I was tempted to add “can you smoke it?” but that would have been gilding the lily and, in any case, three’s work better than four’s in headers. I’m talking about virtue here, and it seems to me that a great deal of human effort has gone into the packaging of virtue, so that we can save ourselves the bother of making our own. Sadly it’s proved impossible over the millennia – notwithstanding fortunes, fame and power awarded to those who’ve successfully managed to convince large numbers of paying customers that eternal happiness lies just one standing order away.
A couple of days ago I wrote a piece mentioning my interest in the monastic life (in spite of my incapacity to actually follow it) and I left a small detail out. The small detail was the fact that I was once a Franciscan tertiary, a member of the so-called “Third Order” a secular, i.e not ordained, order of lay-people who live under a simple rule of life inspired by Franciscan spirituality. My membership lapsed under the pressure of theological college and then parish work, but the idea of living a simple rule of life lingers on in my heart – like the Cheshire cat’s grin. I was probably the worst member around. The only rule I could keep properly was poverty (no choice!) , with chastity a complete minefield and obedience beyond reach. I still treasure the paradox of making my vows in an army camp, that at least was truly Franciscan; but I couldn’t engage with the endless aspiration of some members to be allowed to wear the brown habit (robes) – obviously only at meetings. “We’re meant to be invisible – drrrrr” I’d say, thinking to myself that it was like wearing Friday night drag. Membership of the Society was quite secretive although no-one had been persecuted for many decades, and that, in itself, fostered a dangerous inwardness if you weren’t careful. I discovered early on that there was no genuine virtue in wearing sandals in the snow.
We were definitely doing something – faint, intangible but essential, struggling to live out our individual simple rules of life in the midst of the everyday – partners, children, jobs and neighbours. One of the commitments was regular prayer and that, I discovered, could mean anything from recitation of the daily offices to lying on the stone floor of an empty church in silence and darkness. I once tripped over a nun who was doing that and I don’t know which of us was most surprised.
Much of the time I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. There seemed to be some intangible spiritual ecology that could be damaged by people being angry, greedy, envious – you know, the whole seven deadly sins bit. The interesting thing was that this misbehaviour didn’t just affect the person who was doing it, it leaked out like an infection, so my anger made other people angry and my greed created a greedy ambiance that could spread. The underlying principle is that just as individuals can create disturbance and lack of balance in their immediate environment, and that the imbalance could spread through human networks all the way up to a whole society; then the religious houses, closed orders and even a few gormless Third Order members, living within their rule of life, could somehow repair at least a bit of that damage. Loving, forgiving and accepting was radical, dangerous and it worked. Why is this all bubbling up in my mind at the moment? – isn’t it obvious? how can we be a force for good in a delusional and dangerous society, without resorting to the same tactics of anger and division and trying to use even more force?
At the heart of the challenge is the way that even virtue has been monetised and marketised. High capitalism is a ponzi fraud that demands more and more subscribers to make it work. The ploy is to turn us all into consuming monads and so, alone and without real friends to show me that I’m beautiful just as I am, I have to buy my beauty off the shelf. I have to buy my aura of success by driving the right car or eating the right food, in fact food instead of being a sacrament of human community (don’t worry, this isn’t a supernaturalist thought) becomes divisive. When my virtue inheres in what I eat I have to defend my diet by redefining my neighbours as heretics. When my skin is dry I owe it to society to anoint myself with almond milk (whose principal ingredient is drought and forest fires) in order not to cause offence.
So am I going to round this off with a religious flourish and an appeal to join some kind of organised religion? No way! The best way of catching norovirus is to sit in a doctor’s’ waiting room. What I am saying is that turning away from, refusing to buy synthesised virtue by living reflectively, meditatively, using any spiritual tools to hand seems to me to be a radical form of resistance, maybe even a more powerful resistance than we expect. Just to take one obvious example from Tai Chi – to use the anger and force of the attacker against them by turning deftly. I remember my teacher (I was never really any good) telling me about his Master who was filmed in a park inviting people to attack him. It was hilarious, he said, – they just seemed to fall over before they were close enough to land a blow.
Isn’t this all rather idealistic? In my view we’re only in this dark place because we’ve lost any sense of the ideal; any sense that it’s possible to resist the onward march of Moloch using nothing more than what St Paul – in one of his brighter moments – called the “armour of righteousness“. That doesn’t mean subscribing to the thirty nine articles, or whatever dogmatic local expression of religious oppression you’ve suffered from; so if I dare express it more colourfully with a phrase I overheard on a bus, in reference to a certain councillor – “That Jack B – he can’t tell shit from pudding!” Well yes, and nicely put. Ernest Hemingway wrote once to his daughter telling her that the purpose of an education was ‘to recognise bullshit’ – I too think that the ability to tell shit from pudding is the prerequisite of living under a simple rule of life that stands a chance of healing the earth and turning swords into ploughshares. The ponderous and faltering ideology of fear and greed is already looking a bit unsteady – the constant shouting and lies are a giveaway. There’s a sense in which the darkest forces in our society are actually fed by our anger and disillusion – so let’s starve them of that. First sentence in a simple rule of life!