Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?—J.R.R. Tolkien, from his lecture titled “On Fairy Stories,” given in 1939.
As a pre-adolescent kid growing up in an average American suburb, I was developing some peculiar habits. Since the age of twelve, I was watching PBS, but not for “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” No, my taste was beginning to get a little “high brow”—Masterpiece Theater (during the days when Sir Alistair Cook was its host). I was quite taken by the Shakespeare productions produced by the BBC and broadcast through my local PBS station. Then, in 1980/81, came a landmark production of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Brideshead Revisited”. To this day, I don’t know what held my interest: was it the story itself, or was it the nostalgic sense this series seemed to impart with its images of Oxford University and a world of bygone elegance. All this made a deep impression on my young mind. Other shows held my interest, such as “Miss Marple,” Dorothy Sayers’ filmed adaptations of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and “Poirot,” all of which were featured on “Mystery.”
Catholic author Charles Coulombe has repeatedly said that what keeps PBS going to this day can be summed up in one word—nostalgia. From “Upstairs, Downstairs” to “Downton Abbey,” the unforgettable period pieces continue to charm us, and keep this public station in business. Why? To sum it up in yet another word: escape. We all seek escape from the contingencies of the present, with what we perceive to be prosaic banalities.
We have always been this way. I have heard many say they like “Mad Men” for its portrayal of elegance of the early 1960’s. For many in the 60’s, however, their nostalgic reflections took them back to the 1920’s. It seems we are always quite uneasy about where we are. We seek escape to what we think are “simpler times”, or an age that valued classic elegance, real or imagined.
Deep in our souls, we feel uneasy with our present circumstances, because we sense that this world is fleeting, and we are right. That is the cold, hard fact we are faced with on Ash Wednesday as the ashes are placed on our foreheads: “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return”. These words hit us with a cold dose of reality, and their purpose is not to make us depressed or morbid, but to awaken us from a deep slumber. We are told by holy mother church that our time on this earth is short, therefore awake and live.
Our nostalgia is a painful reminder of how fleeting this world is, and we yearn for something permanent, something that will never die. We are painfully reminded by the solemn words at the imposition of ashes that whatever we are looking for cannot be found here, but elsewhere. “All is elsewhere,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann, quoting the French poet Julien Green, would often like to say. We know that our present world is not as things should be. We deeply desire eternal life, eternal happiness, eternal love. All that we love and cherish, even our deepest loves, seem to crumble into dust in our hands.
But thank God, the solemn words of Ash Wednesday are not the last word. These words, rather than a death sentence, can become, if we are willing, a war cry, bidding us to battle with the world, the flesh and the devil as we make our way, forty days later, to the empty tomb, where we will hear the victorious words that will overturn Ash Wednesday’s death sentence: Christ is Risen!
In the meantime, Lent is an opportunity to live in the present, in light of the transfigurational glory which will transform us in the fullness of time. We make battle not against flesh and blood, but against devices and desires of our own hearts that keep us from truly living. This is a time for us to lay hold of eternity, and to desire nothing else than heaven, and to hate nothing more than sin. It is a time to realize that whatever else we need in this life, our first and primary need is for God. “Aim at heaven, and you get earth thrown in,” said a certain Oxonian sage. “Aim at earth, and you get neither.”
This Lent, let us arouse ourselves up from the sleep of indolence, from the prison of death and decay, and lay hold of eternity, where nostalgia turns to joy and new life.