Wednesday, March 27, 2019

sorting out: automobiles, iPhones, the Latin Mass

Meditation on the automobile, what it is used for, what it stands for—the automobile as weapon as self-advertisement, as brothel, as a means of suicide, etc.—might lead us at one right into the heart of all contemporary American problems: race, war, the crisis of marriage, the flight from reality into myth and fanaticism, the growing brutality and irrationality of American mores.
—Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

If one of the (myriad) problems with smartphones is that they are a break with our past and a confinement to a self-saturated present, then Thomas Merton is the great antidote for smartphone. Reading Thomas Merton is like reading a transcript of your conversations or texts or internal monologue.

There's something very comforting in realizing that we are not part of a new problem, but simply part of a problem that minds smarter than we have been wrestling with for two hundred years and change.

For example, the miniature screed against automobiles that Thomas Merton marks down above eerily echoed a statement I made to a roommate, after seeing the number pedestrian fatalities from automobiles in New York since the beginning of the year. Cars still suck, even fifty years later.

Also, Merton simply points out that the latest piece of personal technology being used as a status symbol becomes a mirror where all our flaws are exhibited and enabled. iPhones are our portals to social media by which we do nothing but advertise ourselves, they are the window to the internet, through which porn is excessively available, the epidemic of iPhones, internet, and social media is indeed leading to a rise in loneliness, poor mental health, addiction, and suicides.

We feel—and maybe rightly—that our problems are worse than our mothers' and fathers'. Being a good human (or even a human at all) now feels objectively harder. When we own these pocket computers that suck away so much of our time—11 years! on average!—certainly we are beginning the search for God, the quest for human flourishing, the journey to become spiritually enlightened with an unprecedented handicap.

This, in fact, may be true. And perhaps what the long nineteenth century has been is a slow erosion of the social structures that halt the inward curve back in on ourselves and reroute us back towards the other, the neighbor, the community, the divine.

Maybe. But this has also, in a remix of the old tune of wheat and tares, happened side-by-side with undeniably good things: abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, increased lifespans, and better chances of surviving childbirth, epidurals. It seems no good in trying to blame time itself for our problems. Entropy makes everything a bloody mess, like an infant being born. Bloody mess is part of the process of getting living done.

I think, as I read Merton's jotted down thoughts, sitting on the park bench with beer and cheese and pistachios, in the rapidly decreasing temperature of sunlight, that during the time he is writing and in the intervening space between his writing and my reading, two movements to get back to the past began occurring in the church: ressourcement and the swinging pendulum of liturgical change.

This makes sense, in the stinking bog of modernity, it only makes sense that one would turn to the past (in the neolithic age before Aquinas) to try to reach a time before all this started. What were humans, Christians, or theologians like before Darwin happened? Before Luther, before Henry VIII, before the One Hundred Years War, before the plague, before the Avignon papacy?

It seems odd, then, that Catholics after Vatican II decided they wanted to "go back" to the Tridentine Mass, to a form of Mass which was a. not more ancient than any of the above, b. codified in a time of crisis, in what must have been the turbulent seas of Reformation Europe.

This seems less like a return to an ideal situation and more a decision to not divest oneself of the crisis response stance. It strikes me that the Latin Mass was the Mass we were celebrating all through the 20th century. We were still celebrating the Latin Mass as the world was crumbling around our ears in 1917, 1939, 1945.

The only reason to hold onto it, it seems, is a nostalgia. Or a distrust that the new solution can save us. The sense that the Latin Mass is the tradition that will save us!! seems short-sighted, as it imagines that the church’s cultural coinage crumbled in 1969, and that the fall of the Church's influence in culture was a result of Vatican II instead of Vatican II being a response to the fact that the Church had already lost a grip on modernity.

We are still in a crisis, writes Thomas Merton. We're still living in a world actively being stripped of her enchanted garments. It doesn't seem to be over yet.

Perhaps self-diagnosis is an inescapable pastime. Perhaps it is necessary, to identify all the barriers to our living-out of the Gospel. Because, certainly there are barriers, and certainly they must be overcome. It is incredibly hard to cultivate prayer without ceasing and radical attention to God-in-your-neighbor when most free time is spent on 2048 or looking through Instagram stories. I'm not saying it's possible, because Lord here we are in 2019, despite all odds, and spring is blooming in the park. But, still. It's definitely an uphill battle. Hasn't it always been?

At the end of the day, the task is always fairly simple: feed yourself and then go feed someone else. There will be so many barriers between that first and second step. As Sam the Seminarian aptly put it: just make people soup. But there will be many excuses for why we don't have time to feed someone else, or why there are other, more pressing things to do than offer soup to this person. Or why it's embarrassing or impossible or why we don't have the right tools for giving soup (per esempio, tureens are expensive, I just bought one at the Yemeni discount store for the price of $20 and scraping the bottom of the brain barrel for every last word of Arabic).

But, whatever problems we diagnose and issues we uncover in our rotten world, their cure certainly lies in the soup: the giving of it, the having of it, the receiving of it and the sharing of it. For, as Thomas Merton puts it:

Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.

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