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Patience encourages us to accept humbly that we will not be as good as soon as we want to, due to being part of the fallen world. This understanding need not lead to despair, but rather to hope, for if we keep patiently at it, eventually we will look back on the struggle as well worth the effort…

Has anyone ever paid close attention to those wonderful bugs that we grew up calling “water-striders”? I’m sure that most of us have not since we were little children, when we were still what George Scott-Moncrieff—the great friend of Russell Kirk—would call “sons of the morning,”[1] meaning persons who had no thought or preoccupations with cares or with worries, or who, at least, seemed more able to forget them than most adults can. But, finishing a walk the other day and cooling down next to a fountain-fed pond, I saw about thirty of these creatures calmly standing on the rippling water. I immediately wondered what it would be like to spend an entire life in a tiny little pond where the water was not even still, and the key to survival was keeping all of me above-water? And then I thought: I already know what that is like.

The little pool I was watching was something like an abstract portrait of the world, picture-perfect. It was sort of round, had firm boundaries, and several other things that made it look like the world as experienced by an outsider. But it also had the rippling water underfoot, and the deeps, which also made it look like the world as experienced by one familiar with it—and, or so it would seem, especially someone living now.

The world seems to be rippling a little, doesn’t it? What was firm seems fluid; what was steady seems flimsy; unlike the times when, so we are told, the waters were calm and we could see clearly to the bottom, the ripples on the surface nowadays obscure the deeps, making them dark, opaque, and threatening. We wonder at how we stay afloat with the constant shifting under our feet. And I think these little bugs have something to teach us about how that is done.

A water-strider stays above-water by two traits that are visible to us: He has barely any contact with the water, and what contact he has is spread-out as far as can be. (Actually, scientists say that it is even more spread-out, as the bug’s contact with the water is not by his feet, but by microscopic hairs that further distribute his weight.) Accepting the invitation of classical philosophy to see reflections of human nature in the world around us—given that human nature and the world of which we are a part has a common origin and common principles—I take the bug’s stance to demonstrate the twofold nature of the virtue of detachment. That is, what we might call “lightness”—detachment from the world at large—coupled with the virtue that makes Christian detachment distinct from the Eastern tradition, that of “generosity”—being detached from one’s own priorities enough to see the needs of our brethren. Scott-Moncrieff sums up this insight in one short sentence: “Dispossession is a secret of love.”[2]

George Scott-Moncrieff

That little sentence is, if there is one, the driving proposition of his book, This Day, a series of reflections on the stages of ordinary Christian holiness, written free of theological jargon or the pretensions of academic learning. It is at once charming and rigorous, at once profound and practical; it is a shame to find that it is out of print. And so there is some real value to sharing and reflecting on what he writes there.

He begins by cautioning us against clinging too tightly to our own expectations. While he affirms that expectations and ambitions are good things, he reminds us that—like all good things—no-one can cling to them as be-all and end-all without serious harm. Here, he states in simple, practical, yet edifying terms much the same thesis that Louis Bouyer approaches from an academic perspective:[3] reminding us that Christianity is foremost a religion of the Ascension, and that the “sursum cords”[4] is the fundamental movement of our lives—we “lift up our hearts” to the Lord, Who has gone before us and, by His heavenly mediation, gives strength, peace, and power to our earthly enterprises, ordering them to His ultimate and blessed ends.

As Scott-Moncrieff explains, this means that taking our own perspectives on “what ought to be” too seriously is dangerous:

It is the forethoughts and afterthoughts that mar our days. Memories are possessions, as are aspirations and ambitions. We need them as we need shoes on our feet and a roof over our heads. But too easily we cling tight to them in a way that … makes us only too conscious of inevitable loss. … Always to live in anticipation is never to find life new and fresh. Things never are what we anticipated.[5]

The more committed we are to how we see how things “should be,” we close ourselves in, “preferring shadows to reality”.[6] And this, Scott-Moncrieff says, can be done—perhaps most tragically—with what seem like the best of motives:

Love demands humility. The devil demands pride. There is even a curious pride about us when, in our compassion, observing the teeming suffering of the world, we feel God has made a botch of things. In effect we are assuming that we ourselves could have organized a better world, kindlier, “fairer.” We are assuming an omniscience in the affairs of others, and a wishful omnipotence on their behalf. Yet we are constantly learning how inept is our judgment, how extremely little we really understand, even of the events and personalities closest to us.[7]

This example is an extreme one, for sure. But just as Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, looked for justice writ large in order to see it in the individual soul, an honest person should be able to read the above description and see the elements of his own well-meaning illusions: Namely, that “digging in my heels” with regard to my ideals and expectations divorces me farther and farther from what actually is, because I have not the courage or humility to see it. Thus, I become a hostile solitary, a traveller distinctly opposed in mentality to St David the King, who cried out, “I am a sojourner on the earth … teach me Your commands!”[8] In other words, instead of humility, dissonance between one’s ideals and one’s experience leads to pride. And this pride digs deep roots down into the rippling earth, which disturbs their burrowing and stunts the growth of him who lays them down. The result, inevitably, is misery.

Happiness, on the other hand, need not belong solely to the temporally fortunate, as Aristotle can be read to suggest; rather, it is open to all who are rightly disposed to what is real. The “teeming suffering of the world” is not a barrier to happiness or wholeness, but rather what Scott-Moncrieff calls the “refusal to suffer”:

We know that happiness is possible in unpromising circumstances, as at times of profound suffering. … [S]uffering is so far from being the antithesis of happiness that one may fairly say that all unhappiness (which is not to say all pain) is simply the fruit of the refusal to suffer, resentment of and resistance to God’s will.[9]

This refusal to suffer is precisely the grumbling, desperate struggle to realize one’s private expectations in a world where each of us is a mere speck.

Yet, we are specks made in the divine image, so the fundamental conviction that we cannot be powerless in the face of the world’s pain is quite sound. It is at times merely misguided. It is the paradox of paradoxes—and one of the most revolting truths in the eyes of our contemporaries—that our power comes precisely from surrendering our power, and taking up not our own standard but the standard of the King of Glory: the cross, the easy yoke, the light burden.[10] It is a related truth that those people we revere as having done the most good for the world have been the least attached to it: here we think of the nameless hosts of monks, nuns, friars, missionaries, and people of goodwill who founded schools, universities, hospitals, agricultural communities, and brought civilization to Europe and beyond; we think of luminaries such as Francis of Assissi and Teresa of Calcutta, and—though they stand outside the Christian tradition—the likes of Socrates, Aristotle, and Mohandas Gandhi.[11]

These people were so effective because it was their detachment that gave them the freedom to live up to the expectations we have of ourselves, and the expectations God has of us. As Scott-Moncrieff explains:

Happiness is a duty. It is a great mistake to see it as anything else. Seen as an end in itself, we all know how elusive it becomes. The fact that its attainment is extremely pleasant does not make it any less urgent a duty: only a wretched puritan could suppose that duty is better for being unpleasant. If it is a means toward the end that is God, it must be our duty to be happy. God loves a cheerful giver…. In all happiness there is charity: for selfishness, possessiveness, are the great enemies of happiness…. Of course happiness does not survive unchanging evil. No man can proceed recklessly, trusting in happiness alone to see him through this world: happiness itself joins in demanding the sacrifices that God asks of those who wish to possess Him, [Who is] the very source and nature of happiness.[12]

Thus, detachment is not only necessary to happiness, but—as happiness is a constituent of charity—detachment is necessary for charity. This is not a Polyannish or unreasonable happiness, in the sense of covering the difficulties of living with a fine blanket of glitter and smiles. It is not even happiness in spite of life’s challenges. It is happiness independent of them, for he who has such happiness has it “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health;” he is not deterred when his expectations are not fulfilled, and yet rejoices when he sees good things going on around him, whether expected or unexpected. And his detachment allows him to see the unexpected good things as good, rather than merely as opposed to his preferred outcome. On the contrary, it is he who doubles down on his opinions who covers his eyes, or at least deprives himself of the courage he needs to set about the work before him; as Scott-Moncrieff says, “Desire may make us cling to a crutch of conceit, some cherished illusion that we cannot bear to surrender but which keeps us from ever walking in confidence.”[13] And so the detached person is better able to deal with the world’s problems—a logical conclusion borne out, as we have said, by historical experience.

The last word, it seems to me, ought to be one of hope. However charmingly and simply Scott-Moncrieff explains the needs and promises of detachment, it is obvious that practicing detachment is a tall order. Again, “happiness itself joins in demanding the sacrifices that God asks of those who wish to possess Him.”[14] And these sacrifices are great, and appear beyond our strength—and, in all honesty, they appear the more so the longer one has worked at making them. Hence, Scott-Moncrieff begins his essay on perseverance with a counsel to patience—an exalted form of detachment that refuses to become bogged down in the most deadly of all expectations: my expectations of myself. He says the following:

“Done is a battell on a dragon black”[15] is the opening of William Dunbar’s Easter hymn. We may have echoed these words in applying them to a conflict central to our own lives. But with us the battle is never really done on this side of the grave. Decisive conflict is followed by a long period of attrition. Our wills are still divided. We accept God’s service, but with many reservations. We cannot immediately accord him the complete renunciation that, we know, is asked of us. Indeed, it would generally be hypocritical for us to presume to do so, for our wills are as yet little attuned to God, and a show of complete meekness in his service would be false, a mere mask behind which ill will can fester until it poisons us all over again.[16]

His counsel, then, is patience—which, again, is itself the titanic struggle of applying to ourselves first what we would apply to the rest of the world. This is the hopeful side of understanding the Christian concept of original sin: It encourages us to accept humbly that we will not advance as far or as fast as we want to, or be as good as soon as we want to, or achieve as much peace as often as we want to. This is because we are a part of the fallen world, fallen like the rest of it. This understanding need not lead to despair, but rather to hope, for there is no reason to throw up my hands in despair when I fail, again and again, to be the man I wish to be. But if I keep patiently at it, eventually I will look back on the struggle as well worth the effort. The testimonies of the saints confirm this, and Scott-Moncrieff’s own little book adds a beautiful note to that chorus. May that note, which reverberated in the heart of his friend Russell Kirk, find echoes in our own hearts, this day.

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Notes:

[1] George Scott-Moncrieff, “Sons of the Morning,” in This Day. Baltimore: Helicon (1959), pp. 17-34.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Louis Bouyer, The Meaning of the Monastic Life. Trans K. Pond. New York: P.J. Kennedy (1955). The following more or less sums up his contribution to our discussion made in that book, which deserves to be read in its own right but would distract from the main thrust of this essay:

The whole of Christian antiquity understood man’s vocation as a call to share the angelic life, in so far as that life can be understood as the vision of God. … In the Scriptures the Christian life seems to be as it were animated by a movement, an impulse, which can only be described as “ascensional”. That was the meaning, symbolical if you life but not merely symbolical, that Christian antiquity saw in the mystical phenomenon of rapture … . The earthly career of the Son of God reaches its culmination and is perfected in the Ascension, His resurrection being only its penultimate stage. … Similarly, every Eucharist, celebrating this “exodus”, this passage from earth to heaven which Christ our Lord was the first to accomplish, doing so as representative of us all, culminates in the elevation of the per quem haec omnia; and then only, like new-arrivals in the divine presence, do we dare to address with the glorious liberty of the sons of God Him Who dwells in light inaccessible, saying finally, “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” (p. 23).

[4] Ordinary of the Roman Mass, preface dialogue.

[5] Scott-Moncrieff, 18.

[6] Ibid, 46.

[7] Scott-Moncrieff, “The Noonday Devil,” ibid., 46.

[8] Psalm 118 (119), Grail translation.

[9] Scott-Moncrieff, “Sons of the Morning,” 23.

[10] Matthew, 11:29.

[11] See A.C. Oomen, “What Gandhi Taught Me About Jesus,” in Plough Quarterly. This amazing testimony should both shame and inspire anyone who takes seriously the Christian dogma that the blessed Trinity dwells within the souls of the baptized, desiring to work mighty deeds within them, provided only they cooperate. The conclusion being that, however great and admirable the deeds of others, a baptized person should, be his faith the size of a mustard-seed, expect to do even greater deeds if it is God’s will.

[12] Scott-Moncrieff, “Sons of the Morning,” 19-20.

[13] Scott-Moncrieff, “Cool of Evening,” in ibid., 70.

[14] Scott-Moncrieff, “Sons of the Morning,” 20. My emphasis.

[15] See G. Bannatyne, The Bannatyne Manuscript, v.ii. Hunterian Club (1896), p. 94-96

[16] Scott-Moncrieff, “The Long Afternoon,” 48.

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