There was a lot to get used to coming to Orthodoxy. Certainly near the top of the list was the near constant habit the Church had of denying themselves of meat and dairy products. Pretty much every week in the life of an Orthodox Christian there’s going to be designated restriction on at least the kinds of food you eat: not to mention the encouragement of the saints and the clergy to refrain from the usual amount of food, sleep, and entertainment. Before coming to Orthodoxy I couldn’t comprehend how vegetarians lived without meat, and now I was spending about a third of my life as a vegan; a sudden and difficult yoke settled in on my shoulders; and though it isn’t always easy and light, this necessary Christian activity isn’t generally that bad. In my experience in fact, it’s been quite good.
Though the transition was dramatic it wasn’t very difficult to talk me into starting it – the Bible talks all the time about fasting, and before the Church I had somewhere wondered where the forgotten practice was supposed to be in my Christian life. Back in the day I had organized a camping fast for a bunch of men, where we ate nothing and drank only juice and water for 24 hours. If you had asked me “why” I would have given you a strange answer, probably having something to do with Franciscan inspiration; but I didn’t know what to expect from it spiritually, and I certainly didn’t know how I thought it was to be part of my life.
So when I began to fast with the Church it seemed to me the obvious thing to do; a straight and obedient answer to the Biblical injunction. I expected others would see it as such too.
It was then that I stumbled upon a surprising strain of intense indignation. Some people were actually extremely offended by my involvement with Church’s fast. Christians, Bible preaching and believing Christians, were offended that I would deprive myself of meat and dairy. It was as if I had insulted their dearest political and moral convictions by engaging in the very Biblical practice of denying my flesh. True some people I knew just thought I was silly, or were offended because it called to mind my transition to the Orthodox Church; but I could never quite figure out why it seemed to offend some people so intimately. How is my fasting intruding on your life and your morals?
In Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, a pivotal modern work in philosophical ethics, the Roman Catholic author begins to paint the ancestry of the modern ethic I had so accidentally offended. To summarize simply: The hero has disappeared from the modern life and the possibility of the heroic life has vanished from modern man’s horizon of possibility. This has occurred mostly from two sources: the shaping of the individual by the Reformation, and the disintegration of the frameworks of the meaning of life by the Enlightenment. These two sources not being independent, the various moral descendants of this marriage have been manifold and diverse; but they bear the same distinction: an abhorrence of suffering.
Before going much farther I think it is important to say that Taylor and I do not assume that there is no good or truth found in the moral ancestry that we share (yes we are moderns too). This is where I want to make an important distinction between two groups of people that Taylor terms “the affirmers of the ordinary life”. The distinction I want to make is between the Chestontonian Affirmers and the Nihilistic Affirmers. Chesterton’s sincere devotion to the Archetypal Man is not to be misunderstood as a devotion to the vulgar everyman, or the Marxist simple man. In other words, the Chestertonian hero is an ordinary man in that he is human; or, as modern expression would have it, The Man. Innocent Smith and Patrick Dalroy are giants only in as much as the vulgar man is a shrunken hollow mess; as the cosmos is concerned they are approaching the proper size. As Men they can enjoy Men-Stuff like the sun, moon, beer, poetry, and the occasional fist-fight. They can enjoy them because (if you remember The Flying Inn) they are occasional vegetarians. In “The Last Hero” the hero has spent his lifetime as a man, not wishing to be either god or animal. He has dealt with the immense pain that comes from human life (“You never loved a woman’s smile as I have loved her frown”), thus he can deal with pleasure and love, and consequentially he can deal heroically with death. “You never laughed in all your life as I shall laugh in death.”
Oh death, where is your sting?
Chesterton’s image of the Heroically Ordinary Man is rather unique to Western culture: in part because he is so miraculously and paradoxically ordinary, and in part because he is a hard figure to discern from the hedonist. I certainly don’t mean to say that Innocent Smith is a hedonist, but his childlike enjoyment of colorful wine labels, romance, and even burgling make him a pleasure-filled man. Although he isn’t a hedonist he also doesn’t stand opposite from him. The fact of the matter is that Innocent Smith is a bit of an ascetic – perhaps not a true ascetic – but a bit of one nonetheless, and without the ascetic ingredient Innocent Smith can’t relate to the hedonist at all.
For Chesterton “it is something to have been,” which means that his scaffolding of cosmic meaning had not been dismantled from the scientists and nihilists. It is the Christian structure of the cosmic meaning that G.K. admits saved his soul and his sanity, and led him to the Catholic Church. It is that the universe stands so wonderfully under the authority of God that drives Chesterton’s hero and Chesterton’s ethic. There is meaning to life, but only because we can become more Innocent, more Holy, and more Human.
The Nihilist Affirmers look on such a framework with skepticism and doubt, and gives a very sensible reply. “If you tell me that I should be a man”, he says, “I can’t oblige you, for I already am.” When Chesterton says “it is something to have been” they will say, “I have been… I am being… what now?” While Chesterton stretches his poetic ability to the limit to try to describe childhood the Nihilist Affirmer can only respond that they too have been children, and found it boring. Therefore the Chestertonian injunction to live everyday strikes redundant and empty to his Nihilist counterpart. Nietzsche looked at the two Affirmers and decided to make his own meaning, to live an extraordinary life – and one can understand why when such a disagreement exists about what it means to be ordinary.
The difference between the two Affirmers can be seen in this way: that one saw life as a thing to be entered into and progressed in, and the other saw it as static. Chesterton could run with the Pevensies further up and further into the Life Abundant, he could confess at Church and eat Bread that was Body and Life and love his wife; and it would all aspire to something, namely more life. To the Nihilist there is no progress; there is the inescapable river of life that we are caught up on until we’re coughed upon some foreign shore.
It is a characteristic of human nature that if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backward. When the Nihilist Affirmers uttered their “no” to Abundant Life also said “no” to the elements of life they cannot help experiencing. They marry and are given in marriage and the whole time there is cosmic stream of pleasure and pain that they desire to divert from themselves. It is a Christian and Chestertonian ideal that says that those who suffer will be the ones who find comfort, and it is those who sell all they have will get it all, and those who search after the divine will inherit the fruits of the land. The Nihilist Ideal is to avoid suffering, and feeling at all. They are the conscientious objectors to life.
It is with sadness that I say that I have found many of these conscientious objectors in the Protestant camp. These are the people that I offend when I deprive myself of sleep, money, time, and food. Their objections reveal their ideal of the static life, which is, I sadly say, a life apart from Christ. The Protestant denial of Baptism as a sacrament of innocence, of the Eucharist as a miraculous food, of Confession and absolution, and general progress into Christ, has led them to meaninglessness and hopelessness. This is tragic, and this is a real hell of numbness and disorientation. I know; I have been there.
This is not the Kingdom of God.
But throughout this wild world things are tidying themselves up: the crooked paths are straightening, and the hills and mountains are leveling to the plains. “Repent, for Kingdom of God is at hand.”