I'm glad for the vibrant discussion of yesterday's post about Hallie Lord and her article at Faith and Family. Though I did have to delete one abusive anonymous comment, for the most part people have been able to express their ideas charitably and with good sense.
I would, however, like to take this opportunity to clarify, not what I wrote, but why I wrote it. It seems that every time I take on one of these topics, whether it is to point out that women of the past in America wore hats, mostly, to church, not veils, or whether it is to remind those who sigh over their grandmother's organizational skills that grandmother's children spent six or seven hours a day in school away from home and were not underfoot when grandmother was attempting a deep cleaning, some people end up being offended.
I'm not sure why this is. I suppose this may be one of those times when tone doesn't translate to the written word, and when some may see my attempts in this direction as being the actions of a killjoy, an Ebenezer Scrooge who looks at the banquets, clothing, manners and deportment of the past and says, "Bah, humbug!" to it all.
Nothing could be further from my intention in writing as I do. I admire people who immerse themselves in history; I myself have a great fondness for antique stores and their treasures. The collector of vintage hats or patterns or teapots would find in me a sympathetic ear, and could pour out their passion for such things without any fear of ridicule.
But the things of the past, these collectible items, have the aura of truth about them. A much-patched and mended garment, a hat spoiled by an untimely rain whose spots are still visible on the dusty brim, a teapot whose lid bears a telltale crack down the center--all of these tell stories of real people, living real lives. These are not figments of our imagination; they were, and lived, and laughed, and loved, and died and faced judgment as we all will. And they still have existence; they still are.
We have a tendency to romanticize the past. This tendency is human, and understandable--but it's also rooted in fiction and can even be dangerous to us, to our spiritual lives and growth. I'm sure there are many ways to describe the various ways it can be dangerous to place the past on a pedestal--but two come to mind particularly.
The first is like what I alluded to above, when I spoke of the "hats vs. veils" controversy, or the belief that one's ancestors were just superior beings in their ability to raise children, do farm chores, spend two entire days washing, drying (on the clothesline) and ironing the family's laundry--and yet still manage to look as though they'd stepped out of a bandbox each evening when their husbands returned from town or from the back 40, as the case might be. At the root of this belief is the idea that our ancestors--grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.--possessed a key to living and an understanding of the world that we have lost, and that if we could only find that key again we could, magically or miraculously or both, recapture this blissful way of existence, this more natural, more authentic, more human way of being that has been taken from us by the evils of modernity.
Why is this dangerous? Because its fruit is bitterness. I have seen it happen, time and time again, that someone will become convinced of this idea, this notion that if we just return to "X" or start doing "Y" again, peace and tranquility will follow in the wake of these actions as surely as spring follows winter.
I want to be extremely clear, here: the danger lies not in doing the things our ancestors did, if we find these things interesting, enjoyable, profitable, helpful to holiness, etc. A woman who decides to raise chickens or attend the Latin Mass or hang her clothes to dry instead of using the clothes dryer because she wants to do these things for their own sake is in no danger at all. But the woman who thinks, "I will raise chickens, and suddenly the world will be a better place, and my children will understand what real chores are, and we will have the authentic goodness of our own eggs at our peaceful family breakfasts lit by the rising sun, and the gentle noise of the hens will delight my soul and..." is probably headed for some disappointment (followed by a sharp learning curve--or a race to sell the unfortunate fowl to her nearest farm neighbors). Similarly, the family who decides to attend the Latin Mass for its own goodness are going to benefit, I have no doubt. But the family who decides to attend the Latin Mass in order to escape the evils of the Novus Ordo Church and to show off their years of Latin scholarship and to "help" the priest determine the size of the buckles on his shoes and to feel superior to the poor schmucks stuck in "Marty Haugen land" may only be pausing at the Extraordinary Form Mass--on their way out of the Church altogether.
The bitterness comes from the realization that doing these things, on their own, is not going to turn the clock back to a simpler, gentler, more innocent or more moral time. It's not going to erase the last forty or fifty years or any of their effects; adopting the habits and customs of the past can only help us, inside, and only if we want that help when we adopt the habit or custom in the first place. If I move to a place where I can have chickens, and I think that having chickens may help me get out of bed in the morning so long as one of them is a rooster, well and good! But if I move to a place where I can have chickens in the hope that merely having and caring for the chickens is going to transform my local Wal-Mart into a store owned by a 1940s greengrocer who knows my name and calls me "Mrs. M" and is sure to remind me that the broccoli is really fresh today--I'm out of luck. And if I was hoping for that, then I'm quite likely going to be bitter. After all, here I am, making all of these changes and sacrifices--and the rest of the world, Those People Out There, keep on in their hedonistic and sinful and consumerist ways, spoiling everything for The Rest of Us. The nerve!
The second danger that comes from romanticizing the past is different, in that it doesn't seek to adopt--at least not entirely--any of the clothes or manners or customs of the past. This type can become immersed in a past world, though, idolizing the manners, dress, music, movies, writings and so forth of a particular age. Like I said before, if this is merely one's hobby, and is directed at some particular aspect or aspects of some particular era one admires, it is as harmless and fun as stamp collecting or birdwatching. But if it is an interest that is rooted in a belief that the world was practically perfect in 19-- (or 18--, or 17--, etc., though that is rarer to encounter) then this romantic view of a past world has its own danger.
Where the danger in the first temptation is that one will become bitter about the modern world, the danger of the second is that one will become apathetic to it. The person who believes that at some point the world was truly wonderful, and it has been all downhill since, is in some danger of slowly turning away from the world of the here-and-now, and refusing to accept that God has placed us in this world, here, and now, in order to best fulfill His plans for us and to, with His blessings and aid, secure our own eternal destinies.
Besides that danger, there is the further sad reality that to believe the world was truly wonderful at some past date is to ignore the effects of the Fall. Shakespeare's heroes--not only his villains--sometimes displayed immoral behavior; Chaucer before him wrote of lust and its accompanying sins as if they were fairly frequent occurrences--and the twelfth century was a long way from the corrupting influences of television and the Internet. Jane Austen's world is charming--but even in Miss Austen's tales we find adultery, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and the like. My own much-admired Alexander Pope, writing in a world that appreciated the elegance of rational rhyme, penned a poem which was one of the ones I considered in my senior thesis: it is his "Eloisa to Abelard," which tells of a nun still struggling with her conscience years after she was sent to the convent to separate her from her illicit lover, who has become a priest.
Does this mean that there is nothing to admire about the past? Of course not. We often hear about how much safer people were, how possible it was to let children roam outdoors unsupervised knowing that everyone in town would keep an eye on them, how delightful to have one's groceries delivered to one's front door, how some of the filth that is now visible to all was kept decently hidden from public view. Decently hidden--in burlesque shows and under counters and behind dark windows; we are kidding ourselves if we think our ancestors in the simpler times had no contact with the world of sin. But it is that forgetfulness that leads to the oversimplification and the apathy: the world was once innocent and kind, we are tempted to think, and now it is immoral and cruel; better to retreat to memory and imagination, and to overlook the spots and stains on the photographs or journals, to hide from ourselves the knowledge that there has never been an age of innocence since Adam and Eve's wicked act in the Garden.
The best remedy against either of these temptations is to see the past as clearly and truthfully as we can. This clarity and verity will help us to realize that keeping chickens is a difficult sort of thing to do, and not at all productive of any magic effects beyond a quantity of eggs (good!) and an even greater quantity of chicken waste (not so good--though perhaps useful in one's garden). It will help us to realize that even in an Extraordinary Form Mass it is possible to meet the ignoble, uncharitable, immoral, or unkind, and that hanging one's clothes out to dry may save a little electricity, but may also be impractical in allergy season.
It will help us to recall that the past was not always rosy, too; that evil and sin were features of every human age, and that even in 1950 people were already talking about artificial contraception (for instance) and wondering when the Catholic Church would drop its silly objection to it (no joke--I have a bound collection of Harper's Magazine from 1950 which discusses this topic). The evils of the present did not suddenly spring up one day in the late 1960s or early 1970s--they have very, very long roots, going back to that same tree in the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
We forget that at our peril. When the past is put on a pedestal, it's very easy for it to become a false idol.