Nostalgia

An excellent article has just been published on The New Liturgical Movement“What Is Most Deeply Human”: Two Contrasting Approaches to Nostalgia.

I have heard the discussions and read the literature for and against the traditional Roman liturgy from the point of view of the reformers, the conservatives and traditionalists. We still have discussions about “classical” Anglicanism, the Prayer Book and the Missals. The Roman Catholic Church almost seems to be replaying the sixteenth century, as we find alternating trends between the conservatives and the iconoclasts of our days.

This article addresses a fundamental human frame of mind, nostalgia, a word that conjures up images of elderly folk talking about the “good old days”. I remember a TV commercial in the 1970’s for a brand of bread in England, with a man in his 80’s reminiscing about going to the baker’s shop on his bicycle as a young boy some time before World War I and saying that the bread was as good today as it had always been. The background music was Dvořák‘s New World Symphony and the scenery of some village in industrial Yorkshire. The commercial appeals to nostalgia to convey its message. Everything has changed except the bread!

We tend to be derogatory and demeaning when we consider nostalgia. N’est ce pas, old people only ruminate the past and hardly represent the future of the brave new world! If we were to read the worlds of certain high priests of the novus ordo, growing old is something really to worry about. We shouldn’t forget that we’re all going to get old – unless we die first…

There is a different kind of nostalgia, not for a particular period in time, but for a more human world, something less mechanised than our own time. Technology has brought immense benefits to mankind from medicine, labour saving, culture to communications. At the same time, it has taken away innocence and beauty. I have read about children themselves lamenting that they were using mobile phones and computers before they were ready for them. I grew up with things my parents didn’t have at that age, and I see exactly the same things now with two new generations. The tape recorder is now as obsolete as the wind-up gramophone, and electronic calculators can be bought with a child’s pocket money. My generation saw Captain Kirk and Spock using communicators in Star Trek movies, and did not imagine that we would see everyone using mobile phones and i-pods in our lifetime. We all have our reference points, but we mix them with the technology we are now using together with our knowledge.

Nostalgia has a deeper meaning, as this NLM article brings about. Yes, we find the idea of reacting against modernity and what Oscar Wilde would have called the soul of man under socialism. Many ask whether the abdication of Benedict XVI took us back to the brutalism of the 1970’s! There is a strange sense of back to the future. Young people have been discovering traditional Catholicism for a long time, but is there much difference between some kid born in 1990 and myself at the same age back in 1982? Thirty years divide the two, yet there is essentially no difference between then and now – except the technology.

Nostalgia is something profound and powerful when it underlies spiritual things. We read in the Psalms:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.
As for our harps, we hanged them up: upon the trees that are therein.
For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody in our heaviness: Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land?

This is the nostalgia of exile, not only of someone from his native country but also from the tabernacle of God. It is not difficult to imagine the sadness of an exile and a slave in a far country. This is something that happens in churches when you take everything away even under the pretext of replacing it with something new and “better”. Indeed, those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Many of us are nostalgic for a more spiritual and human world, or simply a place in our modern world of technology and money for that sabbath of the soul for which we all yearn. We have a deep hunger and thirst for beauty and transcendence. We reach out from our mortality for what is eternal and perfect. The words of the great American poet Walt Whitman come to mind:

O Thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them.

Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee O soul, thou actual Me,
And lo, thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,
And fillest, swellest full the vastnesses of Space.

Greater than stars or suns,
Bounding O soul thou journeyest forth.

The TLM article seems to strive for a distinction between profound existential nostalgia and elderly persons obsessively regurgitating an idealised version of the past. We find a contrast between ecstasy of the soul turned away from mortality to transcendence and the self-absorption of which the angels of the “brave new world” accuse traditionalists. Is the distinction so absolute?

Traditionalists tend to be self-defensive about justifying the use of the old liturgy, trying to take away the subjective elements for which they can be criticised by their adversaries. I don’t think we need to justify anything, for the superficial elements are a part of the wholeness of humanity and the transcendence for which we long.

We all face an uncertain future as fragile persons and minority communities. Our condition as exiles seems to be just about definitive as the churches close down, and we continue to hear and read the mindless patter from the “liturgical” bureaucrats. We are told that the future, in the words of George Orwell is like a boot stamping on a human face – forever. But, we have the liberty not to believe those who would reduce our existence to ever-expanding cities, electronic gadgets, the rhythmic noise some call “music” and aggression. There is another dimension of humanity, and it will survive and endure all things like the darkness of the Soviet hell, the old Nazi totalitarianism and the things the modern elites have in store for us if they get their way. Man’s soul will endure and find its rest in the Eternal.

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One Response to Nostalgia

  1. Patricius says:

    The literary works of J.R.R Tolkien are full of nostalgia, whether it be Gandalf’s sigh as he remembered the “unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor at work” in the days of the Two Trees as he took Pippin to Minas Tirith or to the longing of the dwarves for their ancient home in The Hobbit, or even of Cirdan the Shipwright as he waits on the “grey shores” for the passing of the Last Ship. I think it’s one of the reasons Tolkien appeals to me so much. Memory, nostalgia and longing for the past, for a sense of moral righteousness is given a somewhat theological veneer. He paints a very beautiful picture of the saintly days of yore, and how much things have changed (for the worse) on account of the existence of evil, neglect, people forgetting (and being themselves forgotten) and the decay that Time inevitably brings.

    Salvation comes as an eucatastrophe, only at the end and in spite of all odds, and that which has fallen into decay as a result of time and all those things becomes more poignant and meaningful as a result of this process. Grief is lost in joy, selfishness in altruism because our knowledge of evil and the contingency of matters has changed. As Eru (the Godhead figure) himself said to the supreme agent of evil (in my own words as my copy of The Silmarillion is not to hand): “for he that attempteth this [to change God’s design in spite of God] shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things even more wonderful which he himself hath not imagined.”

    I have been reading about Buddhism lately, and Buddhists take a very stoical disposition to memory, attachment and longing. But I think that memory and longing go to the very heart of Christianity and were intrinsic human principles set in our hearts by God himself as a mirror to reflect upon the Truth. After all, the Anamnesis of the Eucharistic liturgy is central to our faith and did not Christ himself say that they are blessed, them that “hunger and thirst” for righteousness? As for me, I hold those who remember high things relative to our own fallen times as blessed among men, having at heart a very evangelical principle. It is this principle, more than any parallels one might make between Varda or Galadriel and St Mary, Mother of God, that makes Tolkien a most catholic and most religious work; Memory and Tradition.

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