Traveling the Old Roads

In C.S. Lewis’ book, That Hideous Strength, the character of Merlin (the ancient “wizard” of Romano-Celtic Britain) is awakened from a timeless slumber in an underground chamber. There is a group of evil men who are searching for him, thinking they can use his magic for their own schemes. As it turns out, Merlin is a Christian, albeit a very ancient one. He becomes an ally of the small band of faithful who understand what is going on and are seeking to resist the dark plans of evil being foisted on Britain.

At a certain point in the story, Merlin is waked up and begins traveling across the landscape. His journey, however, seems haphazard or bizarre: he is not following the roads of present-day Britain, but the roads of the Britain of his own time. Sometimes they coincide, sometimes not. Lewis describes a bit of a merry journey that delights the imagination.

I recently found myself back in my hometown (Greenville, SC). It is a place that has undergone a radical make-over, particularly in the past 35 years of my absence. The downtown is covered in restaurants, hotels, condominiums, businesses, etc., none of which existed 35 years ago. The river that was once ignored as a polluted eye-sore has been reconstructed as a cleaned-up recreational feature of beauty in a downtown whose center has largely been relocated to that very position. I would never have dreamed such a thing were possible or desirable.

I needed to make a diversion one morning as I drove to a scheduled event. I found myself following the mental map of my high school years (early driving experiences). It was a “Merlin-esque” moment. The roads mostly did what they were supposed to do (they had not completely disappeared), but they took me through landscapes and constructions that I had never seen. It was disconcerting.

There is something of a metaphor in all of this. To be a Christian is to “follow the ancient paths.” Those paths, at least as set forth in the Tradition, are not the inventions of an ignorant history. Rather, they are paths that go to places unimagined and unperceived by modernity. I read somewhere in the last year that “money is the ontology of the modern world.” That is to say that the pursuit of wealth and the application of wealth is seen as the most essential structure of the world. This is what I saw as I drove across my hometown. It is a landscape of applied wealth – on a scale never seen before in that part of the world. Something about it seems unreal.

The ontology of the ancient paths is a different matter. Those ancient paths tell us that money (Mammon) is at enmity with God (Matt. 6:24). If we follow the money path, we will discover a dead-end of emptiness and destruction. We become like the atheist at his funeral: “All dressed up and no place to go.”

I have daily become more and more aware of a growing emptiness in the world. The rather strange head-long rush into Artificial Intelligence, for example, at the same time that many of its developers warn that it could mean the end of the human race, is a case in point. The truth of the matter can be found in the pages of the financial newspapers: AI promises to be a motherlode of wealth. The end of the world will be welcomed to our modern paths, if it proves to be profitable.

This, of course, is only an egregious example of the modern paths. We do not ask, “Is this a good path?” We ask, “Does this path make money?” The question of the good has been monetized.

The ancient paths, as marked in the Tradition, are a journey towards the true Good. What does it mean to live a good life? Christ said, “There is none good but God.” A good life is a life in communion with the good God. It might involve poverty, even martyrdom. It certainly involves self-emptying and sacrificial love.

I have marked the lives of those who have traveled far on the money roads. I cannot see anything in them that suggest a desirable destination. They remind me of Paul Simon’s take on “Richard Cory”:

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style….

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got….

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and they thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

It is not a road I care to travel. Many of our wealthiest citizens are deeply involved in various schemes to “make the world a better place.” Almost without exception, they are schemes that the general population would prefer to forego. The “better world” is “their” better world, not ours.

To walk the ancient paths is to follow in the footsteps of saints and martyrs, to travel the “god-trodden” paths. The variety of saints suggest that, in Christ, our proper destinations are unique to us. In the Scriptures, that destination carries with it our “true name.” (Rev. 2:17) Despite that uniqueness, the paths remain the same.

To be a Christian is to have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Our paths are those on the other side of the font. The only wealth in that land is the treasure laid up in heaven – goodness, meekness, gentleness, obedience, love.

Tread carefully. Do not tear down the markers that were set by those who have gone before us.

Photo by Frank on Unsplash


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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13 responses to “Traveling the Old Roads”

  1. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Without intending to do so, we may attempt to move the markers, not knowing what we’re doing.
    May God have mercy on us, to be attentive to His voice, to take the path He calls us to tread.

  2. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Many of our wealthiest citizens are deeply involved in various schemes to “make the world a better place.” Almost without exception, they are schemes that the general population would prefer to forego. The “better world” is “their” better world, not ours.
    [end quote]

    Moreover, the malicious yawning disparity in wealth and hollowing out of the middle makes any commonality between the two a bridge too far. The last week I have discovered Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia called by the New York Times five years ago “the Walmart of heroin.” Now it’s fentanyl that creates scenes that in my mind’s eye are what hell might be–if one believes in a hell instantiated more by the absence of God’s grace, rather than the presence of fire and brimstone.

    Two disparate worlds of gluttonous, insatiable consumption and constant, hopeless need have no common human language. Consequently, neither can understand the other as equal kin in the eyes of God.

    I have never been the least communist in my views, but the analogy I have used with my children is this: imagine if our lifespans were based on wealth; some handful of us lived to be a million years old, whereas more than half of us could hope for at best a few days. Would that disparity not seem absurdly excessive?

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s not the stuff that can be bought with wealth. It’s the power. Companies and such with valuations exceeding a trillion dollars is a lot of power…much if not all of it unaccountable to anyone.

    Fr Hopko advised us to live small. I can’t imagine standing before God and giving account for what I did with a trillion dollars.

  4. Byron Avatar

    Father, I have often considered that it is good that God has not allowed me to “win the lottery”. I long ago decided that no good would ever come of it.

    Styx wrote a song entitled “Jonas Psalter” that is much like “Richard Cory”.

    Jonas Psalter
    You’ve captured every prize
    There is to dream of in one life

    And so we wonder why
    We found you in your bed
    With that bullet in your head

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I once bought a lottery ticket (didn’t win, of course). But when my wife found out – she absolutely excoriated me. “You could have ruined our lives!” she said. I haven’t bought one since.

  6. Jeff Moss Avatar
    Jeff Moss

    Speaking of schemes to “make the world a better place”:

    “We see how everything—the whole world—is belittled by the idea that all creation is moving or ought to move toward an end that some body, some human body, has thought up. To be free of that end and of that ambition would be a delightful and precious thing.”
    —Wendell Berry

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …to be free is to repent of all my foolishness, desire and willfulness. Something I am far from doing. The Good News is that His Grace and Mercy seem to be “the rest of the story” which reaches from where I am, still buried in the county landfill metaphorically yet Jesus reaches out to us to give us His Body and Blood and all the Holy presence that comes with it –a consuming fire that only by Grace does not consume my unworthy heart…

  8. Jane Szepesi Avatar
    Jane Szepesi

    your reference to AI makes me think of the nuclear bomb (or atomic bomb as we used to say). Both of them mean the annihilation of mankind (as I prefer to say) if they are used.

  9. Janine Avatar

    I increasingly seem to think of these things as distractions — the things that choke the seed in the parable of the Sower.
    Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity (Luke 8:14)

    I suppose with all the things to distract us in the world the sort of “live small” discipline, which can be applied to so much, becomes ever more important. If one “lives small” even with a lot of wealth, then there is more time to consider what better might be done with what you don’t need for yourself. “Live small” might be a good code for ambitious new solutions that always seem to hurt the poor the most no matter what the goal

  10. Alan Avatar

    Father, what a great line from your wife! You’re a blessed man.
    Thanks for this great post.

  11. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love this article. The Cosmic Trilogy was awesome, and I loved the way he brought Merlin back to life for the final book.

    I had an interesting experience awhile ago. I saw my sister at a family reunion after not seeing her in 10 years. When I first saw her, there was about 30 seconds where the images of her coming through my eyes had to sync up with the images I had of her from 10 years ago. She had changed – not drastically but enough that my brain felt the need to update the old ones.

    I wonder if, given that you started living full time in your home town, your mind would eventually sync up and reconcile so that it accepted the modern changes. Although, having said that I suspect that you might end up at a 3rd view of your hometown that combines the old and the new.

    All this is interesting. The human race has already had a very unique relationship with time. I’m greatly anticipating a relationship with eternity.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Drewster, as one who almost fits your criterion: the pictures have changed drastically.
    I know my parents would be appalled if they were still here. Still in one sense it is just what earthly “progress” does as it is ideologically dependent on death. It is, ultimately, why the only way through it is repentance–for the Kingdom is at hand.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No doubt, our mental map evolves with our surroundings. I recall driving into the city of Greenville with my father, and a very settled “old” street of beautiful homes that I would have thought of as “original Greenville,” my Dad looked at them and said, “I remember when this was all cotton fields. I have also read early colonial descriptions of my home county (the city was not founded until around 1785 in that the county area had been a Cherokee hunting ground forbidden to white settlement until it was taken away following the French and Indian War) but those early descriptions saw mostly cane growing tall by the rivers and a heavily wooded area (it was just a hunting ground). So, I sometimes picture all of that as well when I visit.

    I don’t resent the renovation of my home town. Downtown had become empty in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The textile mills that were once the driving industry of the area were all closing as they moved overseas. Something had to be done. Major industrial recruiting was wildly successful as well as these new urbanization projects (downtown condos, shops, restaurants, etc.). It’s thriving. I don’t think it’s acquired any character to speak of – it’s changing so quickly. It’s hugely gentrified – it takes a lot of money to acquire a home or rent and apartment. I could not afford to live there.

    But I’m not stuck in nostalgia. I do not long for the past. I made that mistake a one point and there is nothing but grief and death to be found there. Our hope is inherently eschatological. What my heart longs for is the true land, for the true self, for truth in others around me – the fullness of an authentic existence.

    I appreciate some of the suggestions in Lewis’ science fiction trilogy. He describes a spiritual Britain (“Logres”) which he was borrowing from Charles Williams who had quite dubious sources of his own. There is, however, a “true land” beneath the surface of the one we live in. I suspect that the animals and the plants – possibly even the dirt and the rocks, etc. – are “aware” of it in a manner that we are not. They ceaseless groan for things to be made manifest. It’s why they seem to respond so well to the presence of saints.

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  1. This is a wonderful conversation! Father, thank you for your reply; it is beautiful. I’ll add that I IM’d you…

  2. Thank you Mark, so true! I am wondering if we can learn a lesson from the false predictions of the…

  3. I suppose to explain myself a bit better I would like to say that it seems to me that our…

  4. My latest commute listen is St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” Janine. These folks were indeed the most learned people of their day.…

  5. Indeed, Father, I should introduce that topic into my teaching—lest it be forgotten!

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