Living in the Modern Dark Ages

Those who are chiefly responsible for the gathering Dark Age work hard to try and keep the rest of us from seeing it.

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I once thought it would be amusing,” writes Albert Jay Nock, “to attempt an essay on how to go about discovering that one is living in a dark age.” His answer, which is not at all amusing, is simply to watch all the lights go out and see if anyone noticed.

And, of course, no one did. At least not among the so-called educated elites, the thought police swarming about in our midst, who are chiefly responsible for the gathering darkness, even as they try and keep the rest of us from seeing it. Thus do they keep us spinning about like tops along the bright surface of a world that, for all its glitter, is totally unreal.  

“Distracted from distraction by distraction” is how the poet T.S. Eliot puts it in as bleak a line as any to be found in Four Quartets

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Filled with fancies and empty of meaning 
Tumid apathy with no concentration 
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time

Not recommended.

Yes, but where is the alternative? Is there anything out there to lift the spirit, set the soul on fire, turning it back on course to God? There is, but it is not here. “Not here,” says Eliot. “Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.” The Secular City, in other words, provides no springboard to God. Neither life eternal, nor the beginnings of sanctity here below, are the products of secularity. Instead, we must go deeper, descending lower, into a world that is not like the world we leave behind, the world which moves only

In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.

What we require, what we should be in search of every minute of every day—it already defines the upward surge of every creature made in God’s image—is nothing less than that “still point of the turning world,” on which everything finally depends. “Except for the point,” insists Eliot, “the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. 

Refuse that summons, the invitation so urgently issued by God Himself, to walk through that door, that place of intersection where past and future, time and eternity, Heaven and history, come together and meet, and we shall all become lost, forlorn souls, sunk in hellish solitude and despair.

Yes, but in order to do all that, to go with mind and soul to the still point, to the very Cross that, as the holy Carthusians tell us, “stands steady while the world spins,” is no easy task. Especially not when one seems already so enamored of an unreal world. Why, one would have to be a saint! Or, at the very least, someone bent on becoming one. Again, to quote the poet Eliot, who has foreseen it all:

Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend,
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardor and selflessness and self-surrender.

Tell me, how many saints have we got out there? Enough to overcome the encircling darkness? Alas, as the poet gloomily reminds us, 

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight…

And so the answer appears to be no. Lost in that twittering twilight world, where there is no footing that leads one safely up the stairway to God, the outlook on hope looks like a bad bet. 

Still, we mustn’t count ourselves out. At least not in a Catholic economy, a setting suffused with grace, where the springs of hope never run dry. Indeed, on the matter of becoming a saint, of drilling deep down into the “still point,” Eliot advises us never to lose even the least scintilla of hope. That is because, once again, 

For most of us, this is the aim 
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated              
Because we have gone on trying…

So there we have the telltale note of Catholic realism, thanks to which we are most solemnly enjoined not to despair. Not ever. There can be no percentage in despair.

All this, I tell you, was awakened in me by Nock’s query. And it was not just the cultural question he raised that drew me, i.e., whether the inheritance of the Christian West will survive the coming barbarism. Given so many alarming signs of an ascendant barbarism already in place, it is hard to be other than deeply pessimistic about our prospects.

One would have to be willfully obtuse not to see the spreading evidence of disintegration. It is everywhere, reaching even into the life of the Church. But, then, we were never promised success in this world, still less triumph on this side of the grave. We were only told that we should remain faithful and steadfast to the end, annealed in the hope we were given in Baptism.

So, I’m not really bothered about whether or not the Great Books will survive. The Arnoldian ideal of getting students to immerse themselves in “the best that has been thought and said”—a bedrock principle, by the way, of the Honors Program at the University where I teach—does not engage my energies as much as it once did. Will literature still be around after the agents of Woke ideology have finished with us? I mean, having pretty much deconstructed the Canon, dismantled the Republic, what’s left for them to destroy? The faith of Jesus Christ? I don’t think so. 

One mustn’t get too smug about these things. And yet we have been assured by no less an authority than God’s own Son that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against us. In the meantime, I continue to teach my students, telling them all about T.S. Eliot, among other luminaries of the Christian West. 

In fact, these past few days we’ve been traipsing our way through Eliot’s great masterpiece, Four Quartets, a milestone in the journey down through the centuries, including many other stops along the way. And while it’s a bit of a toss-up knowing how much of Eliot they actually understand, I’m not sure it matters so much in the early stages of what, please God, may become a lifetime’s infatuation. I say that because there is undeniable magic in the poetry of T.S. Eliot. There is the enchantment of the language, amid the music and rhythm of the words, that may never leave them. It helps, of course, to conscript a voice or two of someone like Alec Guinness or Jeremy Irons to speak the words. Which I do, and they are mesmerized. 

But perhaps I am deluding myself. I am not sure. Nevertheless, the example of Eliot himself gives me solace. In his essay on Dante, he confesses that it was the music of the poetry that first drew him in, that not knowing a word of Italian made no immediate difference to his appreciation for the greatest poet of all time. Only later, of course, on making a closer study, did his youthful enthusiasm mature into a more learned understanding. I shall remind my students of that fact next time we meet. In the meantime, as long as the words are heard, the music listened to, the darkness has been kept at bay; complete nightfall will not yet come.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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