I went to church last night, and came home this morning. It was very early in the morning and still seemed like the night. In the past, back in ‘ordinary’ time, the sun would be just rising and the birds singing as we headed home after the Pascha services and celebration. This is the day of the year when the world turns over, and I always felt this strongly when driving to the church late at night in the dark, all dressed up and carrying a big basket heavy with delicious meat and other special foods and drinks for the big feast of feasts in a crowded hall after the most joyous and physically demanding services of the calendar. Usually, this day starts when regular days end, and when we get home we have a beautiful new day dawning.
“This is the day of resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call “brothers” even those who hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection.”
Matins of Pascha
This year was different. There was no crowd. Many of the ones I feel most naturally connected to, whose presence alone reassures, were not present. I even had to leave my wife at home. Only a few of us were there to make sure the services were done and to send out what light we could to those outside in the eclipsed world, even as we all struggled to find the right way forward in this strange new time. Make no mistake, this is still the day of resurrection; we have seen the true Light, death has been trampled by death, the serpent’s head has been crushed, all creation has turned on its axis of the cross. All those symbols do come together here, but this year I seem to be experiencing them at another level of abstraction, as if through a glass, on a screen, through a veil. Even though I have been in the church for most of the major services this week, the crowd, the physical body has mostly been dispersed. I have had to concern myself with a technical layer that involves projecting an image to all of those scattered members watching their screens. During the services, I too have had to watch the screens of a camera, a computer and a phone. For the Pascha services, I was behind a video camera and checking the stream with a 20 second delay on my phone.
Driving through the city the other day in very light traffic, my eye was naturally drawn to many examples of older buildings of pleasing design and solidity that were in many cases now showing signs of decay and deterioration. At one long red light, I had some time to look at a fine old church built about a century ago in a traditional simplified Gothic style, with a large rose window and a tall bell tower to one side. There was something that I found disturbing: at the top of the bell tower, there were clusters of cell phone antennae. I think this disturbed more than just my aesthetic sensibility, bringing to my mind a chapter in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris called “This Will Kill That.” It comes after a long description of the city of Paris in the fifteenth century, soon after the invention of the printing press.
“This will kill that. The book will kill the edifice.”…It was the cry of the prophet who already hears emancipated humanity roaring and swarming; who beholds in the future, intelligence sapping faith, opinion dethroning belief, the world shaking off Rome. It was the prognostication of the philosopher who sees human thought, volatilized by the press, evaporating from the theocratic recipient. It was the terror of the soldier who examines the brazen battering ram, and says:—“The tower will crumble.” It signified that one power was about to succeed another power. It meant, “The press will kill the church.”
But underlying this thought, the first and most simple one, no doubt, there was in our opinion another, newer one, a corollary of the first, less easy to perceive and more easy to contest, a view as philosophical and belonging no longer to the priest alone but to the savant and the artist. It was a presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable.
To Hugo, the work of the printing press itself became an edifice and he goes on:
Nevertheless, the prodigious edifice still remains incomplete. The press, that giant machine, which incessantly pumps all the intellectual sap of society, belches forth without pause fresh materials for its work. The whole human race is on the scaffoldings. Each mind is a mason. The humblest fills his hole, or places his stone. Rétif de La Bretonne brings his hod of plaster. Every day a new course rises. Independently of the original and individual contribution of each writer, there are collective contingents. The eighteenth century gives the Encyclopedia, the revolution gives the Moniteur. Assuredly, it is a construction which increases and piles up in endless spirals; there also are confusion of tongues, incessant activity, indefatigable labor, eager competition of all humanity, refuge promised to intelligence, a new Flood against an overflow of barbarians. It is the second tower of Babel of the human race.
So Hugo took us from the time of Reformation, through the Enlightenment, and into his age of Revolution. As that continues into our misalignment of heaven and earth, what is the next step? Can we see this as a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors on a grand historical scale? Paper from the Press covered the Stone as the Reformation and Enlightenment covered over the Traditional and Ancient world. Then the edifice built with paper was cut and deconstructed by the Scissors of Modernity and Postmodernity.
We can add to this game a riddle, “When is a window like scissors?” The answer is, “When it divides.” The glass in the pane separates the inside from the outside. Another riddle would be, “When is a window like an eye?” The answer to this one is, “When it allows one to see.” The window is the screen we all carry with us. It is also the screen many of us spend hours looking through every day. It has increasingly become the way we see and how we are connected — or divided. Extending the pattern of this game to the present day, we see these Scissors taking the form of Glass as the new digitally veiled window replaces Paper, or the press from a historical perspective.
So this brings us to a question with respect to this historical game and its circular hierarchy: Will Rock ever take its turn to smash the Glass? We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.
Thoughts like these, as well as countless practical and technical concerns, were crowding my head this week. But the Church has survived worse than this, and the world has ended before. It is wise to keep the lamp lit and be ready.
I need to pray more.
Christ is Risen!
We will be resurrected with Him!
Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
*Victor Hugo, Isabel Hapgood translation. Notre-Dame de Paris. Book Five, chapter 2. 1831 (1888 trans.) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2610/2610-h/2610-h.htm#link2HCH0023