SKULKING IN THE DARK: AN APPENDIX

by Chris R. Morgan

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Last week, Jacobite magazine published an essay of mine centered on fra Girolamo Savonarola. The essay served a couple of functions. First to make the case that Savonarola, who was burned at the stake in 1498, has an undervalued contemporary appeal, specifically in his zeal for Godly moral reform of a society steeped in corrupt secular worldliness. I did this by showing the similarities between the friar and certain strains of the punk movement—not only in his unvarnished righteousness but also his use of youth to implement his agenda. Second, then, was to demonstrate how a predictable pattern social rebellion emanates from unpredictable sources. This made for confusing reading, no doubt, not least of all because many readers were forced to wrap their heads around Krishnacore. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. An essay can balance multiple priorities and still be coherent. Though I still feel that there is room for expansion on the broader point.

One of the few responses I got pointed out that, for all the moving parts involved, the scope of the essay was still very narrow. I had, according to this tweeter, overemphasized the strident earnestness of Fugazi at the expense of the more ironic critiques of Dead Kennedys. I may yet write on Dead Kennedys, whose Swiftian brand of punk appeals to me and is vital, but that entails a different essay entirely as they—like their even more idiosyncratic Bay Area peers Flipper—were more literary than movementarian. But something did go unwritten, so I’m going to write it here.

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I wonder if there is an alternate timeline where Thomas Merton had not died suddenly by freak electrocution in 1968. That cynical adage—maybe originated in Johnny Rotten, maybe not—that death is a “good career move” for once does not apply here. Maybe that’s not the case for Merton himself, but in exiting the earth as he did, the work he left behind has, like the Vatican II reforms then being undertaken, become prisoner to a generation. He exists now as an icon of a limited triumph rather than as a guide one might seek through endless troubles. How Merton would have weaved through the mutating turmoil of the 1970s and beyond is a seductive speculation. He would doubtless have been more challenged, but I think not fruitlessly.

Much of what we know of the classic stereotype of punks—their filth, their rudeness, their sloganeering mode of speech and thought, their radicalism, also their filth—is derived primarily from Crass, a band which existed from 1977 to around 1984. Yet Crass was very unusual among its contemporaries. The band’s founder, Penny Rimbaud (nee Jeremy John Ratter), then age 34, had spent the previous decade in a cottage commune in the Essex countryside so isolated that it took days for news of the moon landing to reach them. In that time, Rimbaud and his fellow artists had several bands, happenings, festivals, and poems behind them. Crass was less a musical act than it was a multimedia articulation of a political program. Indeed, compared to the more tonal politics of other bands—Sex Pistols were contrarian, The Clash romantic, Killing Joke existential—Crass was a concise, if brute, argument for anarchism, pacifism, direct action, feminism, and rabid anticlericalism. Their albums were manifestos that included screeds, careful visual language, and pranks that nearly destroyed the planet. More broadly, however, was their ideal of living outside society, subsisting on their own means to reach their own ends. “There is no authority but yourself.”

“[T]hey were in a certain sense anarchists,” Thomas Merton wrote in 1960, “and it will do no harm to think of them in that light. They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively ruled and guided by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.” Merton was assessing the character of what is generally referred to as the Desert Fathers, men (and women) who, following the birth pangs of Christianity, dropped whatever they were doing as citizens of the Roman Empire or thereabouts to pursue a reduced state of seclusion, manual labor, prayer, fasting, and meditation. “Driven by furies out from men and lands,” wrote fifth century Roman poet Rutilius Namantianus, “A credulous exile skulking in the dark/Thinking, poor fool, that heaven feeds on filth.”

The Desert Fathers, like Savonarola, are an easy mark for projection and allusion, perhaps easier because even the most illustrious of their number—St. Anthony the Great—rises only so high above the cluster. But they’ve been making it easy for centuries. St. Augustine was moved to tears by their example and then to Christianity. St. Benedict formulated his Rule after them, organizing and perpetuating monasticism by leaps and bounds. Ditto Sts. Jerome and Francis. It is either too easy to overstate or to overlook how meager their backgrounds and ambitions were in comparison. Some came down from nobility, others up from slavery. Some had spouses and others were prostitutes. Many could not read, but somehow managed to internalize the Scriptures. They did not seek ordination or ministry, and if so then with the greatest reluctance. They were not interested in institutionalization, but in living out the Gospel.

As such, the Desert Fathers were not a doctrinal group. Much of their teaching, such as it is, survives in the form of homiletic bites, nearly all recorded secondhand, passed down and spread around for centuries. Merton has translated a selection of them. A truncated edition of Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin is somewhat more comprehensive, dividing sayings by subject: quiet, compunction, self-control, lust, humility, non-judgment, fortitude, discretion, unceasing prayer, hospitality, visions, etc. Some are quite straightforward:

Some brothers ask Marcarius, “How should we pray?” He said, “There is no need to talk much in prayer. Reach out your hands often and say, ‘Lord have mercy on me, as you will and as you know.’ But if conflict troubles you say, ‘Lord, help me.’ He knows what is best for us, and has mercy.”

Others are a bit more involved:

A brother was tested by temptation in Scetis. The enemy brought into his mind the memory of a beautiful woman which troubled him deeply. By God’s providence a visitor came from Egypt. When they met to talk, he told the brother that his wife was dead (she was the woman about whom the monk was tempted). When he heard the news, he put on his cloak at night and went to the place where he had heard she was buried. He dug in the place, and wiped blood from her corpse on his cloak and when he returned he kept it in his cell. When it smelt too bad, he put it in front of him and said to his temptation, “Look, this is what you desire. You have it now, be content.” So he punished himself with the smell until his passions died down.

It’s very easy to give a certain pathological reading to such passages, as the Amazon reviewer who inspired my purchase of the book clearly did: “The Desert Fathers are concerned with their own souls, but they are okay if the rest of the world goes to Hell. In fact, they seem more concerned with avoiding Hell than going to Heaven.” Fair to an extent. Not everything included is a source of wisdom, but some may read the second passage and still take something from it. Finding, perhaps, that it articulates the pressure and struggle to maintain chastity in a culture that has discarded it. One of the challenges of religious life today, and also of reading this book, is picturing the folly, fervor, and difficulty of early Christianity. Not simply the state of persecution—though that is often conjured—but of living by the Good News itself. The Desert Fathers lay bare the wild vicissitudes of holiness in practice.

“They did not reject society with a proud contempt, as if they were superior to other men,” Merton continues. “The Desert Fathers declined to be ruled by men, but had no desire to rule over themselves. … The society they sought was one where all men were truly equal, where the only authority under God was the charismatic authority of wisdom, experience and love.” In the end, a thesis’s true strength isn’t that it can be confirmed or reconfirmed, but that, once confirmed, it can be pushed. To declare something as the “new punk,” even if that punk is centuries old, is to do a disservice to the spirit that compels it and the other destinations that it could reach.

In the early 1990s, Justin Marler of the stoner metal band Sleep quit his music career and spent seven years as an Eastern Orthodox monk. During that time he published a zine called Death to the World to evangelize to other punks. “The last true rebellion is death to the world. To be crucified to the world and the world to us,” Marler wrote in the first issue.

This counter culture of Punx is something that a handful of truth seekers can easily identify with, for it is very clear that the world is coming to a close. To be a true punk is to have nothing to do with that element which kills, hurts and causes pain, but to cauterize wounds. To be in the world but not of the world.

If anything ties these strings together, it’s in leading to a way out; or if not a way out, then to a way up. People are attracted to punk by a sense of disquiet. Certain other people are attracted to the idea of punk through yearning for disquiet. But one cannot go from disquiet to disquiet and expect growth, let alone autonomy, just as one cannot go on inventing norms just for the purpose of shattering them. Disquiet and yearning, moreover, are not hostages to one mentality; they require their own nurturing, because they are not useless. In fact they are essential, equal to if not greater than certainty and righteousness. Humanity would atrophy without them.

In the previous essay I had already taxed myself pretty desperately beyond my ken in making religious prescriptions. But the point I made then remains unchanged here. Young people are seeking religious renewal. Churches may rejoice that the time of being “spiritual but …” or imbibing in ritual with no strings attached is going into its death throes. But churches with their own forms of stasis, whether in struggles with modernity or petty fractiousness, might not be the immediate sources of correction. Renewal does not automatically entail a return or a “reform of the reform,” sometimes it is an assemblage or an exploration, a kind of rewinding in order to fast forward. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen because it’s the kind of thing that always happens.

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