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Feb 27, 2024  |  
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The spiritual life (including the prayer and rites of religion) and the cultural life (including the artistic and intellectual cultivation of the human person in its countless forms) together ensure that life is more than a blind cycle, a march leading nowhere. They reveal the sense of our pilgrimage and light a path to our final destiny.

A quotation from Russell Kirk that emblazons this journal-website declares that “the conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul.” Kirk goes on to speak of “the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded.” These questions are indeed fundamental, primordial. The questions of culture, values, ideals, and meaning are the very foundation of life; if we don’t have these things figured out, our lives won’t have any coherence or any point.

My life has largely been a search for meaning, but I have carried out this quest largely on my own, aided by the writings of great minds, my religious tradition, and various other factors of personal experience. No one actually sat down with me and explained the meaning of life, or the meaning of my own particular life. It’s true I have had plenty of people—teachers, family, clergy—who lighted my path; but many questions I have had to work out on my own. A bachelor and a ruminator, my satisfactions in life are mostly intellectual or aesthetic. Current affairs and church politics weary me; rather, my interests center on the basic questions, on history, on beauty, and the like. One of the things I love about this journal is that it embraces the big universal questions, not as a sidelight but as the main item on the menu. Using such tools for enrichment, I try in my small way to follow the Life of Culture, with which I believe the Life of Spirit is closely intertwined.

I often meditate in my essays on questions of faith; but there are, I have found, two ways to approach such questions as a writer. One way is to write from a devotional perspective and using typical devotional language. Another is to write from more of a civilizational, cultural, and philosophical perspective, and in a genuinely essayistic style in which issues are worked out on the page, with the guidance of timeless wisdom, accenting the universal and the existential. (Jacques Barzun defines an existential thinker as “one who philosophizes from the need to survive intellectually and emotionally in a universe that the collapse of traditional religion and the tyranny of science have laid to waste.”)

This latter method is the one I choose, in keeping I hope with the ethos of this journal. Melodrama, polemics, and attempts to change the world are not for me; instead, I seek contemplation and appreciation. Continually I am trying to escape the ephemeral moment and find the timeless truth.

The world is always in decline, whether gradual or fast. This, it seems to me, is the biblical perspective, but it is also the commonsense attitude. Ages of great artistic accomplishment, intellectual brilliance, or wise government last but for a while. Sooner or later the structures collapse or wither away and man is left with himself. And what does he have? He has, among other natural endowments, the life of the spirit and the life of culture.

The spiritual life and the cultural life I see as cures for weariness brought about by corruption and decay. Decadence cannot totally destroy culture and the spirit, which are inner possessions. The external structures can collapse, but culture as inner formation and cultivation cannot. Therefore, it is a defense against the impermanence and ephemerality of things in the external world. Culture connects us with history and ultimately with eternity, because it allows us to transcend the present moment. In engaging either with the rituals of spiritual life or with works of culture such as literature, art, music—a few voices in our journal have even spoken of the great game of baseball—one seems to escape the experience of life as merely passing time and decay; one loses oneself in a timeless realm of ideas and truths. The result is a radiance of inner being, an exaltation and transcendence.

Now, culture is one of the most elusive and hard-to-define of all words, and it is also routinely trivialized and misunderstood. People today tend to associate culture—particularly in the form of “high culture”—with something rarefied and “elitist,” the province of the rich and the snobbish. In fact, culture is something that everyone possesses simply by virtue of growing up, receiving an education, and having contact with arts and ideas and traditions.

Philosophers of conservatism have written much on the necessary connection between culture and religion—between culture and cult—and the spiritual and the cultural life do seem to me of a similar nature. Both involve inner self-cultivation using external aids. In the spiritual life the aids are the Bible and other spiritual writings, prayer and liturgy, and church tradition. (Absorbing this material involves literacy, but it can still exist without it, as it has in many ages when the ability to read was scarce.) In the cultural life the aids include books and works of art and philosophy, works of man which become steppingstones to achieving a higher, even a divine, consciousness and knowledge. Although molded and formed by human beings, culture is ultimately a gift from above, a divine illumination, and this is what allies it to the spiritual life.

Among the components of culture are artistic experience, philosophical insight, the values of character, virtue, and civilization. Yet culture in the complete sense is not simply man’s artistic or intellectual products, but even more the internalization of those works in the soul. Culture becomes part of one’s very consciousness and is thus the achievement of the human soul.

As such cultural life can be said to include within it the spiritual life, and vice versa. The spiritual life and the cultural life overlap and interpenetrate each other. Culture binds our experiences in life together into a meaningful unity; it ensures that they don’t collapse into a mere flow of sense impressions, the danger of the modern electronic environment. It is, as Matthew Arnold called it, the “inward condition of the mind and spirit.”

It’s difficult, however, to speak in any unified sense about “culture” now because what culture exists has become fragmented in a thousand and one pieces. There are endless objects for our attention, but nothing is central or significant. Pretty much everything that was formerly distinctive or normative in culture is swallowed up in the electronic-digital morass. There is simply too much of everything and there is no central focus to the conglomeration that confronts us. As a consequence, culture is no longer a thing that is commonly shared; it is mostly a private enjoyment and one that is more likely to isolate you than to join you together with others. Further, acquiring culture requires patience, repose, and attention, and our world thrives on momentary sensations and stimuli. Who could have imagined that culture would die, not by complete extinction or neglect, but by fragmentation and overproduction? One reads many essays about decadence or the decay of culture and civilization. But it seems to me that our situation is not one of a complete eclipse of culture; rather, it is one of being lost in an excessively pluralistic mishmash without any unity, focus, or normative standards.

In this respect the world of art is no different from the world of religion, which has also fractured and lost its center. Yet it remains true that only faith gives life its point, its motivating force, which redeems man’s hopelessness. Faith as practiced constitutes the spiritual life and is nourished by prayer and divine worship. Its locus is therefore the church. The spiritual life, like the cultural life, demands silence, attentiveness, and tranquility. To a large extent, life within the walls of the church brings us away from present concerns. To be a believer means to live your life in relation to a historical reality. Therefore, the attitude of the believer just as of the cultured individual will be one of recollection. There is no better way to do this than to participate in holy worship; therefore, allow me to dwell a bit on that subject.

Revelation teaches that God commanded humankind to keep holy the Sabbath. How does one do this? It has been universally understood to mean attendance at divine worship. Devoting part of one’s day to prayer and adoration of the Almighty is only just; it honors man’s intellective as well as bodily faculties and consecrates them to God for a short time, just enough for man’s attention span mental and bodily energy. In church one learns a respect for persons, places, and things. The church is a sacred place, consecrated to God. What takes place there takes place in a sanctified time; measured time as we experience it in the everyday is dissolved in a sort of timeless contemplation. It is presided over by the priest, an authority figure representing Christ among us. The priest symbolizes the dignity of man in the divine image.

To a believer, what happens in the divine liturgy or Holy Mass is nothing less than God mystically becoming present to us, conveying invisible grace through the visible rites and gestures and the audible words. By using earthly materials, liturgy teaches us to take simple delight in creation and in reality. As in art, elements of nature and life are brought into this sacred act, transformed into something more than the sum of the parts. The difference, again, is that God is the actor. A liturgy takes us outside of the flux of successive time; we enter a timeless realm of being.

The church is a school for life. The gospel is proclaimed and explicated, and one learns its saving wisdom—a salvation that addresses itself to the soul through the body and senses. Stepping into the church one enters another realm, heightened from everyday life. The sensible things and objects in the church should heighten this sense of enchantment and otherness. Among other things, this specialness is a call or summons to spiritual alertness. We are here to receive a message. The rite of the Eucharist is a communal act which unites one to God and, through him, to one’s fellow faithful. Afterward one steps back into everyday life refreshed and strengthened, enlightened and enlivened. In this it is similar to an artistic performance, only in this case God is the performer, the actor, and it is holy in a sense that merely human art is not. The rite is not merely symbolic but performative; it is what it represents.

Stopping by my parish church on a quiet afternoon, I always feel around me the presence of both spirit and culture and how these are transformed into the material of the imagination. In a recitation of the Stations of the Cross, for me one of the most powerful church traditions, the congregation become through the spiritual imagination part of the crowd at the Crucifixion. In confession, the believer experiences the fact of forgiveness in a sensible and imaginative form. The church is a theater where the life of Christ is memorialized, recollected, and re-enacted. The sacred history in a sense emanates from the church outward into the lives of the parishioners, binding them together into a community. The church and its liturgy connect us to history, specifically by means of aesthetic prototypes as experienced in the architecture, the altar furnishings, music, paintings, and other works of culture, perhaps first and foremost the Word of scripture itself.

To follow divine worship through the liturgical year is to take part in a kind of sacred serial. One relives the life of Christ week by week, with a plethora of sensory aids drawing on the entire richness of culture. Christ’s life penetrates and structures our own time and our consciousness. This process is far more than make-believe or playacting because the divinity is truly present and effectively acting.

And so, the limitations of space and historical time are in a manner dissolved. The past is made present, or timeless. The person of Christ dwells in the Holy Eucharist, accessed through the imagination of faith. Against the diffuseness and chaos of modern life, divine worship offers unity, focus, and a point of concentration. By addressing itself to all the dimensions of human experience, the church and its rites contribute to human flourishing. And in this way, culture and faith give birth to another phase of life, which I will call the imaginative life. I would say then that the church unites all three phases of life: the spiritual, the cultural, and the imaginative.

It seems to me that those of us who believe need to become particularly serious about our beliefs now as the world winds down. And for those who do not believe, it would be worthwhile to look seriously into the matter, with the guide of serious thinkers. The generations that lived through the two World Wars may well have thought that they were witnessing the end of civilization; but physical destruction, or even moral degradation on a localized level, do not necessarily signal the end. What signals the end is the widespread loss of meaning, in which culture and knowledge collapse into confusion. Such a condition amounts to a loss of distinction and distinctiveness in things, of identity and meaning in which there is nothing normative, no defining body of thought or practice, but merely a bottomless ocean of “stuff.”

I propose faith and true culture as the antidote to confusion, and faith is supported by and expressed in worship and gives rise to an imaginative perception of reality. The life of spirituality and the life of culture, sustained by institutions but ultimately built up in a person’s inner life, become part of the landscape of our soul. It must meanwhile be emphasized that these things are necessary components to life; the believer must show why faith is normative and not merely an interesting lifestyle choice.

For myself, I have discovered that outside of the world of faith, art, and the imagination, the world offers nothing much, and so I have happily dedicated myself as best I can to those precious things.

It always surprises me when I hear people wondering about, say, what things will be like 500 years down the road. How do we know the world will endure for 500 years? How do we know it will endure for ten? This world and its civilization are not destined to last forever. What does endure is our souls and the world of ideas, sustained by God who is eternal and imperishable and who alone can give us new life. Therefore, the culture of the soul—which includes the pursuit of virtue, charity, sanctity, all topics for other essays—is the main thing. Churches, libraries, museums, musical performing groups are institutions that can help us to form ourselves in culture, but the task is ultimately up to us individually.

There is, it seems to me, much talk of “culture” in a general and abstract sense and little appreciation of actual works of culture. That is why in my writing I often choose to look at specific works, whether in literature or music or art. I believe in the redemptive power of culture itself, above and beyond intellectual analysis. Culture, for me, is something so much grander than some social status symbol; at its most broad it encompasses art, values, ideals, the very reasons why we go on living. Culture and the spiritual life give us access to another, better world, allowing us to transcend the vulgarity, senselessness, and banal routine that surround us.

I believe that the person who assiduously cultivates the spiritual and cultural life can look forward to being struck suddenly by epiphanies, by transports and inspirations that carry him or her far beyond the workaday world. For myself, it has gradually dawned on me that every experience of my life thus far was perhaps meant to lead purely and simply to the expression of some such epiphany, of an artistic nature, in the future. My life is devoted purely to recollection, and I identify strongly with the artist Edward Hopper when he professed that “all I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” We have been preoccupied for a long time now with “culture wars,” but I wonder whether we have reached a point now where we can survey the widespread ruin and incoherence of our world with a certain resignation, knowing that Providence will come at last and simply rest in peace, tending to the care of the soul and nourishing the spiritual and cultural life.

The spiritual life (including the prayer and rites of religion) and the cultural life (including the artistic and intellectual cultivation of the human person in its countless forms) together ensure that life is more than a blind cycle, a march leading nowhere. They reveal the sense of our pilgrimage and light a path to our final destiny.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is “Evening Prayer of a Farmer” (1865) by Artur Grottger, and is  in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.