Christian Radicalism and Worldly Existence: The Desert, Modern Family Life, and T. S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party"

[Originally posted on Facebook, 18 January 2017.]

Sex, power, and property submerge one in the fundamental rhythms of the world, which reverberate from past to future, requiring planning and compromise. For the majority, marriage and family and the domestic economy are the epicenter of these lines of force.

We just celebrated the feast of Saint Anthony of the Desert, the father of monasticism. His life, especially through the biography Saint Athanasius wrote (which was decisive in Saint Augustine's conversion), challenges us modern Western Christians to make an examination of conscience with regard to our religious earnestness.

The perennial impulse for renewal in the Church comes from new infusions by the Holy Spirit of a desire for the vita apostolica (the apostolic life) recorded at the end of chapter 4 of Acts, which has given rise to the various religious orders. Essential to this apostolic life was the voluntary selling of private property and the distribution of the proceeds to the needy. This and other such thoughts were placed in Saint Anthony's mind when he entered a church and heard the following verse from Jesus' address to the rich young man: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me" (Matthew 19:21). 

That is what he did. Then he left the city to go to the desert, but, as Saint Athanasius writes, a city grew up around him in the desert. Sanctity is the nucleus of a different common life than we have known before. 

But sanctity always requires passing through the desert. Herein lies the difficulty for us comfortable Western Christians, especially those who live out worldly domesticity. The flight path for the bourgeois life is fairly automatic. Education, career, marriage, kids, home ownership, assumption of ready-made social roles, etc. 

The problem: if we go smoothly through life, we will lose our souls. The greatest curse is actually avoiding all adversity, for the greatest woe is to be a hardhearted person, precisely the condition that puts us in danger of hell. Our hardness can only be broken by suffering.

Not everyone can literally go to the desert like Saint Anthony, taking up some form of religious life: the world needs babies and the production of wealth. You can't have saints without babies! Supernatural existence presupposes natural existence. 

However, every heart must traverse the desert. Every Christian needs to be a radical Christian. 

And here T. S. Eliot's play, The Cocktail Party, provides great illumination. A very dear friend recommended that I read it, and I am very grateful. I recommend it in turn.

The play involves a sad marriage and love affairs, but the point is that a crisis comes and choices must be made. The heroine of the story, Celia, thought she had found a great and mutual love, but then the illusion was destroyed. Her heart has been broken. And she goes to a strange therapist for help. 

She has found that it was not the great love: "Oh, I thought that I was giving him so much!/And he to me--and the giving and the taking/Seemed so right: not in terms of calculation/Of what was good for the persons we had been/But for the new person, US. If I could feel/As I did then, even now it would seem right./And then I found we were only strangers..."

The therapist gives her two options.

The first is a return to ordinary life more or less unreconstructed: "If that is what you wish,/I can reconcile you to the human condition,/The condition to which some who have gone as far as you/Have succeeded in returning. They may remember/The vision they have had, but they cease to regret it,/Maintain themselves by the common routine,/Learn to avoid excessive expectation,/Become tolerant of themselves and others,/Giving and taking, in the usual actions/What there is to give and take. They do not repine;/Are contented with the morning that separates/And with the evening that brings together/For casual talk before the fire/Two people who know they do not understand each other,/Breeding children whom they do not understand/And who will never understand them."

Celia responds, "I feel it would be a kind of surrender--/No, not a surrender--more like a betrayal./You see, I think I really had a vision of something/Though I don't know what it is. I don't want to forget it./I want to live with it. I could do without everything,/Put up with anything, if I might cherish it."

So, the therapist presents the second option: "There IS another way, if you have the courage./The first I could describe in familiar terms/Because you have seen it, as we all have seen it,/Illustrated, more or less, in lives of those about us./The second is unknown, and so requires faith--/The kind of faith that issues from despair./The destination cannot be described;/You will know very little until you get there;/You will journey blind. But the way leads towards possession/Of what you have sought for in the wrong place."

Now, this turns out to be religious life for Celia. But what I would like to propose is that there must be a way to combine the two options. There must be, for the reasons I intimate above: the supernatural intimacy of the New Jerusalem requires worldly existence as its prerequisite, and for it to thus serve as a prerequisite, worldly existence must be lived in a radically supernatural way.

The desert must come home. The desert must chasten the luxury of the city. The desert must take us all, so that a new paradise may bloom. 

If something interrupts our smooth trajectory, we should consider whether there is not a severe mercy in it. It is an infinitely sad thing, our zombie lives and our zombie hearts. 

I have lost my name, vocation, wealth, home--every worldly prop. I was not holy enough to surrender it voluntarily as Saint Anthony did. But I am in his desert nevertheless. And it is a mercy. I hope, with all my heart, some day, sooner than later, to share life with a partner who wants to see life through together with me. If the good Father is so gracious as to provide that great love, I must bring the sentiment of desert existence (an attitude of utter dependence on the grace and providence of God, a spirit of spiritual poverty and simplicity of life, a will for the cession of control) into my new home. 

We must be radicals in the good secular earth, so that from this root of faith, hope, and love, the wheat of time may rise towards its fulfillment as the bread of heaven. 

I will close with the blessing that is intoned over Celia's harrowing quest for the great love: 

"The words for those who go upon a journey./Protector of travelers/Bless the road./Watch over her in the desert./Watch over her in the mountain./Watch over her in the labyrinth./Watch over her by the quicksand./Protect her from the Voices/Protect her from the Visions/Protect her in the tumult/Protect her in the silence."

May the good Father see each of you to the homeland of a love that never leaves, and may Saint Anthony who has gone before us pray for each of us along the way.