Lately, a lot of folks have been making the case that the world is just falling apart. And there’s certainly enough going on to support that interpretation: All around the globe, religious fundamentalists are committing horrible acts of violence. Entire populations are on the move. Totalitarian groups are gaining more and more influence as people become more and more anxious.
Here in the United States, it’s not like there’s been a wide-spread breakdown of civil society, but, philosophically and spiritually, we’re certainly laying the groundwork for that kind of collapse: we are redefining basic biological realities, such as sexual identity; we have legally dismantled the very foundation of all culture, which is the family. Racial tensions are at an all-time high; the gap between those who are really, really rich and those who are really, really poor is getting bigger, and, to top it all off, in the next general election, we are going to choose, as our president, either a dishonest and corrupt celebrity or a dishonest and corrupt politician.
Of course, many people push back against that sort of analysis. They say that kind of talk is too alarmist; they say that the world has always been a pretty rough place. Being the laid-back kind of guy that I am, I actually find that perspective very assuring, but I’m also enough of an historian to know that the world has fallen apart before, and that, right before the lights went off, lots of folks were saying, “Hey, calm down. There’s nothing to worry about.”
So, since we just don’t know what’s over the horizon, we really ought to be doing some serious preparation. Now, when you’re talking about the crack-up of a culture, and you mention the subject of preparation, lots of people immediately think about stocking up on canned goods and buying a generator and getting trained in hand to hand combat. But I’m talking about a more basic kind of preparation. I’m talking about learning from the folks who were around the first time the world went to hell in a hand basket.
We typically refer to that cataclysm as the Dark Ages. It was a cultural black-out that went on for about 600 years. But we Orthodox Christians actually have an advantage here, because Holy Orthodoxy predates those awful centuries, and the Faith flourished during that terrible time, and so we would do well to listen carefully to the Christians who were around back then.
I intentionally started doing that kind of listening a few years ago. One of the Orthodox Christians that I’ve been listening to is St Augustine. He was living in North Africa when the City of Rome was sacked by barbarians in the year 410. Rome was then the center of the civilized world, so the fact that a wandering tribe was able to pillage the city left folks absolutely stunned. As you might expect, they began to look around for scapegoats, and they pretty quickly settled on the Christians: Since Christianity was still the new religion in town, everyone figured that if the Romans had just stuck with their ancient gods, then the city would not have fallen.
St Augustine wrote a book in response to those criticisms, but it wasn’t some rush job that was slapped together in time for the next news cycle. In fact, it took St Augustine fifteen years to complete the book; it’s called The City of God, and my copy runs to 1,091 pages. The reason I know how many pages are in the book is because I’m reading through it. I started about two years ago; at this rate, I’ll probably finish it up in 2018. But that’s also what I’m learning from St Augustine: even if the world is unraveling, we still need to be patient; even if society is melting down, we still need to think deeply about what is going on around us.
Another Orthodox Christian who lived through the catastrophe of the Dark Ages was St Eadfrith of Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne was a monastery in Northern England; St Eadfrith was in charge of that community during the early decades of the eighth century. That was over three hundred years after St Augustine had finished his book, but life in England was still very bleak and very turbulent: the country was divided up into little kingdoms; those kingdoms were always at war with one another; barbarian invaders were a constant threat.
And how did St Eadfrith respond to that chaos? He spent ten years copying and illuminating a gospel book. He wrote out the text by hand on pages made from 150 calf skins; he decorated the manuscript with enlarged letters and images of the four evangelists; he worked with a variety of different inks, and the colors that he used came from as far away as the Middle East. Today, the book is called The Lindisfarne Gospels, and it’s regarded as one of the world’s great art treasures. You can actually view just about the entire book online; I do that on a fairly regular basis because it is just a hopeful thing to do.
Of course, if our very survival were at stake, most of us wouldn’t be too concerned about producing an enduring work of art. But that’s what I’m learning from St Eadfrith; that’s what comes home to me every time I look at the book he copied and illuminated: even if the future is uncertain, we still need to invest in beauty; even if we are living amidst wreckage, we still need to put our time and energy into craft and artistry and workmanship.
The world as we know it may very well be coming apart. But that doesn’t mean that our preparations need to be frantic or fearful. St Augustine and St Eadfrith lived through some of the darkest times that humanity has ever experienced, and they did so with dignity and hope and joy. What empowered them to do that was Orthodox Christianity. If their response to appeals to you, then I would encourage you to look seriously into the Faith that sustained and nourished and energized them—and I would be happy to help you with that effort.