the question is not how to use popular secular forms and make them “religious.” Christian rock music, for example, might have its advocates, but I suspect that at its heart lies a problematic concession that Plato’s Socrates (with his emphasis on modes of music and their effects in the Republic) would decry. No, the question is how we draw upon the vast spiritual and intellectual resources of the Catholic tradition to create new forms of literature, of art, of architecture, of music, of philosophy, of science.
“Making it new” is always the challenge of the artist; but in our day the real necessity is not technical innovation but a return to the spiritual center. There, as I have so often found this past year, Cardinal Robert Sarah points the way. In his book The Power of Silence, he writes,
“Great things begin in the desert, in silence, in poverty, in abandonment. Look at Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself. The desert is where God leads us in order to speak to us in a heart-to him-heart conversation. But the desert is not only the place where men can experience the physical tests of hunger, thirst, and total destitution. It is also the land of temptation.”
I am reminded of WB Yeats’ late poem of near-despair about his failing creative powers, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Examining his spiritual condition, Yeats recognizes in the last lines, “Now that my ladder’s gone/I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
In the heart is the desert, and as Cardinal Sarah says,
“The desert teaches us to fight against evil and all our evil inclinations so as to regain our dignity as children of God. It is impossible to enter into the mystery of God without entering into the solitude and silence of our interior desert… The desert leads to silence, and silence draws a person into the most profound intimacy with God.”
A new Catholic culture begins in this silence—at first, perhaps, with hope alone, as in the corrupt society of the late Roman Empire. “The remaking of an old culture by the birth of a new hope was not the conscious aim of the Christians themselves,” writes Christopher Dawson. “They tended, like St. Cyprian, to believe that the world was growing old, that the empire was irremediably pagan and that some world catastrophe was imminent. Nevertheless they lived in a spiritual atmosphere of hope, and this atmosphere gradually spread until the climate of the world was changed.”
What we do at Wyoming Catholic College begins in the silence of the wilderness and grows in the atmosphere of hope. The more silence can become a way of life in this noisy age, the more a new culture will radiate from its blessings.
This essay first appeared in the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (July 2017).
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