It is now two years since “two weeks” to flatten the curve. Lent and Lockdown had, in 2020, commenced at about the same time. The one ended on schedule and the other did not. Two years later, Lent finds a world still navigating Covid and now also Cold War. It is déjà vu at several levels. And, also, it is not.
I did not grow up under communism, but, like half the world, I grew up adjacent to it. The powers of the earth were more or less split down the middle. We all shared a border with the other side. The Cold War defined both the contours of the globe and the contours of life, our understanding of nation and of self. We were Damocles in an atomic age, a sword dangling ever overhead.
I remember expressing to an adult my fears about nuclear war, of horror falling upon us from the sky. The well-intentioned words of comfort I was offered were that I lived near the number-two military target on the Soviet strike list, so in such an event I would be killed instantly. I can find relatively few redeeming qualities about a world order based on the threat of global annihilation, but to echo Samuel Johnson, it does concentrate the mind wonderfully.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I was also fortunate, early in life, to know people who grew up in Soviet lands, those who escaped in the night or in other ways got out. The suffering in such places—the hunger, the food lines, the religious persecution, the disappearance of children, the torture of parents—these things were not just news reports, they were not propaganda; they were the life stories of family friends.
We, and they, knew America was not perfect, but we were able to simultaneously hold in our minds the ideas that we should be better and that other people had things worse. We were precariously balanced in a bipolar stalemate, hoping that the Soviet Union would someday be gone without taking all of humanity with it. Which, remarkably, happened—the Union collapsed; the Berlin wall toppled; the Cold War (ostensibly) ended in 1989.
But here we are again. Sort of.
The Bear has awoken from long hibernation and prowls viciously about Eastern Europe. In the surreality of our discordant moment, we no longer have to wait for refugee friends to tell stories years after the fact: we can watch them live-streamed. The other day I saw a little boy trying to escape from Kiev. He was perhaps seven or eight years old. His eyes were red and welling. He looked like, and reminded me of, my own eight-year-old son. A few weeks ago, their lives were probably similar. Choking back tears, the child explained that his father was staying in Kiev to help “our heroes” in their fight. My heart breaks. Meanwhile, I find myself pondering for the first time in a long time where those nuclear strike targets might be.
It is all eerily familiar. Briefly, it feels like the Cold War of my youth. But only briefly. This moment is different. I do not perceive that same clarity of mind—in myself or in the world—that prevailed the first time around. These past three decades have sometimes been good and sometimes been bad, but they have at all times been confusing. A certain fog has descended over the West.
The cessation, in the 1990s, of nuclear drills in classrooms and constant talk about World War III was, of course, a positive development. Unfortunately, we also ceased, at some point, the historic, religious practices that had previously reminded us we would not be, and were not supposed to be, here forever. The Cold War had been the West’s remaining memento mori. More broadly, the tragic decline of a Christian ethos accelerated over the post-World War II era, eventually achieving the same blistering clip as all other things in modern motion.
At the mid-century height of the Cold War, roughly two percent of people in the United States had no religious affiliation—the so-called “nones”—and Christians outnumbered them forty-seven to one. By the end of the Cold War, the proportion of nones had risen to roughly nine percent. Today the number stands at nearly thirty percent and is said to be the fastest growing “religious” segment in the country.
Even those Americans who do profess Christianity, despite still being the majority, now live in the throes of a culture that does not. This makes it harder to have a well-ordered society. Christianity had helped us engage with life and maintain an awareness of death in a less dysfunctional way than the threat of nuclear holocaust. Like God brooding over the waters and drawing order out of primordial chaos, the rhythms of Christianity operated upon the tumult of days and the scatteredness of minds, yielding in them vision and order. Had Christianity been replaced by some other coherent ethos, albeit absent the fullness of truth, perhaps we’d at least still have an anchoring worldview. Instead, we have “none.”
Within this vacuum of faith, as physical death increasingly evaded our attention, other forms of it filled the void. The sin of greed for instance proved, as promised, to be deadly. Greed led some people to look at the newly widened world primarily as a field to be plundered. Capitalism lost its primary visible predator, which allowed it to grow and mutate into unrecognizable extremes. Mega corporations and technocratic juggernauts were given the run of the earth, unfettered by natural or political or moral limits.
Thus, the resources of the planet and the labor of its most oppressed inhabitants were converted into fungible form and streamed into the coffers of Western elites and Eastern governments. The enormous wealth promoted pride, in various senses of the word. And the share of the wealth that trickled down to the rank and file we used in the most ludicrous of ways—mostly for stupid diversions.
We built a billion devices and distractions that pulled us increasingly far from reality. We “consumed” endlessly in a sort of digital gluttony and became numbed in our plenitude.
Lacking a deep sense either of death or of life, we no longer had much sense of ourselves, and we entrusted ourselves to things that didn’t make much sense. We got caught up in a game of artificial reality, and we gave over our money, our food, our means of supporting ourselves, and our physical infrastructure to ephemeral things. These same things, meanwhile, reprogrammed our brains, impairing our ability to think clearly or to notice what was going on in the actual world—all of which perhaps explains how we both allowed a new Cold War to emerge and failed, until just now, to notice that it had.
I suppose maybe it’s simply the same Cold War as before, which was only playacting at death. Or maybe it’s not going to be cold at all. In any case, we, the West, seem to be the last ones to know about it. It took a hot war to wake us up—an unexpectedly real and old-fashioned war, in fact, being prosecuted by a very real and old-fashioned dictator upon an apparently unprepared modern world.
The courage now on display by that little boy’s father and hundreds of thousands of others is inspiring; the attacks are horrifying. That much is certain. But little else is. Those heinous words World War III are again being uttered, lately by both a past and a sitting president and seemingly everyone else on the planet. A miscalculation could be The End. But opinions and alliances are already infinitely fractured on every aspect of response to and cause of the war.
Maybe there should be a no-fly zone; maybe there shouldn’t. Maybe this war will be the end of globalism, or maybe it will enrich and embolden globalists. Maybe people boycotting all things Russian is an effective act of solidarity with Ukraine, or maybe it risks woke-style cancel culture and bigotry reminiscent of the 1940s internment of Japanese Americans. Maybe severe sanctions will disable the aggression, or maybe they will destroy the dollar and create a Weimar-Republic-style disaster among the largely in-the-dark Russian people.
Every possible opinion is on widescreen display, and it is impossible to make sense out of all of it. The splintering into mutually unintelligible, opposing power blocs feels like a geopolitical reflection of the information reality we’ve been living these past two years, ever since those alleged two weeks—and really since long before. Ours is an era in history that is not exactly marked by clarity. A nearer descriptor might be continuous, frazzled, hysterical confusion.
Poignantly, part of the confusion surrounds the religious aspect of this moment. I recall one of the friends I’d mentioned describing an image from childhood: Easter morning, curtains drawn, her mother secretly teaching her the “Our Father” and explaining in the severest of terms that she must never let anyone hear her say it. Formerly atheist Russia was formerly Christian Russia, and today it is, in a sense, Christian Russia once again. Countless oppressed carried forth the faith under the harshest of circumstances, while countless in the West forgot it under the lightest.
Some members of the Christian Right have at times even expressed the notion that Russia will rebuild some sort of glorious Christendom in the East. Vladimir Putin appears in church and professes Orthodoxy. But Mr. Putin also appears shirtless on a horse when it is convenient, for his image, to do so. He oversees the governing of a nation with a fifty-three percent abortion rate (by far the highest in the world), and he seems to struggle severely with “Love thy neighbor,” tending instead to invade and slaughter him.
The Patriarch of Moscow presents this war as a defense of Christian morality, and in that East and West may converge, for parts of the woke West might like nothing better than to have the horrific imagery we now see become the public face of traditional religion. It is a hideous and false mask, but it may set up the narrative on both sides. The formerly religious West talks much about defending freedom, but it now seems to have expanded that word to include freedom from reality, and it recklessly hacks away at the foundations of religious freedom while endorsing every sort of freedom from religion.
And herein, perhaps, lies the deepest root of our angst. Peoples far from God, whether through direct rejection or through a charade of piety, will be peoples in chaos. There will be no clean lines and no simple solutions. But herein also lies the blossom of our hope.
An embrace of our ancient faith, of the wisdom of its rhythms, of our humble relation to its loving God—who would have a much more peaceful and beautiful world for us if we would let Him—this is the first action needed to create order in our lives and on our planet. I do not say it is the last action or the only action, but it is the first, and perpetual, action we must take. It is, of course, hard to propose personal, spiritual devotions as a solution to global catastrophes without it sounding like a letdown and a cop-out. But it is not—quite the opposite, I think.
Pretending to have prescient knowledge of particular geopolitical outcomes per particular strategies, for the sake of journalistic interest, just adds to the cacophony—that is the cop-out. I am no expert in any of that, but I say the simple thing that I find to be true: the first answer, always, to complex questions is that we should not attempt to answer them without clear heads, and whatever subsequent answers may come will need the aid of Providence to achieve anything good. So, for the moment, let’s breathe and note the timing. Lent is designed both to clear our very muddled minds and to aid our very worst problems. It has three traditional pillars.
Prayer is the first and the one most likely to be perceived as a cop-out. “Our prayers are with you” can sound like “Good luck; we are not going to do anything.” Indeed, when people make the not-so-subtle switch to the modern, banal version: “Our thoughts are with you,” it seems an empty shell; it is slightly less ridiculous than “I am sorry your country is being destroyed in violent horrors, so I’m sending you a Hallmark card.” I cringe a bit when I hear world leaders say it. But prayer is a different matter. Either there is no God or prayer is the most compelling action a human being can take.
Yesterday, I learned that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, my grandmother walked her neighborhood, inviting everyone to her house, wherein they all prayed fervently together in the basement. We cannot, thankfully, force God’s hand, but prayer is in a real way efficacious in the external world. It is also efficacious in helping our internal state to be more ordered, more capable of speaking and listening, to be more of a coherent person and less of a scattered mess of thoughts, emotions, and nerves. And it helps dissolve our pride.
Fasting is the second pillar. Counterintuitively, withholding the full satisfaction of our needs sometimes increases our strength. Fasting expands our perspective; it cleanses both body and mind. It imparts a visceral, corporal aspect to our prayers; it fortifies them and conjoins them to the physical plane. Fasting might well today be extended to include (ideally permanently) all the myriad devices and vices that have hijacked our brains. Fasting conquers the gluttony and imparts clarity by internally teaching what we actually need.
And anything worth resting on needs at least three legs to hold it up; the third pillar of Lent is almsgiving. I cannot pray, fast, and then say, “‘Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled,’ yet give not that which is necessary.” We see our distant neighbors now hungry, bleeding, and put into the streets. It may spread further and farther. Almsgiving is an act of trust in such times; it reinforces our awareness of dependence on Providence. It lightens our psychological load: we are less burdened by stuff when we have less stuff to be burdened by. And it provides a potent antidote to the greed that has so poisoned us.
If these three things were practiced universally, we would have far fewer problems in the world. But even if they are only practiced by some of us, they manifest something universal. Through them, Lent points us toward what is greater than ourselves, what is true and necessary about ourselves, and what our relationship is with others. Lent points us to the reality of the life we are living, the death we are approaching, and our location between them. And Lent points us there with greater precision than cold war or hot war or Covid or any other external threat—and with more clarity than we will find in the fluid unreality that has so pervaded life.
We very much need that precision and clarity as we are confronted with the little boy in Ukraine and with all the choices he lays before us. And ultimately, whatever may come, Lent points us to Easter, the only real light through the fog, the only heat that can clear it.
[Image Credit: Unsplash]