We Need the Faith of Exiles, not of Peasants

Eric_Enstrom_-_Grace_-_bw

Grace, Eric Enstrom (1918)

“Your voice
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)

This is.

“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.”

16 thoughts on “We Need the Faith of Exiles, not of Peasants

  1. Excellent article and well said. I can’t help but feel a little bit called out, given that much (all?) of my writing is dedicated to the Peasantly ethos: four of my last fifteen articles on wordpress feature the word Peasant in the title, and my substack is called the “Peasant Times-Dispatch”. I don’t take it personally, just as a self appointed spokesman for Peasants I thought I might comment on what I have in mind since I write so much about this topic.

    We honestly want the same things. Your Exile’s Faith is my Peasant Faith. I have no illusions about modern life and how it directly and implicitly affects us. But that doesn’t make us irredeemable. I, too, want a faith that is meager but indestructible and sustaining.

    St. John Berchmans did no severe penances, but he placed his whole perfection in performing his ordinary actions well and with great exactness. To this effect he wrote upon a slip of paper the maxim, Poenitentia mea maxima vita communis — My greatest penance is the common life.
    -Saintly Sages blog

    Substitute common for peasant and that is generally what I am all about. What I advocate for is a faith that cares a little less about the world and cares a little more about God. The Japanese Christians (Kirishitans), after the Emperor closed off the country, sustained themselves for 250 years on little more than baptism and prayer. The Peasant Life isn’t LARPing as a farmer, it’s accepting our life as it is. I largely suspect that’s what you mean when you describe an Exile’s faith, too. An Exile doesn’t pretend to live in the long lost home; but accepts his new home with fond memory of his origins.

    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.

    I can’t dispute your tastes, but to me modern wonders amplify the cool serenity of an old country church and the beauty of an old hymn. In the middle of Brooklyn is an an old–1848, if I remember correctly–Franciscan parish that is absolutely extraordinary. Tall vaulted arches, a beautiful tabernacle, and stained glass windows–it transported me to another world, I went from busy, graffiti ridden streets to the doorstep of God. The contrast alone was striking, but my fondness for those things was not in any way diminished by the steel-and-glass grandeur of Manhattan peeking over the horizon. I can’t compare myself to a man who had never seen Manhattan or flown in a jet airliner, but I personally don’t think technological wonder and transcendent wonder are mutually exclusive.

    So again, I think we want the same things, and yearn for it under different names. Exile or Peasant, our faith could use simplicity, and could certainly afford to be indestructible and sustaining.

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay!

    • This obviously emerged from my chewing over your posts on a peasant’s faith, so I’m relieved to hear that you’re not offended by what I’ve set down here. I know your notion of peasant’s faith does not mean LARPing as a peasant, but I also think that LARPing is someone against which we must be constantly on guard. We have it on the highest imaginable authority that the religious instinct too easily degenerates into vain hypocrisy, and what is vain hypocrisy but LARPing. We need a fundamentalism that is not antiquarian–I daresay we need modernism done right this time.

      • “Modernism done right this time”–I really like this description. What else would that include? Modernism that retains it’s faith? Unfortunately “Modernism” is a kind of nebulous idea, at least to me, so your idea is evocative but I’m thinking about what that would look like and it’s hard to pin down.

      • “what is vain hypocrisy but LARPing”

        OK, but the converse isn’t true. Sometimes “LARPING” is simply learning something new . . . or something lost. And yet people try to shame earnest folk who are trying to patch together new vestments from leftover rags . . . or rebuild a ruined chapel, as Fr Z. says, “brick by brick.” You may not intend your reflections in such a way, but the image they bring to my mind is that of a starving, lonely man in a cage who barely lives from the gruel that his keepers sometimes throw at him. He remembers life before his prison. He knows that the victuals, the freedom, the sunshine that he misses are good for him, that they nourish and sustain him, and that he is wasting speedily to death from lack of these necessities. But circumstances have removed such goods from this fellow — would you counsel him to be satisfied with the little gruel that he gets, lest he die quicker without it?

      • I think that imitation is how we both approach and depart from an authentic act. When I first spoke language, I imitated sounds without sense. In my final imbecility, I may well do the same thing. So I agree when you say that imitation is the road of initiation, but nevertheless think that it can also be the road of senescence. “Going through the motions” is something we do both before and after we do the real thing. To decide whether any particular imitator is moving towards or away from authenticity, I suppose we look for the fruits of their imitation. Does their imitation (“faking it”) eventually take them to the place where they finally pull it off (“making it”).

  2. The crisis of post-modernity is, “Anything you can argue yourself into, you can argue yourself out of.” Or rather, “Anything you can meme yourself into, you can meme yourself out of.” LARPing *is* a great temptation.

    This is not a gotcha, I really would like to know more, I am not entirely sure myself. “But we preach Christ crucified: unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness:” – 1 Corinthians 23

    How do we know what are the old but not foolish tales? The indestructible but sustaining faith has to be one we can’t just argue ourselves out of, at least for this purpose with M and PM arguments.

    Modernism thought it abandoned foolishness and solved all mysteries, not least by insisting on visible “fruits” from all authorities and statements. That fruit of modernism has plainly grown rotten, though I am not sure I would say that it necessarily bore any in the first place.

    So, what is the filter that keeps the baby and throws out the bathwater? As I see it, the question of what is baby and what is bathwater can always be framed as more post-modernist argumentation.

    • I don’t have a definite answer to your question. My general advice would be individual pragmatism. I would mainly stress that a postmodern person should not feel as if they are damned just because there are old ways and old stories that leave them cold. We should not feel superior because our minds have been shaped by postmodern hyperreality, but neither should we feel inferior. We have got to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling, and what we work out might puzzle our great grandfathers.

  3. JMSmith — we both agree that we need something meager but indestructible and sustaining. To you, I answer that we have the Sacraments. They are meager: water, bread, wine, oil, etc. They are indestructible in this world: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against them.” They sustain us: “Whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life.”

    My brother in Christ, I urge you to make a good Confession, reconcile yourself to the Church, and once again eat of the Bread of Life.

  4. My husband was a cradle Episcopalian. When we left that denomination we first ended up in a small, lively Pentecostal congregation and he began learning the Bible – the whole Bible – for the first time in his life. God gave him a legitimate and knowledgeable faith. There is still a feeling of “exile” just because of not being in the familiar routines, and a sadness of loss that the old denomination has failed so badly. However, we rejoice in the new things God has led us to.

    Most recently, due to life circumstances, we’ve (I’ve) been attending the little Methodist church down the street. In the year I’ve been attending, an average of two people a month have placed membership. Old people, yes, but attendance has grown from 30 on a Sunday to average 40 on a Sunday, and the budget is in good shape.

    The pastor there is also an NP and has been our doctor and friend for ~15 years now. My husband is bedfast, so the pastor has been bringing communion to him here at home. Being so isolated, my husband says he is learning how prayer and contemplation are something he can still do.

    This little church just voted to go into exile by leaving the First United Methodist corporation rather than accept the false doctrine the denomination’s overseers have embraced. Independently, my husband and I feel called to join the small congregation once the separation is complete. We are not and never will be “Methodists”, but we will dedicate ourselves to these people in this place and time.

    Our pastor is a lay pastor, but he has chosen to leave the denomination and to lead his little flock into this exciting new journey. I asked him if it is traumatic for him, and he said, “You know, several years ago there was a big push to have a children’s ministry, and it didn’t happen here, and God said that’s ok, just hold the line. Then later there were other mandates and they didn’t happen and God said that’s ok, you’ll be there when the time is right. Now, we have a church full of old people and God has said “See? I told you you’d be here when they came! “

    • Thanks for this interesting story. We are clearly in a time of division when the large churches are cracking up. “And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matthew 24: 10-11)

  5. JMSmith,

    “I mean throwing out the bathwater but not the baby this time.”

    I’m one of those weirdos who’s fine with the bathwater but wouldn’t mind strangling the (metaphorical modernist) baby in his crib.

    • The modernist movement didn’t work. I have no deep insight into why it didn’t work, although I suspect sabotage may have played a part. I’ve thought about this while sitting in a ghastly (and empty) modernist church in Austria. The church architecture had gone out of fashion quicker than bell-bottom trousers, but I could appreciate the original idea. I love the old church buildings, but normal young Austrians didn’t. In my mind, antiquity signifies timelessness; but in the minds of most people it just signifies old-fashioned. I try to always bear in mind that I am, as you say of yourself, something of a weirdo, and that forms that would attract me would repell many others. I also think we must face what I have in this place called the problem of loving “old wineskins.” The problem of loving “old wineskins” is clearly at the foundation of Christianity. One terrible and ominous problem for Christianity is that it has lost the power of art. The ghastly truth is that modern Christian architecture, painting and music is almost all kitsch, some of it the worst kitsch on the planet. But I suppose that is just a weirdo talking.

  6. JMSmith, always nice to meet another weirdo, and should you ever find yourself – horror of horrors – in NYC the local weirdo chapter of which I’m the social chair will happily buy you a nice bourbon. I’m less concerned than you about the “old wineskins” – hey weirdo’s are a big tent bunch – and I’m very comfortable with how my own religion characterizes the modernist program (what I was referring to as the baby) as the synthesis of all heresies. From my perspective I read a lot of folks on the conservative/reactionary ride side of things getting all upset, though, with the bathwater – the local, cultural, comfortable setting of the modernist baby. Modern fashions, arts and entertainment, even demographics and the ordinary form of the mass: so much $&@&’ing without dealing with the baby. That’s not to say those things aren’t important. I just find them a gigantic distraction. If folks want to throw out the baby with bathwater I’d be all on board – but only because we’d be ditching the wretched baby.

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