Homesickness for Alien Places

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“Homesickness” by Rene Margritte (1940). Used under Fair Use by Wikiart.

There are times when, after coming back from a sojourn overseas, we start pining for it. Sometimes, this pining can be the afterglow of a holiday destination after having to face the imminent return to the office.

At other times, however, this pining stems from something more than a mere reluctance to go back to the drudgery of work. This variant of the experience of pining for foreign places often takes the form of a kind of homesickness. This experience can be particularly visceral when one has lived in that foreign land, but they even come with respect to places that the person has not even visited. Regardless of context, these alien lands often stir our hearts, and we may often find ourselves whispering to ourselves that one’s home was not where you are now, but in these foreign lands. For those that go through such an experience, it becomes particularly poignant when that tug of the heart only goes stronger with each passing season.

The experience of homesickness for places other than one’s own can be a theologically rich moment of reflection. At one level, this experience can be an analogue of a much deeper longing within us, for a native land that is not only unvisited by us, but one that categorically transcends the whole cosmos. This experience of homesickness can be a reminder in the Letter to the Hebrews that we “are seeking the city that is to come” (13:14), and that until then, our hearts remain restless until we are restored to that place we have never been to, to borrow the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions. In other words, our experience of longing is but an analogue of a God given impulse to seek a more heavenly destination.

At the same time, however, precisely because this experience is only an analogy, there can also be a danger that our longing for other places can become an occasion for the operation of vice, particularly of the vice of acedia. As RJ Snell wrote in his Acedia and Its Discontents, this longing for another place can a vice-ridden restlessness when it becomes a longing for a utopia, and a neglect of where we are now. Those who have lived in the place that they long for may protest that the longing is anything but utopic, but as Michel de Certeau reminds us in his Practice of Everyday Life, our worlds always shift to such an extent that the place we thought was there never really remains. Thus, even when we have had a real contact with that other place, that longing can nonetheless still be the result of the vice of acedia, whispering to us to abandon all we have and where we are.

It may seem that those who harbour these longings are doomed to spend their lives with their longings unresolved and always at risk of predisposing ourselves to vice, and in many respects, that is true. We are however, also given in the Eucharistic Liturgy, a forum with which to reflect upon this longing. We are, in the Eucharistic Liturgy, not only abstractly engaging in a form of prayer, but also gathering a people who are acting upon their longing for a place we have never been – the eschaton. Yet, the vice of acedia is resisted precisely because of the incarnate nature of the Eucharistic lord, the Body of Christ compels us never to abandon our posts here on earth.

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Post-Materialism, Sacramentality & Marketing

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Creative Commons

A friend on social media once wondered out loud why a big telecommunications company would decide to come out to join in a massive media campaign by a slew of large corporations who supported a particular social cause which, on the surface, had little or nothing to do with their particular lines of business. The question then asked out loud was “what do these causes have to do with making money”?

Nothing was said out loud, but silently and slowly an answer came to mind which is only now being put down. A few years ago in The Politics of Discipleship, Graham Ward observed that from the early 1980s onwards, we have been gradually entering an age of what he called “post-materialism”. This was a condition concentrated in highly affluent societies where, more than survival, material superabundance is the (highly unevenly spread) hallmark. In these societies, goods and services are becoming cheaper and profit margins are shrinking with every unit sold.

In such societies, there are growing cadres of highly affluent groups of individuals with massive spending power, who do not have to worry about material survival, but still seek to have a meaningful existence. As a result, many would come to adopt causes and values that have little direct relation to their economic output. Such values can be environmental, minority-related, political, religious, artistic or cultural. These values need not be traditional – indeed one journal article noted that post-materialism is occurring at precisely the moment when traditional values are on a massive decline. – , and these affluent individuals are willing to spend a large portion of their financial surplus to support campaigns promoting these values. The financial flows that are generated by such post-materialist pursuits are massive.

What is of interest for for-profit businesses then, is not so much the cause per se, but the ability to tap into those financial flows and boost lagging profits. What we see is the latest stage of a trend identified in the 1960s by the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, where consumption in capitalist societies come to provide not only material but also “esoteric” well being, so much so that a consumer can, to borrow Marcuse’s words, find their soul in their car or stereo set.

In our day, corporations have come to boost their profit margins and market share by deliberately turning the commodities one consumes to something more than a mere material product. Under conditions of post-materialism, corporations have taken on a marketing strategy of turning their good or service into sacraments of the non-material causes that one wants to pursue. By providing material signs of invisible benefits, the corporation is making money by turning itself into an acolyte of a church called the market, where one saves oneself by taking and consuming, and every bite is a prayer from which a corporation seeks to literally profit.

Discerning Before Utopia

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“The Daydreamer”, Creative Commons

This post was spurred on by two things, a class given on discernment at Campion College Australia and reading a letter in a section of the monthly journal Traces, put out by the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

In going through the contingencies of life, discerning God’s will is always hard to do. The challenge becomes particularly acute when we realise that discernment is almost always mixed with our desires and the frustrations of those desires by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Being creatures driven by the heart, as James KA Smith noted in his Desiring the Kingdom, it would be impossible to eliminate the restlessness that desire instills in us and the eagerness or anxiety that will find its way in the discernment process.

The reasons for our eagerness can be gleaned when one considers how desire operates in the context of what Graham Ward calls a “subject position” in his book Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice. Ward suggests in that book that desire does not allow us to keep still within our subject position, which is always made up of a whole range of social and cultural factors. Rather, our desires put us onto what he calls “projects” which, as the word suggests, projects us forward, pressing us against the confines posed by the factors that make up our subject position. In many respects, our eagerness inevitably will drive us to want to break many of these confines, and urge us to strain towards “where we want to be”. This is what Ward calls in his book “utopic horizons”.

However, our eagerness is often met with frustration because, as the name “utopia” suggests, our desires very often push us towards places other than where we are now. We believe that where we are now are but obstacles to our discernment and to the fulfilling of our vocation. We want to escape where we are and what we are doing, so that the will of God can finally be done.

This desire to escape our circumstances is understandable, but it must be juxtaposed with observations by Rabbi Edward Feld and Fr. Luigi Giussani. In an essay on the 23rd Psalm, Feld noted that, though the journey in the psalm is marked by many changes and much buffeting by the circumstances of life, the sheep are nevertheless still “on the right path”. Fr. Giussani put it more succinctly, saying once that it is in the circumstances that one seeks to escape where one’s vocation, one’s call resides. Discernment thus is not dependent on an escaping of those circumstances, but by pressing against them and feeling their texture press back upon us.

Prayer After “The World Spins Madly On”

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Wikimedia Commons

Almighty God,

You moved your servant to listen to “The World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies, that short, beautiful song of unfulfilled longing, broken promises, and utter helplessness in the face of this barbarian called life that you have let loose on us.

In this song you remind your servant that of all the contingencies of life, people, days, places, memories, words are just that – things that pass by us and are not meant to stay with us. You make us reflect on the only perennial thing in this contingent universe, mankind’s need to say goodbye to these contingencies. All these things, they come by our lives for but a moment.

But in the words of our father Augustine, we desire these temporary things to last an eternity. And in our efforts to make our own heavens on earth with the temporary things of this earth, we only render our heavens into foretastes of hell, creating glimpses of that separation that awaits those who, like those angels in ages past, declared their refusal to serve you, knew what it meant, and meant it with their hearts.

And in this song, O Lord, you cause us to ponder how the world does not care as these hells multiply, in our own lives and in lives all over its continents. Little wonder that we are jaded, O Lord, as our cries of agony of loss, small and large alike, are just met with the world simply moving on. Our world is so cold, and our search for comfort in this world for the pain of our loss only seems to compound this pain, as the sheer contingency of all things tears away our comforts that we have band-aided over our wounds.

But in your wisdom, you deign to heal our wounds borne from our bindings to those that would only leave us. And indeed, you deign to heal them with these very contingent things to which we cling, but in so doing you create your own portals to a truly eternal life. With water, oil, salt, bread, wine, bodies and words, you put together a vault of the sacramental life to immerse us in, thus showing viscerally to our own senses that our longing for the eternal can be fulfilled. Our recurring pain need not be the only eternal – nay it was merely an illusion – experience in this mad world, nor do they need to be meaningless knocks of fortune. Let these portals you have created, O Lord, take up these temporary things of this world gone absurd, such that they do not just get meaninglessly lost in the passage of the moments.

May it please you that, in the moment when moments march no more, you would in your mercy show us how every instance of loss and being lost in this life of ours – and yes, even the end of that life when we shall lie motionless in bed for the last time – forms the threads in this cosmic tapestry of your saving work.

For our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Praise be the name of the Lord, both now and forever.

 

Hangry Eyes: Our Ravenous Seeing

 

Eric Carmans Hungry Eyes is an awfully corny song which, combined to the dance moves and fashion statements of the movie Dirty Dancing, form the quintessential signpost to the overall corniness of the decade that was the 80s. Corny though it may be, is there some ancient truth buried beneath the refrain, especially the line which goes “One look at you and I can’t disguise I’ve got hungry eyes”?

Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, authored by Chanon Ross and referred to in last week’s post, seems to indicate as much. The book makes the less than subtle claim that part of the religious aspect that ties the act of seeing to worshiping, mentioned in a previous post, is the consumptive aspect that ties seeing with consuming. Moreover, this kind of consuming far from passive and far from tranquil. It is tied with domination and aggression.

Ross refers to a passage in the Confessions, where Augustine recalls his friend, Alypius, and his addiction to the spectacle entertainments of the Colosseum in ancient Rome. Ross makes much of a line in the Confessions, in which Alypius’ addiction to spectacle was expressed in consumptive terms using the words:

he saw the blood and gulped the brutality, he fixed his gaze there and drank in the frenzy.

Another example used by Ross is the Roman theologian Salvian in his On the Government of God. In it, Salvian similarly makes a link between the gaze and eating. Commenting on the consumption of victims by wild animals in the Colosseum, Salvian imputes guilt on those that watch this violence, saying that

…the victims seem devoured almost as much by the eyes of the audience as by the teeth of beasts.

We may excuse ourselves by saying that our gaze is not fixed on anything so visceral or overtly violent. Nevertheless, the consumptive logic of our seeing persists, and Ross suggests that it is Christ who, in giving of himself as a spectacle to be raised up, takes in our consumptive gaze and redeems it by turning it into the gaze on a gift freely given.

The Lord’s Descent into Hell

Below is an excerpt from an ancient Holy Saturday Homily entitled “The Lord’s Descent into Hell”, parts of which are included in the Liturgy of the Hours for the day.

Something strange is happening- – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.

God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep.

Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve.

The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory.

At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.”

He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake.

I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image.

Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.

I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God.

The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open.

The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Dance and Transcendance

 

There is something uncanny about the subgenre of electronica broadly called “dance music”. In sample after sample, whether it is Ellie Goulding’s “Burn“, Juventa’s “Move Into Light“, Armin van Buuren’s “Waiting for the Night“, Koven’s “Eternal and You” or Seven Lions’ “World’s Apart“, the listener will notice that this musical genre better epitomises the postsecular than any other, for it is the most upfront in bringing in the vocabulary of soul, redemption, transcendence, eternity, light and darkness familiar to many believers, including many Christians.

Indeed, many Christians number amongst the devotees of the dance music scene, and possibly because of the overlap between the vocabulary of their faith and the lyrics blasted from the speakers, backed up by the aesthetic statements built into the music videos and live concerts, be they the enhanced strings in the harmonics, flashes of light breaking the monotony of the dark, the streaks of cloud drawing our gaze into the heavens, or the technologically enhanced superimpositions on temporality, modulating voices into multiple inflections, expanding bodies beyond natural capacities or making nature itself portray realities beyond what is physically possible.

Is the allure of the dance subgenre to a critical mass of young adults and the supposed ties to transcendence speaking to something built into our makeup as persons?

Scripture offers an obscure clue in 2 Samuel 6, when the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the holy city of Jerusalem after the defeat of the Philistines and David, the man after the heart of God, dances half naked in front of the crowd, but more importantly in the intimate closeness to the God who dwelt in the Ark.

The ancient Church would seem to build on this and offer a more heavenly parallel via the Cappadocian Fathers, in particular St. Gregory Nazianzen. In the course of talking about how the three persons in the transcendent Godhead related to one another, Gregory used the term perichoresisWhile nowadays used to denote the very technical process of “circumincession” or the “creation of space for another”, it is interesting that the original usage of the term related to a form of dancing. The persons of the Trinity, in whose image we are made, to which all were drawn and in whom all find their eternal home, were thus depicted as engaged in a transcendent and eternal dance. The natural act of dancing, therefore, was used as to echo the transformed state of creation – indeed creation in its redeemed form – in their participation in the Godhead.

There is plenty that would set apart the reciprocal self-giving of the Trinity’s perichoresis from the isolating gyrations and simulated liturgies of the dance floor. Nevertheless, one cannot in the name of rejecting the blasphemous within dance music, dismiss also the important overlaps between the two sets of practices and logics, and in so doing understand the allure – dare one say salvific appeal? – and organisational power of music in postmodern culture, in its interface with the spiritual dimension in the human person.