More Reflections on Freedom and “The Pit”

modern-timesI often return to the recurring theme in my life, and I still work at it and do all I can to “reality-check” it. This theme is one of the relationship between the human person (me or anyone else) with the world we live in. It is no new issue, and the drama has played out throughout history. There has always been the status quo of the majority in society and the minority, the person who is variously a freedom fighter, a terrorist, a criminal or who simply opts out. We all live this tension in different ways and surround our quandary with various philosophical theories or ideologies.

I have written before on the subject of Christian anarchism in Another Nibble at Christian Anarchism and the earlier article Christian Anarchism. Much of the Gospel concerns this tension of the child of freedom under the New Testament against the slave of the Old Law. Christ’s message has often been compared with ancient Greek cynicism.

For the Cynics, the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.

I think this is the essential of Christianity, at least at a moral level, as emulated by the medieval Franciscan movement. Of course, there is also the sacrificial and sacramental aspect of the Christ-Mystery which is perpetuated by the apostolic Church, more or less faithful to what seems to be an originally Cynical ideal. This ideal, present wherever individual persons are confronted with any anonymous and inhuman system, pervades our society as at other times when humanity was threatened by totalitarianism of any kind from British Imperialism, French Imperialism, anyone else’s Imperialism, Fascism, Communism, Capitalism or Socialism. The present totalitarianism, capitalism, seems about to go the way of Caesar’s Empire or Herman Goering – but a lot of people will suffer until they can learn to adapt to a new paradigm.

I was reading a sailing blog this morning, one in French (here if you’re interested) and it hit home for me in many ways. Sailing for reasons other than transport, warfare and fishing, was once called the sport of kings. A boat or a ship (a vessel capable of carrying a tender or other landing craft) is a large and expensive piece of equipment, and the violent action of the weather and the sea often cause the owner to carry out expensive repairs. That is an inescapable reality, no different from houses, cars, computers or washing machines. Some things in our lives are purely useful and utilitarian, and others make our life more pleasant.

The writer of this French blog seems to have a chip on his shoulder about the boat being a status symbol of its owner, with a whole issue of urban snobbery. The same goes for expensive cars and sports utility vehicles, especially when much less would do to transport people and goods by road. Ultimately, we are all free to spend our money as we want and assume our commitments in terms of paying back the debt of however much the thing cost and what’s needed to maintain it in optimum working order. I often see these big expensive cars in towns and big expensive boats in ports – and don’t envy those who have to pay for them. In the world of yachts, as in any single-interest group, you have people like in the gentlemen’s clubs in London who want the privilege and not have to share it. On the other hand, you have others who do want to share an inestimable gift with others and create a kind of parallel society. This you will find in all walks of life, from the yacht club to the Church, from the local pub to anything else.

Our friend of the French blog describes the life of the sea as perfectly suited to the spirit of the anarchist. Yes, the sea is a space of freedom by its covering more surface area of this planet than land and its hostility to human life. Thus, the sea can only be inhabited by humans by means of seagoing vessels, and only for short periods of time – from a few hours in an open boat to a few months in an ocean-going ship. During the time we are at sea, we leave everything behind – political power, markets, money, authority, the so-called “Pit” of modern life. This is the thing that enamoured me to the enigmatic figure of Captain Nemo in the world of Jules Verne – Jules Verne and the Sea. The problem with Captain Nemo is when his idealism became violence and destruction when it came to sinking the ships of the authorities he hated. We don’t get anywhere by hatred and revenge, and the Christian Gospel gives us the way. But, this embittered man also represented an ideal that captured my boy’s mind at the age of about 12. I have only changed in the details, not the foundation.

The chance to put to sea on my own terms is a little taste of that aspiration of the soul. I am limited only by the fact that my boat is only a ten-footer and can be safe in a force 4 wind and not to much in the way of waves. There is the limit – I am a coast-hugger and limited to staying very close to land. On the other hand, there is even more “freedom” of “being near the shore but not of it” to misquote the Christian’s usual attitude about the “world” in the Joannine meaning of the word.

The personality of Captain Nemo, apart from the ship-sinking hatred that drives him, is in a way prophetic. There is a strong protest against the use of technology for warfare and killing or enslaving. He is almost a kind of Robin Hood figure robbing the rich to feed the poor, voicing the protest of the outlaw against the forces of money and corrupting power. It is almost a Jungian archetype, technology used to combat the abuse of technology by the powerful majority. But in the end, there is the aspect that mars – Nemo is little more than a pirate. Piracy nowadays is a very sordid business of horrible men in powerful motorboats attacking cargo ships off the east coast of Africa and making those waters inaccessible to the circumnavigating yachtsman. Piracy was probably just the same in the past, except that it has been romanticised by films and books from about the nineteenth century. The real issue here is the our freedom is limited by that of other people. Otherwise we would become anti-socials and criminals. That is always where anarchism has become unstuck, as soon as someone commits a terrorist act like planting a bomb and killing innocent people.

There is another category of marine anarchists – tramps, like the ill-clad man in the street of a city asking you for the money you earned through your honest work. Already, it is an improvement when this man asks for money instead of attacking you to steal it. It is even more of an improvement when the tramp (who is no longer a beggar) finds a way to earn what he needs, bartering for necessities through offering services. I met a man in my chandler’s shop who was preparing a circumnavigation in a large Westerly yacht. I asked him how one finances such an adventure. You save up what you need as a reserve and you do “little jobs” wherever you go: language teaching, repair work to cars and machines, whatever you can do. You don’t expect much in return, just food and a little “top-up” money. It takes about three years to sail around the world, so this is something you need to think about. You don’t need money at sea, but you do need food and warmth.

One of my favourite historical characters, since Nemo had to be discredited in my mind for his violence and bitterness, is Joshua Slocum. He suffered bankruptcy and being widowed. His life meant nothing other than the call of the sea. His book is wonderful and refreshing in its down-to-earth way, and the absence of bitterness or hatred against what he had left behind. Life becomes motivated by a whole different set of priorities and values, until one is lost at sea or returns to land as an enlightened prophet or wise man. Such was also the way of the contemplatives in the desert!

The rest of this blog’s thought is more specially of interest to sailors, where we learned to sail, whether it is a status symbol of a way of finding ourselves before God, whether the only thing that matters is competition and evermore expensive racing vessels or the joy of being afloat and discovering something. In all walks of life, we shy away from the values of power, competition and money to restore the human person and the spirit. Ideology can enter any walk of life, from the traditional Latin liturgy to having the best nec plus ultra boat that money can buy.

The present financial and political crisis in the USA brings me to consider the various answers people have attempted in order to define the person’s relationship with “The Pit“, this term being defined as the world outside someone’s (cf. The Invisible Empire of Romantia) particular way of escaping into an ideal world. Christianity also proposes the opposite of the “world” – the Kingdom of God, parables being used by Christ to convey the inner meaning. There is the myth of the survivalist who dreads the total breakdown of society, and believes he can retreat to the forest with a gun, a bar of gold and three months’ supply of corned beef and butter beans! We might be tempted to think we could do it in a boat! At least the boat can move around, however slowly it does so…

Perhaps freedom is an illusion, but yet so is the world we live in, based on a notion of money that corresponds with neither property nor human work. As we advance in years, we ask whether anything has been worth it, whether life ever had any meaning. We fall victim to the noonday devil of acedia. I have seen this over the years with priests in parish ministries, bloggers and contemplatives. We have to fight to be free from prisons of our own making, and often that is only possible by asceticism and symbolism that means something for us.

Perhaps something will make us a little more hardy in the face of adversity, whatever form that might take, is the possibility of managing on our own, doing things ourselves what others did for us in exchange for money, being satisfied with less and more simple things. One essential point I am making is the need to remain a sign of contradiction, keeping up the tension between us and the “system”, “pit” or whatever you want to call it. In the time to come, we will do this in different ways. Going through the various ideas on the internet, there is the temptation of the bandwagon, the signgle-idea hobby horse, the “orthodoxies” of those who themselves seek advantage and gain. It is only human.

As in Catholic Christianity (as opposed to the institutional notion of “the” Church), we have to learn to be individuals and persons, always open to the “other”, be it God or those we love or with whom we keep polite relations. We have to manage on our own or in little like-minded communities. Small is beautiful. Will a general collapse of debt-based illusory economies enable us to build new and small societies and make do with what we’ll have, however difficult that would be?

Many are alarmists and make mountains of conspiracy theories. We need to be informed and learn about things, react rationally and moderately. This is something I learned whilst speculating on the current situation in the USA. It will probably be business as usual as their national debt goes up and up and up and they continue to rape the world’s resources. The zero point is either now or in a couple of years’ time. What happens over there will come over here to Europe, and some of us might be able to make a new start somehow. It will help to have been something of a rebel and a cynic in the ancient Greek meaning of that word.

Like many, I am afraid and feel highly vulnerable, and don’t know where the blows will come from. Life is so precarious. I look out of the window and see the trees swaying in the wind and the rain spattering against the panes. Yesterday, I found a brief respite in the weather to sail along the Alabaster Coast from Saint Valéry en Caux to the north cardinal buoy of Paluel, enjoying a hearty east wind and swell for surfing – and today it was a slog just to cross over the yard to the chapel to say Mass. Wise people of the east – and Christ – would tell us to count our blessings and treasure what we have without looking to have yet more. Many of us come to that point, and we will be the happier for it.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

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One Response to More Reflections on Freedom and “The Pit”

  1. Rdr. James Morgan says:

    “Perhaps freedom is an illusion, but yet so is the world we live in, based on a notion of money that corresponds with neither property nor human work. As we advance in years, we ask whether anything has been worth it, whether life ever had any meaning”

    Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,
    Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free…
    Kris Kristofferson, Ballad of Bobby McGee

    I don’t know if I totally agree with this, but St. Benedict Joseph Labre comes to mind, along with the pilgrim in Way of a Pilgrim.

    Rdr. James Morgan

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