Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Houses of Prayer” first appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of Touchstone.
Houses of Prayer
by James L. Sauer
One of the more famous faculty at our institution is known for his remark that our college is not like a monastery, but rather like a boot camp for life. This is a good image in itself, calling forth associations of the Church Militant, the Pauline armor of Ephesians, and the battle each of us feels against the world, the flesh, and the devil. But considering this professor’s self-admitted liberal political views, it is strange that he should have chosen a military image in this age of mandatory pacifism and that the connotation of medievalism with all its rich images of piety and order should have been neglected.
Then again, perhaps it is not so strange. The professor in question is a sociologist. Poor fellow. Perhaps if his specialty were in the humanities he would have chosen the older paradigm of the abbey. Or perhaps it is just an indication that Social Scientists have always felt more comfortable in a society of Five Year Plans and millennial training camps. Social Scientists desire to manipulate the world, to get people marching, to assign them numbers, the plan away poverty, social injustice, and vestigial humanity. Classical Humanists merely want to remind men and women that they have souls. Christian Humanists might actually want to save some.
In point of fact, too much of modern life is like a boot camp, and not enough is like the old monastery. When we remember that the type of regimen for which monasteries were established, perhaps it is time we went back to their attitudes. What were those elements of life? Were they not the civilizing virtues of obedience, work, worship, study, chastity, contemplation, and prayer? That’s the type of thing the monks filled their days with—or at least should have been filling their days with. And although I am a good son of the Reformation and believe with the Puritans that our Christian vocation is to be lived in the mundane activities of our life, not in religious isolation, nevertheless, I think we might have lost some of the virtues this old order afforded. This is what our colleges should be about; these are the values our home life should be nurturing: attitudes of worship, vocation, and chastity.
A New Dark Age
Instead of the disciplined life, however, we are barraged with the New Social Order of American me-ism. The idiocy of our current collegiate monkery is documented in the writings of Bloom and Hirsh and thousands of others. As for spiritual things, the American college is known more for its partying than for its prayer. There is more chance of hearing the pagan screams of Billy Idol than Gregorian chant. Communism may have produced Animal Farm, but it is Western culture which has given us Animal House.
Mediocrity and lethargy infest the state schools. Some private schools will take any warm body that can still sign a check, while the horror stories one hears from the Ivy League give most of us pause to thank God we were born poor provincials. Among the privileged class one finds the usual litany of the Left: Marxism, relativistic Deconstruction, feminism, homosexuality, pacifism, promiscuity—and stupidity. Yes, historic and philosophic stupidity is now a requirement for admission into the New Class. It’s all there in the catalog. As Samuel Johnson once pointed out about some dullard: “Such stupidity is not found in nature.”
It takes years of training to believe in androgyny. A graduate degree is sometimes required to believe that taxing the productive will produce wealth. Stanford University has apparently abolished its Western Civilization Readings course because too many of the classics were written by white males. Poetry composed by patriarchal prigs! Just think of the damage to our gender consciousness that might come from reading Shakespeare and Milton.
Only a return to the old virtues can vivify the intellectual life. Moreover, these virtues can only be nurtured in the environment of the Christian community.
Begin With Alpha
Perhaps a prayer of a contemporary Christian scholar might be: “Save us, O Lord, from twentieth-century education.” It is not an easy time in which to seek learning. Rock music blasts through our ears and television bedazzles our thought life. We pop in and out with our cars and plunk away our excess cash on electronic games, status symbol fashions, junk food, the latest Bruce Springsteen CD, and any sado-sexy movie that’s currently playing. Meanwhile, our family lives are messes, our priorities are in shambles. We have sadly forgotten the Word of the King Among Us: “The Kingdom of God is not food or drink or what you wear . . . .”
We must resume, therefore, the development of the redeemed mind and redouble our efforts to gain intellectual dominion over the secular sphere. Such an effort must be articulated from our pulpits, must take root in our everyday home life, and must break out in the marketplace. We cannot all be scholars, but we all must be stewards. It is God who sovereignly pours out his Spirit, and Christ who gives his Church its gifts; but it is man who bears responsibility for his obedience.
Revival, then, begins with prayer, and prayer begins with worship. Only by contemplating the Maker can we unmake the mess which our culture has become. We must return to the First Principle, which is our First Cause: we exist to give glory to our Maker. And it is to him that we must direct our hearts, our souls, our strength, and our minds. We are not called to success, but to obedience.
Until we fix our eyes on God, we will have no beacon to guide us through our cultural darkness. The way to wisdom begins with worship.
A Studied Labor
Our lives reflect disunity, angst, and the self-inflicted alienation of sinners. Our educational system has disassociated the intellectual life from the laboring life. And we have separated the mental and the menial life from the spiritual life. One of the reasons students find school so difficult is because they are not used to work. And one of the reasons they find work so meaningless is that it has not spiritual sanction. There is no moral order in their lives, no spiritual discipline in their daily habits. They have no sense of offering work as a love gift to God.
The Christian community must return to the notion that our lives are a spiritual vocation. As Francis Schaeffer said: “The painting of a picture, the work of a good shoemaker, the doctor, the lawyer—all these things are spiritual if they are done with the circle of what is taught in Scripture, looking to the Lord day by day for his help.”
By giving our work life—mentally and physically—to the Lord, by understanding that not all of us are called to the same daily tasks, and by sharing our skills, money, and encouragement, heartaches, and gifts with the “little platoon” in which God has placed us—we can achieve the practical goals of the Kingdom. Christian labor must reflect the Trinity: we are personalities yoked together by love, born in unity, released to develop a manifold diversity.
A Fertile Chastity
Finally, we must reemphasize the central importance of a biblical home. The family, with all its sexual, social, and value-transmission components, is not a neat experiment. It is simply the revealed framework for human life. Family living is a divine priority. Our central task as human beings is discipleship where God has placed us—not in some social abstraction called “society,” but in that dirty, earthy, organic place full of smells and noise and running feet called “home.”
The emergence of the homeschool movement and the growth of Christian schools have begun the process of revitalizing Christian education by reminding us of the centrality of the family. But unless we recognize that we are fighting a culture which attacks us from many angles—sexually, imaginatively, intellectually—with commercial and electronic expertise, we have lost the battle. After all, what good is it to homeschool if we lose our kids to the TV? What good is it to send our kids to the Christian high school if we give them over to fashionable peer-pressure materialism? And what does one gain from a Christian college if its values are worldly?
After all, are not Christian college students equally encouraged to do obeisance to the American god, the deity Career? Honestly, what fellow when asked what his goals are after college would reply, “I want to raise a Christian family.” What smartly educated college woman would say, “I want to raise children, encourage my husband, and honor the Lord.”
We have constructed our educational institutions in such a way as to discourage marriage and belittle traditional domestic roles for women (and men). We have made fornication reasonable and economically advisable, and have placed self-satisfaction instead of duty at the sacred center of our domestic lives. And kids—if we have them at all—we can just drop at the day care center and live as we please. This all amounts to a social-suicide compact.
In contrast, we might take the advice of Russell Kirk: “The little platoon, in its endeavor to defend and restore the family, begins with things seemingly small. The stalwarts of the little platoon throw out the television set. They read frequently and at length to their small children, and talk interestingly at the table with their bigger children. They have family graces and family prayers. They get the rising generation into habits of work at home. They are not hesitant to set family standards of morals and duties.”
Home At Last
If Christian education is to revive, it will begin and end in the home. Boot camps may be nice for Social Scientists, but for most normal people they are concentration camps for brainwashing. And it is fair to say that wherever Christian institutions fail, whether they are grammar schools, high schools, mission organizations, Christian colleges, or even local congregations, it is because they have neglected to submit to the authority of a divine Father. In all, failure stems from spiritual disobedience.
Perhaps if little havens of learning and piety are to survive in the coming bad years, then it will be because some have dedicated themselves to the task of a holistic stewardship of mind, body, and soul. While the world is engulfed in genocide, in state-directed social organization, in institutional social impoverishment, perhaps a few small groups of Christians—in families, in friendships, in churches, in educational free associations, like the abbeys of old—will act as harbors of civility for a coming dark age. If they do, it will be because they will have embraced the values of the ancient monasteries, studiously copying the texts of the Law and Gospel into their commonplace books. It will not be because they have been trained in collegiate boot camps for life, but because they have become at home in the Eternal.
James L. Sauer is the library director at Eastern College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He has written for The New Oxford Review, Eternity, Chesterton Review, and other periodicals.
“Houses of Prayer” first appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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