I often try to trace my intellectual path from what I once believed to what I believe now, not because I think that there is any difference, but because the people who I agree with have changed. And that’s odd.
This morning, I realized that Annie Dillard taught me so much, but not least among those lessons, the truth that there is no “pure society.”
I think the following, from her gorgeous meditation on Teilhard de Chardin, For the Time Being, is one of the most important passages of literature I have ever read.
“There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
“There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was on the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the 30th year, in the 4th month, on the 5th day of the month as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Cheban, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of god. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree at the end of your street than there was under Buddha’s bo tree….In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in trees.”
The message that there is no formerly pure society we are trying to go back to is freeing. What it means is that we are not trying to recover something that is lost. That we can stop our useless search for the golden age, and work with what we have.
As Christians, what we can learn from this is that nostalgia is not the Gospel. Tradition holds our stories, holds the memory of what is, rather than what we wish it would be. Tradition also paves the way forward—it is alive, growing, not calcified. The Resurrection is famously not a restoration of Eden—of a paradise lost—it is a breaking open of something new.
Once we accept that the times that are out of joint is the fullness of time, one we realize that the search for the holy is contained in the present moment—encompassed by what you already have and are—the entire journey changes.