The truth is that we, in our hyperprosperity, may be able to live without meaning, faith, or purpose, filling our threescore year and ten with a variety of entertainments – but most of the world cannot. If economics is implicated in the conflict, it is mostly in an ironic sense: only an abundance of riches such as no previous generation has know could possibly console us for the emptiness of our lives, the absence of stable families and relationships, and the lack of any overarching purpose. And even within us, the pampered babies that populate the West, something – a rather big something – keeps rebelling against the hollowness of it all. But then our next consumer goodie comes along and keeps us happy and distracted for the next five minutes. Normal people (that is, the rest of the world), however, cannot exist without real meaning, without religion anchored in something deeper than existentialism and bland niceness, without a culture rooted deep in the soil of the place where they live. Yet it is these things that globalization threatens to demolish. And we wonder why they are angry? (Meic Pearse. Why the Rest Hates the West. p 29)
At book study today we were talking about inner stillness, and how to pray well it’s necessary to “strip away” thoughts and worries from the mind; Fr. J. told a story about visiting Mount Sinai and walking up it in the middle of the night – he had imagined maybe 20 or 30 people walking in silence and darkness; what actually confronted him, however, were some 500 chatting tourists with flashlights and cameras, along with a hundred or so Bedouin salesmen. So he was walking along, feeling irritated, accosted by fellows trying to get him to rent a camel, with a feeling of God telling him repeatedly not to judge, nor be irritated, and to let it all go; these venders cannot disturb you if you deal with the Bedouins of your mind and heart. So he hiked, prayed, and tried not to judge, until finally he began to gain some internal quiet. At that moment a man stepped directly in front of him, asking if he would like to rent a camel. So as calmly as possible he looked into the Bedouin’s eyes and said “I came here to pray – please, please allow me to do so.” The fellow understood; they bowed to each other respectfully, the follow stepped aside, and the path sort of cleared as though all the other vendors had gotten the message as well – and shortly there was a space away from the crown and a lovely dark quiet of the desert.
Why am I juxtaposing these two things? I think we like to blame something or someone for the disorder of our minds, our civilization, the world: everything. And to an extent it’s true. It’s true that the West produces a massive weight of vulgar entertainment that could keep a person distracted for a lifetime, just as it was true that the tourists and venders at Sinai were not behaving as one might wish of pilgrims at a holy place. But that’s not everything that’s going on. Monks will say that it’s possible to live in a cave in the desert in complete silence and still be distracted. We carry our distractions with us.
After going on for some forty pages about the hypothetical primitive man who’s self-sufficient and equal, whereas modern man is depraved, Rousseau (in the epilogue to The Origins of Inequality) writes:
What, then, is to be done? Must societies be totally abolished? Must meum and tuum be annihilated, and must we return again to the forests to live among bears? This is a deduction in the manner of my adversaries, which I would as soon anticipate as let them have the shame of drawing. O you, who have never heard the voice of heaven, who think man destined only to live this little life and die in peace; you, who can resign in the midst of populous cities your fatal acquisitions, your restless spirits, your corrupt hearts and endless desires; resume, since it depends entirely on ourselves, your ancient and primitive innocence: retire to the woods, there to lose the sight and remembrance of the crimes of your contemporaries; and be not apprehensive of degrading your species, by renouncing its advances in order to renounce its vices. As for men like me, whose passions have destroyed their original simplicity, who can no longer subsist on plants or acorns, or live without laws and magistrates; those who were honoured in their first father with supernatural instructions; those who discover, in the design of giving human actions at the start a morality which they must otherwise have been so long in acquiring, the reason for a precept in itself indifferent and inexplicable on every other system; those, in short, who are persuaded that the Divine Being has called all mankind to be partakers in the happiness and perfection of celestial intelligences, all these will endeavour to merit the eternal prize they are to expect from the practice of those virtues, which they make themselves follow in learning to know them. They will respect the sacred bonds of their respective communities; they will love their fellow-citizens, and serve them with all their might: they will scrupulously obey the laws, and all those who make or administer them; they will particularly honour those wise and good princes, who find means of preventing, curing or even palliating all these evils and abuses, by which we are constantly threatened; they will animate the zeal of their deserving rulers, by showing them, without flattery or fear, the importance of their office and the severity of their duty. But they will not therefore have less contempt for a constitution that cannot support itself without the aid of so many splendid characters, much oftener wished for than found; and from which, notwithstanding all their pains and solicitude, there always arise more real calamities than even apparent advantages.
Every person from every culture would surely prefer that we were not tempted by distractions that seem beyond our ability to surmount. Cultures of sufficient size usually reach a point of decadence where it’s even more difficult than usual for ordinary people to resist the noise that rises against and within us. Sometimes it leads to large monastic movements, or perhaps philosophies of stillness like Taoism. Here in America we even court the noise – not that that’s especially unusual either, but technology amplifies it. In any event, what’s the use in being angry? If Christianity is true then the external noise only has power if there’s inner noise to yell back at it.