Stay in your cell…and your cell will teach you everything. – Sayings of the Desert Fathers
We are an extremely active society with something that approaches a cult of activism. Stated positively, it can be said that America is a “can do” nation. It is a drive that “settled the West,” dug the Panama Canal, spanned the continent with railroads (and highways), and landed men on the moon. We do not sit quietly in our cell.
Of course, not everything in life is a land lightly-populated with natives sitting on wealth, nor is it an isthmus begging to be dug. The vast majority of human problems do not admit easily of solutions. When confronted with the Great Depression, the American approach launched large projects and put people back to work. The massive project of defeating Nazi Germany ended the Great Depression with finality and launched the great consumer economy. When the abiding specter of poverty refused to disappear, we launched the “War on Poverty,” just as, a generation later, we launched the “War on Drugs,” to eliminate the scourge of addiction and crime. Neither has succeeded.
I do not cite these historical markers in order to discuss history, or to judge the past, though my reference to “settling the West” should be read with full irony. My point is to demonstrate a pattern of how our culture thinks about the problems of the world. We “solve” them, or we destroy the world in our effort to solve them.
I think it is possible to speak of the “soul” of a culture, its inner sense of itself and reason for being. How does it judge success? What does it mark as a hero? I would contend that unless we consider that soul, we do not understand a culture nor do individuals within it understand themselves.
Western Europe in the Middle Ages cannot be understood without considering the great cathedrals that dominated its attention. They were long-term projects that often involved the larger part of the community. They represent an abiding focus, an expression of the collective soul. It is little wonder that many in the ages that have followed pondered their absence within the modern soul.
What a gothic cathedral was to the Middle Ages, activity and busy-ness are to us. If you stand back from an American city (perhaps from the height of a plane), the most notable thing you will see is movement. The constant motion of automobiles and trucks are our most significant feature. The average male driver in America logs over 16,000 miles per year. Interestingly, that activity consumes over 380 million gallons of gas per day.
Certain aspects of our culture seem like echoes of the ancient Mayans. They seem to have built cities, complete with a pyramid-dominated religious structure and then abandoned them. Speculation has pondered whether weather or soil exhaustion or some other factor caused this behavior. I have wondered whether they simply liked to build cities. We do the same with shopping districts.
The saying from the desert fathers regarding stability (“stay in your cell”), suggests that our culture lacks a spiritual center. Ceaseless activity can have no center, only a direction. The cult of progress that fascinates the modern mind seems to intimate that the center is somewhere we haven’t reached. Perhaps a few more road trips will get us there.
The greatest weakness within our collective soul is our absence of being. We are a culture of action, but not of being. We easily divorce what someone does from who they are. It is thus easy to see how we consistently have leaders who not only lack virtue, but have clearly demonstrable vices. We forgive them in that we think they can “do” useful things. It is very interesting to live in a culture (a “free” society) in which its “leaders” are among the least trusted.
One classical school of theological ethics focuses on the question of virtue. It asks the question, “How does someone become the kind of person who does good things?” It presumes that character (“the kind of person we are”) is pre-eminent in human life. The saying of the Desert Fathers (“stay in your cell”) belongs to this school. The focus of activity is the cultivation of virtue. This approach understands that the busy-ness of those who lack virtue will not produce virtuous results. It is of a piece with St. James’ statement:
Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? No spring yields both salt water and fresh. (3:11-12)
“Staying” does not require that we never move. However, it implies stability, with a concentration on depth of character (virtue) rather than on abundance of action. Without such attention, a busy society becomes a corrupt society and its busy-ness only means that more damage is being done more quickly.
I fear that Christians have had little effect on America, whereas America has had deep and lasting effect on Christians. We are prosperous and busy but with very little depth of soul.
In the early 90’s, when the Cold War ended, I pondered what freedom would mean to the nations of the East. It brought about a deep emptiness within me as I realized that we had almost nothing to offer, apart from unlimited consumerism. Freedom for its own sake is meaningless. As it is, the soul of the East remained more intact than I had imagined.
We cannot become the East (not even those of us who are Orthodox). It might be sufficient, however, if we simply gain our souls. That is a long, slow work, a forging that must be done in the hottest fires and with great patience. We cannot teach what we do not as yet possess.