The Last Embers of the Fire

We Catholics are commonly urged to “engage the culture”; not to flee for monasteries of our own making, but to work within the institutions of mass media, mass education, mass marketing, and mass entertainment to advance the banners of Christ, our King.

I do not wish to criticize those who toil at that thankless task. Nor will I suggest that their work will be futile; no true service of the Lord can be without fruit. But I do believe we have mistaken the signs of the times. We seek to engage a culture, when there is no culture to engage. Our task is rather to revive the memory of what a culture is.

If that declaration seems provocative, I ask you to consider that word “culture,” and to cease using it to denote the habits and fads of the masses. For the “masses” do not produce culture. The people do, when they cherish and preserve and pass along to their descendants what is most dear to them: their memorials and feasts, their music and dances and rites of passage and of courtship; their know-how, their moral laws; most important, their worship. There is no culture without cultus. Without a common belief in God or the gods, you do not get ancient Athens and the Parthenon atop its rocky mount. You do not hear the Psalms in the synagogue. Michelangelo does not sculpt the David as a tribute to the patriots of his native Florence.

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Do Americans now possess a culture? Perhaps the residue of one. American children used to be taught about the courage of the Father of our country, George Washington, as he crossed the icy Delaware River to surprise the Hessians at Trenton. Not now, I assure you. That event, and hundreds like it, that helped to define for us what we were as a people, has been forgotten. Which of us knows more than a single verse of one of our national songs? Whose heart beats with pride to hear the name of William Bradford, or John Winthrop? Listen to these lines from a song that used to be called, simply, America:

I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture fills,
Like that above.

How many people could now even conceive of the sentiment expressed in them?

I have a book called Barrett’s Grammar, published in 1854. The author, a self-promoter, purports to teach enterprising young people how to read Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and German. The book ends with chapters 2-10 of the Gospel of Matthew, in six columns, one for each of those languages, and one for English. It apparently sold 17,000 copies in its first edition — an astounding number. In the back of the book are signatures of eminent people who supported the enterprise: President Fillmore, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, William Seward, Hamilton Fish, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and many more, from north and south, Whigs and Democrats, slaveholders and abolitionists. They were united in their devotion to both our Christian and classical heritage. That was then.

We used to make our own music. Where, now, are the songs that the generations of old sang? A few people listen to them as a hobby. A few more will listen to Stephen Foster or George Gershwin or Scott Joplin. But it is dismaying to consider what a hopping business the sale of sheet music was, a century ago. More dismaying to consider that for every person who bought it, there were probably ten others who played the fiddle or the guitar or the horn, who could not read a measure. Gone, almost all of it, along with the local ballclubs, the block parties, the neighborhood school.

Gone, too, our pride in English and American authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne used to read Spenser’s Faerie Queene aloud to his family in the evening. If that seems unusual, and no doubt most people could not afford an edition of Spenser, recall that Hawthorne himself became an eminent author whose works were eagerly read by Americans who could afford a book. But a novel like The Marble Faun is incomprehensible to us now. It presupposes a culture that is lost. We would have to know too much about the Renaissance and about classical Greece. James Fenimore Cooper, the companion of millions of schoolboys for a century, is almost as incomprehensible as Hawthorne. We can’t read The Last of the Mohicans, because we don’t know anything about the British campaign in upstate New York during the French and Indian War. The language would be too hard for us, too. Forget about Sir Walter Scott.

Our nation was de facto, if not also de jure, a Christian nation. But 2,000 years of Christian meditation upon the Scriptures — and, yes, fighting about it, sometimes to the point of bloodshed — have been forgotten. Girls used to wear lockets with a mustard seed encased within, as an allusion to the Gospels. Now we would be pleased to find one person in ten who could identify the allusion.

What do we love? For what would we gladly die? Joseph Pieper advises that the basis of culture is leisure — the freedom to celebrate, to worship. But we have weekends, no holidays. Beyond that point at which we could provide for our families, we work for the sake of work, to stave off loneliness, to fill up the dead silence of a rootless life. We work, because if we do not work, we are nothing. It is work for bad reasons, and it is mostly bad work, to boot. It is not leavened by Sunday. It is not done in the shadow of eternity.

In this time — a postcultural time of mediocrity and drabness — the Church like a dragon snores upon her hoard of riches. It is the Catholic Church that can fan the last glowing embers of culture into a bright and glorious flame. In the coming months I should like to identify these embers, one by one, these truths or traditions or devotions that the Church, despite the best efforts of us all, has not quite forgotten. The first, and the most important, shall be this: It is a good thing to remember.


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