Home Altar

13 04 2009


The sacred is saturated with being.

-Mircea Eliade

The more time passes, the less certain I am of things. The good part about that is that I feel less need for that certainty now. No one is more certain than a twenty year old firebrand full of piss and vinegar. Having been one, I can assure you that this is the case. But life has a way of polishing the rough edges of your certainty and making you into a smooth, tolerant, and at times, indecisive person. There is too much complexity in life to jump into the fray of the chaotic street. Sometimes, you just want to sit on the porch and watch it go by, not knowing where it is all going, but knowing that you will survive all of this as you have survived it before. You also know that you not nearly as in-expendable, or nearly as important, as you sometimes think.

I used to enjoy thinking of life in terms of grandiose mega-categories. I believed in the “crises of civilizations”, “mass apostasies”, and other such ideological super-boogeymen the likes of which I would seek to combat with every fiber of my being. “Tilting at windmills”, I think to myself now. Such concepts exist to make us feel self-important. I can concede with the best apocalyptic Internet pundit that we are indeed going to sh*t, that all of this is unprecedented, and we may very well be staring into the face of the abyss. But what good will any of this rhetoric do, really? If things are so bad, what possibly can be done? Such petty bourgeois intellectuals like myself often get upbraided for their indifference as people storm into the streets banging pots. I would assure such people that my indifference stems not from not caring, but from knowing that caring too much can be equally harmful. Such pot banging often degenerates into barricades, and then into political gangs, and then into atheistic communists and pseudo-Christian fascists bashing each other’s heads in during the ensuing street fights. Being a student of history, I know that such things are inevitable. But I say to them, nulla partem. In such wars, there are no winners.

Such combativeness can also be translated into the realm of religious and philosophical rhetoric. As much as I am sympathetic to both sides of the culture and religious wars that are playing themselves out in the developed West, I can say that they often miss the point. I for one have ceased to think of things too much in abstraction. I do so because I have come to realize that I gave up playing with toys when I was twelve, and abstractions are just very shiny, very addicting, and very loud toys which many adults play with to the point of breaking. They are in many circumstances useful, but in the end these situations can all become analogous to the grown man who collects power tools because he likes how they look and not necessarily for what they do.

So when it comes down to what I really believe in, I go back to an episode that happened to me a couple of months back. I was in St. Peter and Paul’s Church in San Francisco: an old Italian parish that is a leading figure in the North Beach skyline. I remember praying the rosary before work at an altar of some obscure Madonna and passively looking at it. This was a sort of Jean-Paul Sartre moment from the novel Nausea, but with a very different effect. For in those slightly decaying flowers, the candles, the gray marble glistening in the cold morning, I could see something far transcending all human comprehension. I have put away all talk of a personal encounter or communing with the world soul, or any other “spiritual epiphany”. I speak only of the naked experience of Being, being-in-itself, looking at things not from a utilitarian standpoint, but as a dispassionate observer thrown into the torrent of the cosmos. These are very concrete, tangible things:  hierophanies, as Eliade would put it. Perhaps this is neither a noble or mystical way of putting it, but that is how I see things. Having studied all of the ascetical traditions of Christianity, I have to say that this is where I stand now: neither saint nor mystic, definitely a sinner, but just happy to be here. Deo gratias.

In a world that is becoming more and more foreign to our doctrines and ancient ways, our only real hope is to turn every gaze into a prayer. We must seek beauty in the small and the mundane, making both altar and citadel of our homes, our families, and ourselves. I have quoted the following in my writing many times, but I cannot quote it enough. It is from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and it is as follows:

Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter. For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey? Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them. Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.



6 responses

16 04 2009

This blog is wonderful!

15 04 2009
Ian Woolcott

This is wonderful.

14 04 2009
Ben George

Very refreshing. I dig the home altar too, I just got a beautiful statue of Our Lady of San Juan de Lagos.

13 04 2009
Rusty S.

What is the name of the picture on the top right with the hand? Thanks.

13 04 2009

I just wanted to thank You from the bottom of my phyletistic heart for quoting Mircea Eliade. 🙂

13 04 2009
random Orthodox chick

Reminds me of a quote from a little collection of letters, “Let Go”:

“St. Augustine says that his mother lived on prayer. I would like you to do the same.”

– Francois de Salignac de La Mothe Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambrai, France, 17th century

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