On the new orthodoxy

Eerie sounds this morning, on the balconata of the High Doganate. It was the wind spinning in branches and eaves: dry chatter beneath a softening rainstorm roar. An old train-whistle moan blew through the crack of a loose sliding window. The city for its part remains unearthly quiet, the usual crash of traffic damped below nature’s breathing. It is the sound that cars make when they are parked; of a million cars not driving to church on Christmas Day.

For those not shut in by age and illness, and even for most of them, there is no excuse for the loneliness that is hyped in the media at this time of year. The child Christ rests by His altar, and God is always near. Always, there is something to do, and there could be peace in any cell or hermitage, in prayer with and for the whole world.

Or one might wish to consider the nature of one’s loneliness: what it is, and what it is not. True loneliness is peopled by friends absent, displaced through space and time. Sometimes, in age, what was once a multitude has come down to a single soul, perhaps with his photographs of Christmas Past; or even without them, memories of love in a distant time. Dark, dark, they’ve all gone into the dark, and in a moment these memories begin to catch within his throat: that when I am gone, no one will be left to remember them, in this world where they were once so alive.

Old lady or old man in the corner of a room, languishing in a nursing home, waiting patiently on death row, for they have learnt there is no better way to wait; and more likely than not merely enduring the forced, professional, gaiety of strangers. It is the end of all their adventures. They have come to what is called, “the last place on earth.”

Those who have the decency to visit, may not realize that duties come with such chivalrous endeavours: the fair maiden must be won. Love that is not ardent is not love: the visitor is bound by love to keep his promise. He must return. He must make himself wanted, must put light in those repining eyes. I’m amused by the politicians of the nursing homes: those who arrive with a glad hand for everybody. By all means, vote for that person, and the jolly spirit that is cast around; it is a real service. But the knights have fixed their attention. For love is in the eyes, that meet the eyes: the ardency of love, that takes one out of oneself and into the heart of every friendship. That is what tells you that you are not alone; that you have something better than a text message.

People are not only lonely in the “home.” It can be done anywhere.

For nine-in-ten, if not more, the loneliness is a pose of self-absorption. One is actually not feeling lonely, for anyone in particular, but rather more generally, sorry for oneself. Why? Because of course no one loves you. How could they, given the way you have behaved? Your whole life has consisted of abandoning people, from the moment their use to you had passed; and now they have all abandoned you, in quiet retaliation. They have lives too, after all; and their own commitments to self-absorption, their own agendas of self-will.

Western Civ, or we should call it more precisely, Christian Civ, had its orthodoxy — still observed in outlying places. This was not a set of rules, however complex; not a succession of algorithms delineated in base 2. It was a way of life, with ritual and custom. It encompassed huge variety, from generation to generation, and place to place. And yet it cohered: was held together by a Spirit, in all times and all places; and a common apprehension of that Holy Spirit. It was, “One nation under God,” except, a nation above all the little nations, themselves birds of passage. It was, as every high civilization, comprehensively hierarchical: a place for everyone, and everyone in his place. Such that: whatever one’s location, from chimneysweep to king, one existed to serve something higher. And all ranks met before the King of kings, which is to say, in church. A civilization can be defined by that in which it reposes Faith; by that to which it turns, not only in adversity. (“In God we trust.”)

In the fading of this Western, Christian Civ, we have seen a new civilization arise, appropriating all its goods for its own new purposes, and building up a new orthodoxy. I have watched, all my life, this grim, solemn, methodical progression, from rites to rights.

The new civilization has its own cosmological conception (the Darwinite vision of randomness); its own moral ethos (wherein every person is a law unto himself); its own intellectual and aesthetic norms (establishing that not only beauty, but truth, and goodness, are in the eye of the beholder). It is governed by metastasizing rules and regulations — in which custom has, formally, no jurisdiction. Faith itself, and the conduct it has governed, is taken to be a purely personal matter, and all values associated with common belief may be dismissed as equally arbitrary. This leaves arbitrary “equality” as the one ideal: the value that denies all other values. Pope Benedict called this, “the dictatorship of relativism,” and those who resist its dictates may very well find themselves in court.


From thirty-five years ago, I recall a book that was on many coffee tables: The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch. It was an essay in post-modern sociology, but in its season it clanged a big bell. Lasch wrote of the destruction of the traditional family by the “organized kindness” that had assumed its functions; of the radical movements that emerged in the ‘sixties to enforce the atomism that was the inevitable result. And then he plunged into psychological observation, reviewing everything from New Age cult affiliations, to the popular obsession with oral sex. By the 1970s, the typical American was displaying not some, but all the symptoms of what had once been diagnosed, in the psychology textbooks, as pathological narcissism.

(Any reader who is interested should also consult Lasch’s much-ignored sequel, The Minimal Self, in which he spades deeper into the XIXth-century roots of this phenomenon, and defends the objectivity of his thesis against both critics on his Left, and inconvenient fans on his Right.)

We’re beyond that now. Even the word “narcissism” tends to be employed in pathologically narcissistic ways. And while that older, Christian worldview remains — now as a counter-culture, providing closed environments in which narcissistic behaviour is still instinctively punished — it is going underground. For this new orthodoxy also invaded, and made a conquest of most of the Church, as well as rolling over the “mainstream” Protestant congregations. The victory of narcissism is glaringly apparent in every single liturgical innovation of the New Mass: from the turning of the priest towards the people, to the stripping of the altar now placed between them; and in every direction from there. The new gestures, from the 1960s forward, distract consistently from the divine presence, and mediate a message that is “all about you.”

And so it is with the lonely at Christmas, vaguely remembering some other age. It is all about them. For most my age — and I am getting older — it has been all about us since time out of mind. We grew up in the Pepsi generation.

Those nursing homes are now filled with contemporaries of the Beatles and Elvis Presley, as one may discover in the foyer, when they’re wheeled down for a sing-along. Their memories of Christmas go back, increasingly, to broken homes, where what they actually remember is themselves being “in the way” of their parents’ private lives. Their memories, too, are free of church attendance, and so throw back to the commercialized sentimentality of treats and gift-wrapped, heavily-advertised products around a casually decorated Christmas tree — a kind of pay-off for minding their own business. And, what is the most terrible thing I have seen in there, when that past is challenged, and anything better is proposed: that flicker of defiance, that parody of faith which still declares, after a lifetime of sin and error: “I’m as good as you are!” For it was a culture of narcissism to which they bought in.

This is the new orthodoxy, which Christians must be careful to respect, as tourists remove their shoes when entering a mosque. For it is considered extremely bad form, to disturb the votaries while they are at prayer, making their devotions to the pond image.

But the winds howl, and the waters roughen, and Christ was always coming. It is something to think about, for no matter how you cut it — whether you are a traditional Christian (there can be no other kind), or a perfectly conventional, orthodox Narcissist — the message of Christmas is not, never was, and by its meaning never will be, “all about you.”


My thanks to David Zinck, a gentleman of Alberta, the first to commission an Essay under my new “Command Performance” programme. For the modest sum of five hundred undervalued Canadian dollars, one gets to assign me a Topic. (Of course, what I’ll have to say on that Topic is something that cannot be stipulated.)