Have you ever stopped to let yourself feel the weight of all that’s been lost?
At least for me, it’s terrifyingly easy. For example, just today I was listening to the Original Cast Recording of the recent Broadway adaptation of Anastasia (which I highly highly highly recommend, by the way), and what struck me most was the sense of something lost that the revised story and additional musical numbers highlighted. A lot of the more fanciful elements are gone, so it really hones in on the mournful, post-revolution ethos of Russia, looking back longingly at the time of royalty, nobility, high culture, beautiful music, a sense of pride and solidarity. Long story short, it’s heartbreaking. And it made me think of other ages, societies, cultures, ideas, and the like, that have been lost. It’s honestly kind of depressing once you start going. The ages when monarchs were recognized not as tyrants or holdovers from the past but a present and promising face of servant-leadership, the senses of words and ideas that held closer to the truth than current adaptations or even aberrations, the years when there was music created simply to be beautiful–not popular, or political, or agendized, just beautiful. I even got to thinking about losses in my own life, friends I’ve said goodbye to, childhood innocence, dreams and goals that turned sour.
And then, at work, I got a phone call from Janice.
I’ve never met this woman and I know next to nothing about her except that she’s somewhat elderly and lives somewhere mountainous in the middle of nowhere, “God’s country” in her own words. I’m in the middle of placing an order for her when she starts telling me her favorite jokes, and then telling me stories about what it’s like living where she does, about how she looks out from her back porch and only sees two rooftops, about all the elk she’s seen and the deer her family feeds. I swear, it was like being snapped awake, like being pulled out of the fog, and my day was suddenly turned from brooding and depressed to grounded and full of light.
It’s strange, but go with me on this: I think that’s the difference between a purely human perspective and a divine one. When we got locked into a human perspective, and what matters above all is humanity’s importance, then the loss of humanity’s golden ages is not just sad and tragic; it’s devastating and worthy of despair. It’s easy to look out at the world and see its brokenness, its seeming devolution into madness and lethargy and cacophony, especially in comparison with other ages of apparent glory (even taking into account their own flaws). But this wouldn’t be the first time the world has looked like this, and may not be the last; and the great difference between a perspective of hope and a perspective of despair is realizing it was never humanity’s job to aggrandize and glorify itself anyway. As good as humanity can do, we just can’t do it perfectly, or keep it perfectly together forever. And that’s actually for the best.
I think Chesterton puts it best in The Everlasting Man when he talks about Calvary:
All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself. Man could do no more. Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract. Externally indeed the ancient world was still at its strongest; it is always at that moment that the inmost weakness begins. But in order to understand that weakness we must repeat what has been said more than once; that it was not the weakness of a thing originally weak. It was emphatically the strength of the world that was turned to weakness and the wisdom of the world that was turned to folly.
The world is always entering, passing through, and leaving golden ages. The best the world has ever been only lasted for awhile. You can tell yourself the lies of progress all you want, that we’re constantly moving to bigger and better things, but this planet is only so big, and the human mind and heart is only capable of so much, and technology can only extend our reach so far. A day will come–maybe it’s almost here–when all those avenues will be searched out, emptied of their riches, dried up. If time doesn’t do it, nature or the pratfalls of fellow humans will stop them up.
But there is another perspective to take, one which sees humanity as a mind-boggling and beautiful paradox with a story that sends sabers of light to pierce through the darkness that hovers over a merely human life. It’s God’s own perspective, which sees and knows the humanity he has created for what it is: mere creatures made to be sons and daughters of God, mortals made to be immortal, natural beings made to be supernaturalized.
When Chesterton talks about the Incarnation, he pretty much blows my mind:
It is quite unlike anything else. It is a thing final like the trump of doom, though it is also a piece of good news; or news that seems too good to be true. It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World…I have not minimized the scale of the miracle, as some of our milder theologians think it wise to do. Rather have I deliberately dwelt on that incredible interruption, as a blow that broke the very backbone of history.
Man will always have periods of enormous light and periods of enormous darkness. Our history has truly glorious moments, but it’s easy to use those as stepping stones to our own aggrandizement, building a backbone to our self-made image to rise against even God, even as it collapses under its own weakness. When God became man, the backbone was snapped; the framework and foundation upon which the glory of humanity tried precariously to rise was broken. But with that collapse, the whole world was righted from its topsy-turveydom. Mankind was buying into the idea that life and history was a shroud of darkness with pinpricks of light. Christ Our Light came to show us that that darkness within time and space was surrounded by the pure light of eternity.
And that light continues to pervade the world. There have been times when that light pervaded culture, music, seemingly the very air of the world, and there have been times like our own when it’s all we can do to tear our eyes from the surrounding darkness. But the light lives. Christ continues to be present in every single tabernacle, punching through time and space and darkness just to continue to be with us and make the light ever-present. The Holy Spirit continues to breath life and hope into Christ’s very mystical body, the power of the Lord coursing through the veins of the warrior-queen that is our Mother Church, and the Blessed Mother and all the saints, citizens of the New Jerusalem, are continuing to call to us and pray for us, cheering and urging us forward like the moon and stars in the dead of night. Our God is a mighty warrior and the very source of light and life, and he heralds and ushers and carries us on to a life where all we’ll see is light.
And sometimes, all it takes to see that is for another human being to snap you out of your own reveries, handing you a ray of the light, reminding you of the One in Whom all that is lost will be found.
Sunsets paint in citrus
hues the bellies of the clouds
coming home to sleep.
Rise, my prayer, above
the mere mumblings of my lips
and bow before God.
Slumber, petty fears,
and tumble down the chasms
you scaled to chain me.
Burn, bright fire of love.
Where else shall I find the light
to take me inward?
Come quickly, courage,
come quickly to the weary
laying in the trench.
Sometimes I find myself caught up in trying to find and experience the intensely beautiful. I look in all the places where I expect it to be–great works of art, breathtaking landscapes, and the like–but then I find myself returning to the words of Russell from the Disney movie UP, after describing his favorite moments with his father: “That might sound boring, but I think it’s the boring stuff that I remember the most.”
Sometimes the greatest adventures, the most beautiful moments, the sweetest encounters with love and beauty, are right within your reach.