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.