June 12, 2019 · Fr. Stephen Freeman
I recently bought a pickup truck, a twenty-five year-old clunker that runs ok. I paid $600 for it and have been slowly tending to the little fixes that it requires. It’s old enough to lack the computerization that puts vehicles beyond the reach of a shade-tree mechanic. My father and his father were both auto mechanics. I had forgotten how much satisfaction I get from doing what they did.
When I was in seminary, I had an old Volvo that faithfully negotiated the winters of Chicago and the potholes of Spring. When I returned South, there was a hole or two where rust had done its worst. My little brother and a neighbor boy offered to patch the car up and repaint it. It was a bold offer from a teenager, but it ran in his blood. They did a great job. He now tends a diesel on a tugboat in the Mississippi.
In some rural towns it was not uncommon to see a “Farmer and Mechanics Bank” (there is still an institution that uses the name). It was a collective term that generally described the entire working population. Some people farmed and others fixed. Some did both. It represents a time in which our culture was “hands on.” In our time, it is often as cheap or cheaper to replace something as it is to repair it.
Of course, there are hands somewhere in the chain of events that produce the stuff of our lives. In a globalized economy, the hands may be a world away. Many items, such as clothing and electronics are rarely made in America anymore. My home county in South Carolina once boasted the highest concentration of textile mills in the world. Today, there are none.
We are a people who eat without farming and are clothed without weaving. Our lives are abstracted from the activities that sustain them. We are alienated from human existence, though we rarely notice.
I have an instinct that this alienation creates a “thinness” to our existence. We lose connection and communion and wander amid ideas and not realities. Economists describe all of this as a “service economy,” meaning that what we do is abstracted from growing and making.
There are rhythms in our bodies. The cycles of a woman’s womb follow that of the moon (it is the origin of the word “menses”). That many cultures calculated the year by lunar cycles (this is the pattern in the Scriptures) was not based on some strange reverence for the moon itself. Today, that rhythm is just as often regulated by artificial hormones.
This rhythm is not the only thing about our lives that is connected to earth, sea and sky. We belong precisely where we are. Human nature includes not only our bodies, but our bodies’ connections to creation itself. It is our home. Our ability to master, control and manipulate has made all of this less demanding. The setting of the sun might be sung about at Vespers, but the switches on our walls make it rather unremarkable.
I am not a Luddite who believes that a world with mechanical devices is inherently bad. I do believe, however, that it is possible to forget much of what it is to be human. There are always hands somewhere in the chain of events that give us what we need and use. However, when it is never our own hands, something is lost.
I am deeply appreciative that in Orthodox practice, the bread of the Eucharist is made locally, at home, either by the priest or someone who has been given that blessing. The loaves that I work with are always “less than perfect.” They lack the uniformity I see in the machine-kneaded products often found in larger Russian settings. I like them. Those who bake have to pay attention to many things – the quality of the flour, the humidity of the day, sometimes, even the altitude at which the work is done. The dough is leavened – that is to say, it is alive (just as wine is alive in its fermentation).
I have read that there is a growing split between urban and rural areas, not just in America, but worldwide. Voting maps point unmistakably towards this phenomenon. Of course, pundits have their many explanations. Most of the analyses that I have read are concerned only with exploiting these differences for their own political concerns. It is possible to read it in another way – not as a division between individuals, but as a division within the human heart itself.
We are at war with ourselves. There are currently movements (eddies in the swirl of modernity) that seek to define our humanity in terms that are disembodied. They exalt the will and treat the body as a “fluid” concept. The exaltation of the will (a feature of modern madness) is fraught with problems. To an extent, cities have always been a drive of the will towards mastery of the world. Modern cities, particularly in America, are even more abstract than others.
Even in rural areas, the urban life is constantly streamed into homes. Urban globalism is the market product of modernity. Across the world, populations stream towards the cities hoping for a new life, perhaps to live as a cast member of “Friends.”
It is not surprising that modern urbanites imagine spreading life to the moon or Mars. Though such a life would be spent almost entirely indoors in an artificial climate, or underground to avoid deadly cosmic rays. Perhaps such an existence seems similar enough to present urban lives to be plausible.
To live with tradition has come to mean far more to me than accepting what the Church has received in its teaching and practice. It is a “way of life,” or, perhaps, a “way of living.” It is the recognition that “tradition” describes the very nature of true human existence. We do not create our world – we inherit it. Obviously, many things that we inherit are harmful and draw us from the truth of our existence. That is the case with much that comes to us from the modern project. Indeed, the larger part of that project is the constant rejection of that which has gone before.
Oddly, the “creating” that we imagine ourselves to be engaged in is “handed down” to us as well – but as the content of marketing in its various cultural disguises. There was a satirical song, released in 1993 by the Rock Band, Cake. Its final verse is quite apt:
Excess ain’t rebellion.
You’re just drinking what they’re selling.
Your self-destruction doesn’t hurt them.
Your chaos won’t convert them.
They’re so happy to rebuild it.
You’ll never really kill it.
Yeah, excess ain’t rebellion.
You’re just drinking what they’re selling.
Excess ain’t rebellion.
You’re drinking what they’re selling.
How can you afford your Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle?
The “rebellion” (in its many permutations) of our modern period is marketed. Ideas, movements, mores and morals are all marketed in a version of late consumer capitalism. Words and ideologies are spouted as though they were the result of a well-considered philosophical position, and this by people who know very little history or philosophy. The same can be said of what many claim as scientific “fact.”
There is a patience and a humility that comes in a traditioned existence. It assumes that age and experience hold the possibility of wisdom, and that the wisdom of earlier generations is a treasure. Just as our DNA is a treasure, representing countless generations of survivors, whose inherited immunity makes life possible, so the inherited wisdom of the past offers much that can only be discovered through bitter experience – either that of those who went before us or our own as we ignore what we could have learned.
Another aspect of this traditioned existence is found in a thankful life. If our life consists largely in what we have received, then it is lived most fully in gratitude. I am grateful for what I am, including the strange twists and turns that make me the man that I am.
I need to go change the oil in my truck. I will think of my father and my grandfather and rejoice in the grime of my hands. Farmers and mechanics in the Kingdom of God.e
About Fr. Stephen Freeman
Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.