On a December night, sometime between the life I used to lead and the life I lead now, whilst a friend and I were cutting through some backstreets off Oxford Street, we noticed an open church door. She suggested we go in and have a look. It made an intense impression on me. The interior was covered in deeply coloured mosaic tilework, interlaced black and white patterning. Scenes from Scripture were portrayed in dignified, pre-Raphaelite style by friezes on the walls. Incense hung in misty clouds gathered about the pillars in the nave. Around the High Altar was a seamless array of icons of saints, set against deep purple, rich crimson and darkly starlit blues. I desired to know more about this place, and resolved to come back for Midnight Mass.
Most ‘radicals’ had moved from anti-globalisation battles to tweeting EU flags
I’d never been to Midnight Mass, nor any other Mass for that matter. As far as I can remember I hadn’t set foot in a church since I was a child. Then I’d had a classically misspent youth in 1990s London. The less said about all that the better. I was on my way to leaving it all behind me.
In the years of transition that followed, there were strange moments when the old life and the new encountered each other. En route to Mass somewhere or other, I would not infrequently run into old faces making their way home from a night of partying. Conversations were difficult with my being stone-cold sober and talking to people who hadn’t slept for days. On a Church procession for Corpus Christi, I noticed some old companions of mine sneering from the pavement. I was relieved when they didn’t recognise me. After all, I’d recently run into an old face on the train one Sunday morning, and he spent most of the journey laughing at my newly acquired tweed blazer (not without some justification).
I sometimes encountered people from the old days who were treading a similar path. With one it began because his girlfriend’s uncle was a priest. He told me, in hushed tones, that open conversations with this uncle made him think that this priest was a true free-thinker, compared to so many people we knew who’d started policing pronouns and so on. Another had got involved with a cultish group and gone to live in an Ashram, before realising the values therein were not so much about spiritual wisdom as just Guardian-reading with added joss sticks. I was recently interested to see another old acquaintance write about her own experience of seeking refuge in a church.
Another girl I knew had once been a balaclava-clad warrior at anti-globalisation protests. We ended-up talking for hours, years later, about how Catholicism offered a true and enduring transgression, a perpetual subversion of the status quo — because its teaching intrinsically subverts the entropy of human weakness, unimaginativeness and all our grubbing around for a cheaply-won sense of self-satisfaction. The Faith was everything we had once been looking for, we concluded. Yet most of the old “radical” characters we knew had by this time moved from anti-globalisation battles to tweeting EU flags and rainbow-flag sponsored adverts for Barclays Bank and Ben and Jerry’s.
Each of those people, and a good few more whom I knew, were hardly living holy lives by this point. I couldn’t say with confidence that they’d stopped getting intoxicated or having casual sex. As far as I know only one of them is now married, and none have kids — although Catholicism speaks a lot about these things. I doubt very much that their explorations with an ancient faith had meant they could suddenly avoid attention-seeking on social media, or cultivating subtly amenable public personae on Instagram that don’t quite chime with the reality of who one really is. Did I pry into any of this during those conversations? Of course not.
Julia Yost recently wrote an essay on the phenomenon of Dimes Square-type characters adopting “the ancient faith in defiance of liberal pieties”, cultivating a “contrarian aesthetic” and thus being “more transgressive than progressive”. Yost is encouraged by a resurgent religious conservatism among on-trend New Yorkers. She is aware of the dangers of a “contrarian aesthetic” being something superficial, as in just the latest attempt to be transgressive by any means necessary, even if it involves kneeling for prayer and wearing mantillas. Her point is that the Church has ever “welcomed converts with motives other than sheer religious zeal”, and that “fake it to make it” is a perfectly reasonable strategy. Routinisation, she says, makes things real.
Premodernity and postmodernity have much in common
Yost’s essay provoked a brilliantly written riposte by Ann Manov. Manov is unconvinced, to say the least. She says the case is overblown, there aren’t hordes of avant-garde youngsters engaging in prayerful devotion. She maintains that this is just another grasp at gaining attention by members of a generation whose brains are profoundly warped by social media, a naff attempt at personal branding on territory as yet unmonopolized by the mainstream. Most damningly, she observes that “making a spectacle” of one’s faith can offer “a veneer” which lets one’s trespasses feel “more palatable”. She then shares examples of the Dimes Square characters she knows who masquerade as Catholic revivalists whilst living less than Catholic lifestyles, replete with ample use of Tinder and/or lines of ketamine.
Manov is right when she says that a facile, image-conscious religiosity is a “a distinctly postmodern attitude to appropriating the premodern”. With the collapse of stable truths in postmodernity, people take bits of this and bits of that, without a firm and consistent background making it cohere into a meaningful and enduring worldview. What takes the place of that background is the grand narrative of self-fulfilment — something feels good, or makes sense or (more often than not) temporarily distracts us from the aching void that is human life in a meaningless world.
Premodernity and postmodernity have much in common. The premodern grand narrative of Christendom was permeable with plural means of apprehending truth, compared to the rigid reductionism of post-Enlightenment, scientific modernity. Mythic imagination, beauty, instincts and prayerful insight were not dismissed as truths of a different order to those attained by the inductive method of modern science. The big difference between pre- and post-modern, however, is of course the underlying grand narrative — once, for Christendom, the great cosmic scheme of the Old Faith, and now, for postmodernity, an implicit registering of dopamine hits suggesting you are winning at life.
I don’t doubt Manov’s stories about those who pontificate about the veracity of the hardest elements of Catholic sexual ethics before swiping right and dating strangers. She’s also right to say that “endlessly rejecting liberal pieties is easy; what’s difficult is taking a cold and curdling look at one’s own life”. The issue is that this implies that the new Catholics would be genuine if they could demonstrate personal authenticity — if the aesthetic were demonstrable in other areas of their lives then we would know they really, yes really, believe the image they’re adopting. Then it has become a genuine path to self-fulfilment.
The genuinely premodern moment — or rather, the moment of faith — is not about attaining personal authenticity or integrity. Postmodernity collapses when you realise that mere belief, even sincere belief genuinely held, is nothing compared to a belief in something which is actually true. Then you realise that it remains true regardless of what one does or says, regardless of whether it feels that one is winning at life because of it. Simply finding coherence is not enough. Indeed, what people today dismiss as “Catholic guilt” reflects the fact Catholicism is intensely subversive precisely because it subverts even one’s own religiosity, endlessly exposing even one’s own piety as cover for deeper layers of unbelief and inexorable self-interest. In short, to paraphrase Yost, moving from LARPing to genuine conversion is something which believers must undergo again and again — not because it makes them authentic believers, but because we are so estranged from how things actually are.
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