Hath, in my hearing, often testified
That poor men’s children, they, and they alone,
By their condition taught, can understand
The wisdom of the prayer that daily asks
For daily bread.
William Wordsworth, The Excursion (1814)
“How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree’?”
Young and Lewis, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm” (1919)
I daresay most of us feel the ebb-tide pull of religious nostalgia. We entertain educated dreams of simple faith; we indulge literary fantasies of illiterate piety. We imagine ourselves as apostolic martyrs, crusading knights, cassocked friars, or humble peasants mumbling heartfelt prayers over their daily bread. As Thomas Wolfe said, the retrogressive magnetism of the ancestral cave is strong and eternal.
But as he also said, “you can’t go home again.”
I cannot have a peasant’s faith because I am not a peasant. The peasant and I no doubt share an essential human nature, and I do not say that I have drawn closer than he to God or the angels. But there is no use pretending that the shape of my mind is not altogether different than his, that my experience is not now jigged to a postmodern sensibility. I do not live close to the soil, or the weather, or the creatures great and small. I do not live atop the bones of my ancestors, or even down the road from my relations.
The peasant dwelt in a gemeinschaft community without books; I dwell in a gesellschaft economy without convictions. His mind was preindustrial, prescientific, prehistorical; my mind is post-industrial, post-scientific, and post-historical. His mind tended to credulity and superstition; my mind tends to pyrrhonism and nihilism. He knew very little, but what he knew was important and he knew it well. I know a great many things, but most things that I know are frivolous, superficial, and already half-forgotten.
I can sit alone in an old country church; I can thumb an old hymnal and hum the old hymns. I can watch sunlight pour through stained glass. I can wipe a tear when I hear old church bells clanging over a city that crawls with apostates and infidels. But I can’t go home if by home I mean a half-imagined past.
This is not only because time does not run backwards. It is also because, like you, I have “seen Paree.” There is a difference in the cool serenity of an old country church after one has, say, sailed six miles above the earth in a jet airliner. There is a difference in an old hymn after one has been battered by grossly amplified rock music. Stained glass is still glorious, but I daresay not so transcendently glorious as it was to a man who had never been dazzled and dazed by CGI. And when it comes to those church bells, their tolling is now melancholy rather than joyous because they now toll their own demise.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for itself!
We are exiles, you and I. And while there may be no harm in occasional reveries about how things were in the long-ago, we need an exilic faith—something meager but indestructible and sustaining.
This is not how faith survives in exile.
“I will go back and believe in the deep old foolish tales,
And pray the simple prayers that I learned at my mother’s knee.
Where the Sabbath tolls it peace thro’ the breathless mountain-vales,
And the sunset’s evening hymn hallows the listening sea.”
Alfred Noyes, “The Old Skeptic” (1903)
“I will go forth believing old but not foolish tales,
Praying prayers for which my mother had no need.
Where Sabbath bells are silent,
Where men are strange and violent,
And the sun sinks like Atlantis in the sea.”