Remember when email was fun? How simple it was to “shoot” a greeting to a friend, receive a pithy reply and close your inbox feeling content and connected?
I now have three inboxes and I approach each of them with trepidation. Even my personal inbox is more like Pandora’s box than a friendly greeting gatherer.
Still, I’m grateful for the opportunity email provides, not only to stay in touch with faraway friends, but to receive content from thinkers I’ve come to love and respect, even though it’s hard to stay on top their output.
One of those is James M. Kushiner, the Executive Director of the Fellowship of St. James, whose bi-monthly magazine Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity has been source of inspiration for decades.
My inbox being the overflowing content catcher that it is, I don’t always read Kushiner’s “Friday Reflections,” which I think I receive as a Touchstone subscriber. But scrolling through my overloaded inbox this weekend I stumbled on his Friday Reflection for November 27. The title, “O What a Horrible Year? Time for a Reset?” caught my attention and Kushiner’s thoughts reset my year-end attitude, just as the beginning of Advent had two weeks ago.
“As the horrible year 2020 comes to an end,” Kushiner’s reflection begins, “many are wondering what the New Normal will be.”
Affronts to faith are fast advancing in a culture where “buy without ceasing” is a panacea for pandemic fears about economic downturn, he noted. While church services have been curtailed for understandable reasons this year, we could be redeeming the time lockdowns have given us in ways more profitable to the soul.
Economic downturns have ripple effects that hurt everybody, especially the poor. But Kushiner’s point is well taken. We must not allow our souls to be dimmed by the 24/7 call to consumerism.
We have access to more life-giving rhythms.
“Christians can only ‘reset’ away from secularism by returning to the Ancient Normal,” Kushiner continues, “which is not susceptible to fashion or the times since it is defined by the vertical dimension, the divine, which is timeless.”
That phrase, the Ancient Normal, took me back to the prophet Jeremiah, whose call to the weary survivors of the Babylonian exile is also true for 2020’s weary survivors:
Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand by the roads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
The Ancient Normal is a human path, respectful of the trancendentals of truth, goodness and beauty. The Ancient Normal is a path of prayer, of communion with God, neighbor and the natural world. The Ancient Normal is a rhythmic cycle of worship, work and rest.
In The Contemplative Hunger, a series of short reflections for those seeking deeper prayer, Father Donald Haggerty comments that many today see the search for truth as a creative process in which items of interest may be added or removed “according to one’s shifting taste and need.”
Further, when the concept of truth is reduced to nothing but empirical facts, the transcendent is not allowed voice. As this occurs, The hunger for truth diminishes to “a search for mere fragments of reality, a shifting among particles and pieces of knowledge instead of a broader exploration seeking the unbounded whole of reality.”
The ancient paths, in contrast, go back to the dawn of creation. They were formed through the revelation of God to the Hebrew people and continue in the prayer of the Church, whose worship, like that of our Jewish forebears, is liturgical, providing times for feasting and fasting, speech and silence.
The ancient, life-giving paths are prefigured in the Old Testament, fulfilled in Christ and continually available as an ever-new communion for open souls in every moment throughout time.
Outside the ancient paths, history feels relentless and random, an unfulfilling quest for an unattainable future. But the ancient paths reveal the unfolding of the story of God working through his people.
The invitation opens to each generation: move away from self-defeating ruts cut by wheels of ego-driven effort. Step onto the ancient paths, where spirits are refreshed and souls renewed as they enter the story of God, the path to reality.
The ancient paths direct the way to wholeness.
After all, writes Holly Ordway in Apologetics and the Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, “we are not merely making claims about the world or about a few things that happened in the past, we are making a claim about the very nature of reality itself. There is nothing whatsoever in the heavens or the earth or under the earth that is outside our faith.”
Ultimately, the coherence and soundness of Christian teaching (truth), the witness of the faith lived out faithfully in individual lives, families and community (goodness) and the experience of the aesthetic, emotional and spiritual riches of the liturgy and the arts (beauty) are all connected.
The ancient faith has “truth for the intellect, goodness for the moral sense and the will, and beauty for the aesthetic sense, the emotions and the imagination.”
Kushiner asks his readers to take a serious look at their steps. Are we truly walking the ancient paths? Are our homes domestic churches? Are our spiritual habits strong enough to withstand greater restrictions to the practice of the faith should they be imposed in the future?
Or are we mostly buying without ceasing?
Augustine of Hippo (354-450) writes in his Confessions of taking every path he could to avoid the ancient path of his saintly mother, Monica.
Exhausting the philosophies of his time, finding honor as a brilliant rhetorician and drinking deeply of sensual love failed to satisfy the hunger of his heart.
Finally, under the influence of Ambrose of Milan, the life of Anthony of the Desert and an inner prompt to take up the Scriptures and read, he found rest for his restless heart, declaring:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! . . . Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all.
The ever-ancient, ever-new normal beckons in late 2020 as it did late in the fourth century.
This holy season is but another invitation to ask where the good way is, walk in it, and find rest for our weary souls at the end of a “horrible” year.
“The year 2020, however it might be described,” Kushiner reminds us, “is fundamentally another Year of Our Lord, Anno Domini.
“He owns the times and the seasons, and all authority on earth is rightfully claimed by him.”
That reminder is sufficient for the contemplative soul to find its rest whatever the culture’s “New Normal” turns out to be.
The Ancient Normal offers timeless truth. And our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.
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You might also like Three Words to Guide a New Year of Hope.
In addition to publishing Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity and Salvo: A Magazine of Society, Sex and Science, the Fellowship of Saint James produces a beautiful annual calendar, Anno Domini, featuring biblical engravings by artists such as Gustave Doré, William Blake, and Albrecht Durer. It’s a lovely reminder of the ancient paths for the new year. You can order one for your home here.