The Old World and The New

I have recently moved from Los Angeles, California, to Trumau Austria, in order to pursue a Master’s degree in Sacred Theology. Uprooting myself from the city where I have lived most of my life was difficult enough; to move to a foreign country was daunting, indeed. To couple that move with a return to school for a 57 — year old has been quite a challenge. My stay shall be several years long if I am successful; but I shall be in my 60s when and if I return to my native land to live.

Still, it is quite pleasant, really. The parts of the United States I love most are those where our European heritage is closest to the surface. But these are shadows of the living reality that remains in the Mother Continent. I would be the first to admit that the secular, decadent, Jihad-beset Europe in which I live is not the continent of altar and throne from whence our fathers came. We are separated from that realm not merely by an ocean of space, but one of time as well — and, as Galadriel sang in Lord of the Rings, “What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?” Nevertheless, that sea is no wider than the one that separates me from the United States in which I was born — the land of Norman Rockwell and Irving Berlin — and the circus of the demented in which I dwelt until recently. Indeed, among certain people, in certain places, and at certain times, the gulf between this Europe and the other narrows considerably — indeed, occasionally almost disappears.

Medieval Europe — the Sacrum Imperium, Abendland, l’Occident, Christendom — call it what you will — was an incredibly diverse place. Such political unity as it had was conferred upon it by the notion of the Holy Empire as physical embodiment of the Holy Church. As James Bryce wrote, “the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire are one and the same thing, in two aspects; and Catholicism, the principle of the universal Christian society, is also Romanism; that is, rests upon Rome as the origin and type of its universality; manifesting itself in a mystic dualism which corresponds to the two natures of its Founder.” This was as true of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church as it was of the Byzantine Empire and the Orthodox Churches — and jointly true of all of them before 1054 and sporadically afterwards, until Constantinople fell in 1453 as her Catholic Emperor Bl. Constantine XI fell defending her — unless, of course, like Arthur and Charlemagne, he shall return when his people most need him. In any case, from the time of Constantine the Great the double-headed eagle, looking both east and west and symbolizing both temporal and spiritual authority, has symbolized that phantom Empire and all who laid claim to her heritage. And so it may be seen to-day, from Spain to Russia, and the Netherlands to Turkey.

Of course, that Empire was made up of many Kingdoms, most of whose Monarchs had the sacred nature of their authority underscored by the Coronation Rite. Although revolutions have swept away most of those thrones and creeping secularisation has done away with the ceremony among the remaining rulers (even the Papal rite has been replaced by a more republican-style “inauguration,” and Heaven alone knows what shall be done to the British after the Prince of Wales succeeds his mother), the surviving collections of Crown Jewels retain a sense of the Sacred to them, regardless of the regime under which they are kept. So too with the various Imperial and Royal coronation, wedding, funeral and entombment churches and sites. Innumerable abbeys, parishes, and cathedrals boast of past and present Royal connections — as do schools, universities, and even law courts, militaries and government ministries of republican regimes. Often this pride is bizarrely schizophrenic, as it also tries to play up the given institution’s contribution to whatever replaced the Sovereign. But inevitably, each nation of Europe has a foundational story involving some sort of compact between God and the Church, the land’s first Christian ruler, and the people. Reigning or not, the various Royal families remain active in their countries, as do their supporters (sadly, the latter are often bitterly divided by succession disputes within the former).

Despite the decline in religious Faith in all of Europe, Catholicism is still displayed in a public manner alien to the United States outside of Louisiana, New Mexico, and a few other ethnic enclaves. Feast day processions in many places require the participation of local government officials, and there are innumerable monasteries and shrines. These latter ranging from impressive cathedral-style buildings commemorating a host of apparitions and miracles down through the ages, to simple roadside affairs showing gratitude for the granting of some favour. Deep as the Schism between Orthodox and Catholic may be, there are still shrines sacred to both, such as Bari, Czestochowa, and Pochaev. Even in Protestant countries, despite the collapse of doctrine within the State Churches, pilgrimages and shrines long ago shut down at the Reformation are making a comeback. So too, despite often fevered opposition by senescent Bishops, traditional Catholic belief, liturgy, and devotions are making a return throughout Europe — especially among the young.

For centuries, the key supporters of both Church and Crown (often filling offices under both) were the titled nobility, the gentry (untitled landowners), and in many cities, the urban patricians (similarly title-less, but major players on the urban scene). As with the European Monarchies, political revolution and social change often destroyed most of their power. Nevertheless, although replaced as dominant figures by the political, media, and financial classes, they continue to exist. Many are members of traditional organisations specific to their class; some may be active in agricultural, hunting, sporting, military, and educational activities, as well as historical preservation and environmental conservation — often of their own inheritances. Certainly, it is always amazing to be shown about a property by a direct descendant of those who built it centuries ago. As with so many of us, the conscientious among them must try to figure out a way of living in a time and place so hateful to their beliefs in a way that allows them to remain true to their heritage while having a positive effect upon a society over which they have no control.

In old Christendom, commoners per se were divided by their residence — urban or countryside: there were no suburbs. Cities were dominated by Cathedrals, merchants, and artisans (the latter two often forming the above-mentioned patriciate), and later, often enough a university; towns were known for annual trade fairs (usually permitted by Monarch or great lord to be held on a Saint’s day) and weekly markets; and the rural villages comprised the Lord of the Manor (one of the gentry), the parish priest, and the local famers and labourers. Of course, if the agricultural tenants were fortunate, their “Lord” would be an abbot or some other Church functionary: unlike secular lords, ecclesiastical institutions did not die, and so rarely required renegotiation of contracts. Serfs were, on the one hand, bound to the land; but on the other, they could not be driven off it. Town or country, commoners practiced a host of traditional crafts — fleshed out in mountain or coastal areas by fishing, boatbuilding, mining, and the like. Practitioners of all of these formed various guilds and other organisations to preserve their skills, venerate their patron saints, and sometimes to assist in local governance, defence, or policing. Some of these live on or have been refounded as merchant and trade guilds, livery companies, shooting and wine brotherhoods, and purely religious confraternities in such places as France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

With this background, and with the incredible natural and built heritage upon which it was formed, it should be no wonder that Europe has produced an enormous amount of myth and folklore, nor that that in turn should have transformed into a body of literature, art, music, and cuisine that excels all the rest of the world’s. As Belloc informs us: “You can quote six cheeses perhaps which the public power of Christendom has founded outside the limits of its ancient Empire — but not more than six. I will quote you 253 between the Ebro and the Grampians, between Brindisi and the Irish Channel. I do not write vainly. It is a profound thing.” From this European cradle, the Spanish and the Portuguese, the French and the Dutch, the British and the Danes, and the Swedes and the Russians emerged to conquer, settle, and/or dominate the rest of the world. On the foundations laid by the colonial empires rests the global civilization of which we are part — and none more than that part of it encompassed by these United States.

Indeed, we are the most successful colony that has ever been, for we have in most respects forgotten our origins, and unconsciously consider ourselves autogenetic. Even before our financial dominance of the world in 1915 — thanks to Europe’s self-immolation in World War I — our frontier had captured the imagination of generations of Europeans, and kept the immigrants coming. Karl May, for instance, although he had never been to America, penned dozens of western yarns and continues to enthrall the German-speaking young. When the War ended, American friend and foe in Europe alike drank deeply of the never-ending fountain of jazz, cocktails, Broadway musicals, and finally radio and Hollywood pouring out from our side of the water. The end of World War II and the descent of Communism across half of Europe ushered in our attempt at establishing world order through the United Nations and local prosperity in the Mother Continent via CARE Packages and the Marshall Plan. While encouraging European economic growth at home, however, American foreign policy was hell-bent on expelling our allies from their colonies — a strategy exemplified by our role at Suez. The post-World War II era saw rock-and-roll colonise Europe, followed rapidly by their own Counter-Culture, the Generation of ’68. As with our own Baby Boomers, these now control their countries, and attempt to impose upon their different populations with varying degrees of vigour all of the wondrous things we enjoy in America: abortion, gay marriage, and latterly, rap. Indeed, depending upon the country, acceptance of these things in the United States has often been a powerful argument in their favour in Europe. To-day, in music, dress, and morals — in a hundred ways — Europeans tend to ape their daughter country across the Atlantic.

At the same time, however, despite our protestations of political independence and cultural supremacy, we Americans have an undying fascination with when and whence we came. Our judicial, academic, clerical, and military clothing practically scream the birth-continent of those institutions, as do their various rites and customs. Those of our cities and regions that most reflect their European origins (or those of the later immigrants) are the focus of our internal tourism, alongside our justly-vaunted natural wonders. “Colonial charm” is a telling phrase, as we visit Historic Jamestowne, Plimoth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg, and the California Missions. Even in Chicago and Kansas City it is the European ethnic enclaves and festivals that attract us the most. PBS survives off its Anglophilic fare, and from Jane Austen to Tolkien to Bertolt Brecht, there are innumerable readers and fans of European literature in this country. Our major art museums are crammed with prizes from the Old World, as are our great historic houses from San Simeon to Biltmore. The Renaissance Faires, Christmas Revels, and Society for Creative Anachronism offer those so motivated to travel back in time as well as space — ironically, these too are fads that have spread back across the ocean!

The truth is that Europe now extends from San Francisco to Vladivostok and encompasses all countries and peoples whose religion and culture originate there: for all the differences between us, Americans, Argentines, Armenians, Australians, Austrians, and all the others are co-inheritors of the greatest civilisation the world has ever known — the greatest, because founded upon the One True Faith. If it is wilting to-day, beset by internal and external foes, if huge tracts of it are scarred by heresy, schism, and/or a merely nominal adherence, its essential Truth and Beauty can no more be entirely suppressed than can be that of the religion which gave it life. Unlike that religion, however, the civilisation can die.

Whether we live in Paris France, Paris Texas, or Akaroa, New Zealand, we really dwell in the same cultural wreckage. The Old World IS the New, and vice versa, for all the many differences in the constituent places. How to address this wreck? First, we must live that Faith to the best of our abilities, despite the misdoings of prelates, priests, or laity. Secondly, in the public life of our own town, county, province/state, and nation, we must do whatever we can to steer affairs back in a Christward direction. Lastly, whatever remnants of old Christendom we find near us — be they real, revived, or imitation — let us nurture them as we may, and attempt to steer such institutions and practices back to their original intent. In that way, instead of being mere remnants, memorials of a better time, they may one day be the building blocks of a renewed Christendom, encompassing East and West, North and South, “in one fair realm of charity.” God speed the day!