Civilization Down In The Canyon With Mother Kirk
In C.S. Lewis’ 1933 allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Regress — written not long after he converted to Christianity — John, the protagonist, leaves his home in search of an elusive island. Every fiber of John’s being longs for this place, if it could be called a place, the concept of which recurs amorphously in his dreams and the nature of which is not immediately clear.
In pursuit of the island, which we learn in time is spiritual fulfillment, John meets a variety of characters. They are ideas, ideologies or values personified; some reckoning themselves as island substitutes and others cynical about the good of islands, but nearly all of whom John ultimately recognizes as mere detours from the way to a far greater destination.
In the company of one named Virtue, John comes to a seeming end of the road, to a precipice overlooking a grand canyon. We learn that the road, which John’s previous companion Reason put him back onto after a brief distraction, continues on the far side of the grand canyon below; that it was laid there by the Landlord (i.e., God) and once ran unbroken round the world.
It was the first sin committed by the Landlord’s first tenants (i.e., Adam and Eve) that triggered the earthquake, which tore the land in twain, leaving the road split and the way forward treacherous and uncertain, or as John puts it, “twice as narrow and twice as dangerous.”
While gaping at the chasm “seven miles wide” and stretching as far as the eye could see northward and southward both, John hears the voice of an old woman.
Waiting at the precipice was old Mother Kirk. Extra to explaining to John and Virtue the nature of the grand canyon and the difficulties they will have in descending, crossing, and ascending once more, she makes them an offer: “You have neither of you any chance at all unless I carry you down.”
Virtue and John doubt her abilities, to which she replies:
“I could do it, though,” said Mother Kirk, “by the power that the Landlord has given me.”
“So you believe in the Landlord, too?” said John.
“How can I not, dear,” said she, “when I am his own daughter-in-law?”
Of course, there is no denying that in this allegory Mother Kirk is the Church. After all, if she is the Landlord’s daughter-in-law, then she is also the Son’s “bride”, a bond taken up in Ephesians 5:25-27, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 21:2, Mark 2:19-20, Luke 5:34-35, and elsewhere. Her traditions, dogmas, long memory, deep understanding, and her relationship with the Landlord, inform her and provide her with the wherewithal to help pilgrims like John cross the grand canyon.
Mother Kirk is not the Oedipal mother — she who seeks to shelter and keep her children from the world. Like the eagle mother, she coaxes her children out of the nest and into the fray. Like the Virgin Mother, Mother Kirk prepares her own for challenge, sacrifice, pain, and potentially death, albeit of a transformative and salvific kind (“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”). She is keen to help every pilgrim, neither over to peaceful glens away from the chasm nor over to an appreciation for safe footing in some Landlord-denying shire, but rather on his way and into the depths. Not all want her help, however.
On the precipice, John’s travelling companion Virtue exemplifies the zeitgeist and with it Luciferian disobedience, narcissism, and disassociation when he interrupts to say: “I am afraid it is no use, Mother…I cannot put myself under anyone’s orders. I must be the captain of my soul and the master of my fate. But thank you for your offer.” He notes that his legs had served him well enough up until that point and that he wasn’t particularly keen to start relying upon another set just yet. The heading for this portion of the novel is, appropriately, “Rejecting Christianity, John turns to cultured Wordliness.”
Virtue makes the reformers’ mistake for himself and for John in presuming that adherence to tradition and obedience to authority contravenes to the point of breaking their free wills; that one cannot be the captain of his soul and at the same time trust the wisdom and experience of Mother Kirk; and that absent Kirk’s presence, an unfit sage will not emerge to try to take her place. What alpinist beginning her climb up a mountain wouldn’t hope to benefit from a word of warning from someone who has just made their way down and has summited innumerable times before? Assent to true wisdom and authority is, as John learns, liberation from ignorance, uncertainty, and darkness.
It must be said that those who ignore Mother Kirk as had Virtue and John aren’t necessarily damned or lost forever. When it comes to crossing the canyon without guidance, it is perhaps possible, but certainly more difficult. Fortunately, should anyone need help, Mother Kirk is always willing to provide it, as she ultimately does John.
Historian, museum director, professor, and broadcaster Baron Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) was a man who, like Virtue, wasn’t keen on Kirk’s help at the outset, yet nevertheless followed her footsteps through the dark until finally requesting her company.
It is a curious thing watching Clark’s Civilization series. Produced for the BBC and enjoyed by millions at the time of its broadcast in the late sixties and by millions more since, Civilization documented the rise and heights of Western culture, architecture, art, philosophy, literature, and more.
In one particular episode, “Grandeur and Obedience,” Clark discusses Michelangelo, Bernini, Baroque art, the “Rome of the popes,” and the “popular movement” that was the Catholic revival (i.e., the Counter-Reformation).
A Ruskinite raised on Gibbonian propaganda, he admits:
“In England most of us were brought up to believe that it [the energetic and culturally revivifying Counter-Reformation] depended on the Index, the Jesuits, and the Inquisition. Well, I don’t believe that a great outburst of creative energy, such as took place in Rome between 1620 and 1640 can be the result of negative factors. But I do admit that civilization of those years did depend upon certain assumptions that are out of favor in England and in America today. The first of these, of course, was the belief in authority — the absolute authority of the Roman Church. And this belief extended to sections of society, which we now assume to be naturally rebellious, like artists. It comes as something of a shock that the great artists of the time were all sincere conforming Christians….This conformism wasn’t based on fear of the inquisition but on the simple belief that the faith that had inspired the great saints of the previous generation…was something by which a man should regulate his life….The great achievement of the Catholic Church lay in harmonizing, humanizing, and civilizing the deepest impulses of ordinary people…”
The reason it is a curious episode to watch is that notwithstanding his inherited prejudices against the Church, it is made clear that Clark was Catholic in his sensibilities and sensible about Catholicism; that even when being critical of the Holy See, he did so as if criticizing his mother, which is to say superficially and with a heart full of admiration and love. He respected the wisdom and though resistant to her authority, saw the good of its effect.
This may seem like conjecture until one considers Baron Clark’s conversion to Catholicism, which occurred ten days before his death, at the summit of the far side where the road resumes.
His biographer James Stourton speculates that: “Perhaps Clark felt that it was correct to leave the world in a sacramental way,” and notes further that “Clark’s long fascination with the Catholic Church and its history had been pointing to such an outcome.”
In any event, Clark “received Communion according to the proper rites, and said, ‘Thank you, Father, that is what I have been longing for’.” He found the island at last with the help of Mother Kirk.
As a reverent historian of civilization, a lover of art, an admirer of beauty, and an unwavering fan of humanity, Clark was able to surmise some of the way across the canyon, even if at times he meandered. Why? Because all the aforementioned affinities led him back to Rome, which in turn lighted the way.
Kevin Di Camillo has elsewhere pointed out that by mid-career, around the time of Civilization’s production:
“Clark got almost everything right: the Irish did save civilization; Western Europe did produce a renaissance that no other civilization has equaled and, ultimately, the Church is still a relevant and civilizing force.”
After the historian’s death, Father Thomas Daly, an Augustinian priest from Hythe, told Clark’s widow that “he thought Lord Clark’s research for his Civilization television series had helped influence him...that ‘civilization would have been lost if it hadn’t been for the Catholic Church’.”
Just as Mother Kirk had helped Clark along, she — serving as guide and keeper of the sacred light — helped all those he admired who’d come before and ultimately led him to her.
According to a piece published 15 October 1983 in The Times, Lady Clark said her husband’s conversion “was a decision, which she believed had been maturing for most of his life, but which he put off until he knew he was seriously ill.”
The man who detailed, revered, and understood civilization better than most moderns — certainly better than any postmodernist — turned to the Catholic Church when he fell ill, when it really mattered. Now that civilization itself has turned dreadfully ill, when it really matters, perhaps the remedy is the same.
We need to seek out Mother Kirk now, down in the canyon. This is especially true for young people.
Mother Kirk may not always be found in good health, in good temperament, or well-dressed, but she will always be found. Another baron and historian, this one from the century preceding Clark’s but no friend of the Church, stressed this point.
Thomas Babington Macaulay said the following:
“No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheater. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigor…She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all.”
Measuring by the hour hand and the calendar, Mother Kirk is indeed old, but she is not decrepit. In fact and to Macaulay’s point, she is spritely and focused. The reason being is that her task is regenerative and her constituency is always regenerating.
Unlike on the retiree resigned to fade away, there is a constant demand on her, even when she’s “out of favor.” Hers is an undying and invigorating responsibility — not merely to retrace and highlight steps into and out of the canyon, but to understand and explain why deviating paths and alternate routes blaze straight to hell.
She warns, for instance, of the moral and humanitarian cost of abortion in contemporary America, having dutifully confronted the issue in the 1st Century.
She lauded the efforts of William Wilberforce to ban slavery in England, having denounced the trade herself over nine centuries earlier and deemed it a “great crime” again in 1462.
Mother Kirk knows how identitarian movements inevitably go off into the darkness along with heady men boasting totalitarian aspirations, for she has called out and after most of them before they disastrously confirmed her wisdom.
She can point to blood that trails off the path left by the followers of Rousseau, Marx, Stalin, Mao, and others, who — like Virtue — trusted their own legs to take them out of the canyon and into a realm devoid of the Landlord’s influence.
She knows that the false “doctrine of human perfectibility” held by certain technologists, technocrats, and transhumanists today will eventually collide with her doctrine of Original Sin.
She knows full-well that pleasure is not the highest good while also rebuking those who say that the body is bad.
And while her relatives may have changed their minds on the Sacraments or on the commandments or on virtually any other issue of consequence, she is unwavering because she is sure — not just of paths but of the things and people pilgrims are likely to encounter along the way.
Lewis’ Kirk explains that, “In a country where all the food is more or less poisoned — but some of it very much less than more — you need very complicated rules indeed to keep healthy.” Virtue may be his own master, but not for long if he’s unaware of the poison and the hell that awaits him in the murk.
It is clear that the assistance Virtue turns down is offered by one whose authority and wisdom are not resultant of her staying power, though they both may be additive, but rather one whose staying power is due to the authority and wisdom entrusted to her and which he could benefit from.
In a compendium of arguments for this or that Christian denomination entitled Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (1926), G.K. Chesterton points out — and I would argue the Eastern Orthodox could demand fairer treatment here — that the Catholic Church has a unique ability, granted her experience and familiarity with the grand canyon.
“The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. … She does dogmatically defend humanity from its worst foes, those hoary and horrible and devouring monsters of the old mistakes.”
Anticipating the relativism of today, now ubiquitous, and the dearth of meaning faced by many young people, Chesterton (the man largely responsible for C.S. Lewis’ conversion) goes on to say:
“There is no end to the dissolution of ideas, the destruction of all tests of truth, that has become possible since men abandoned the attempt to keep a central and civilized Truth, to contain all truths and trace out and refute all errors.”
The Church’s tendency to put down heresies is and was not an exercise in naked aggression, but an effort to preserve the Truth for the benefit of all mankind. Similarly, pointing out the pitfalls in the valley ahead is not a means of controlling the pilgrim, but of freeing them from accidents that will dim their journeys or cut them short.
In Orthodoxy, Chesterton argues that the Church’s “doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.” The very knowledge that Mother Kirk is there for us, ready and willing, and that there is a tried, tested, and true path through the canyon, is freeing.
Mother Kirk, that centralizing and civilizing force and guide — she whom Kenneth Clark argued in Civilization has a unique ability to harmonize, humanize, and civilize the deepest impulse of ordinary people — “is the only thing in which the superior cannot be superior; in the case of supercilious…the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age … the only thing that talks as if it were a truth; as if it were a real messenger refusing to tamper with a real message.”
Her call to action and guidance are more important now than ever.
Futile and destructive efforts made by some of Mother Kirk’s relatives and housemates to bridge the canyon, to make the way easy, and even to dissuade pilgrims from making the journey across, have proven catastrophic in years of late.
Some today seem to echo with near precision those who try one last time to dissuade Lewis’ John from heeding Mother Kirk’s suggestion and continuing on his way. Old Enlightenment tells him: “There is still time. Get away and come back to me and all this will vanish like a nightmare.” Media Halfways warns him not to commit fully and not to burn his boats. The wraith of young Halfways asks him: “Aren’t you ashamed? Be a man. Move with the times and don’t throw your life away for an old wives’ tale.”
The arguments against adventure, against Mother Kirk’s wisdom, against salvation, continue on in that fashion in the novel just as they do today, endlessly and ruinously. This is particularly troublesome granted the trials in the canyon and the journey down the road give life meaning of a kind John, Lewis’ protagonist, could not otherwise find, certainly not in conversation with Mr. Enlightenment, Mr. Sensible, Mr. Humanism, Mr. Broad, or amongst the Savages (i.e., Marxism and Fascism); not in the cities of Claptrap, Eschropolis, and Thrill; and not in the shires of Zeitgeistheim, Cruelsland, Pagus, Hegliana, Occultica, Aesthetica, or elsewhere.
It is for this reason that a message shared not too long ago by Dr. Jordan Peterson — first, piecemeal towards the end of his 2021 conversation with Bishop Barron, second and partially, in conversation with Rod Dreher (senior editor at The American Conservative and author of Live Not By Lies and The Benedict Option), and then again in a formal appeal to Christian churches — is well taken.
In both conversations and then in his follow-up message, Peterson vehemently decries this “era of anti-natalism and equally reprehensible nihilism” — against what Saint Pope John Paul II termed the Culture of Death, which is inextricably linked with an Epicurean / eudemonistic philosophy that stakes meaning in and prioritizes comfort and “happiness.” Channeling Solzhenitsyn and the intrepid Christians brutalized behind the Iron Curtain (many of whose lives Dreher has documented), Peterson goes onto say:
“God, so to speak, has called us out for something far greater than mere happiness, so much greater than happiness that happiness pales in comparison. He’s called us out for the adventure of our life that’s of sufficient moral integrity to justify the[ir] suffering…If you tell people that, if you let them know that, well that makes them stand up and cheer. Because deep in their heart, they know that’s true.”
Every man and woman should take to the road in pursuit of the island. None should waste away in that puritanical and static starting place C.S. Lewis calls Puritania. Rather, and this Mother Kirk ought to remind young people, they have a partner to find, “a garden to walk in, a family to nurture, an ark to build, a land to conquer, a ladder to heaven to build, and the utter terrible catastrophe of life to face stalwartly in truth, devoted to love, and without fear.”
And when these young pilgrims choose adventure and decide to head out into the world accordingly — to find a spouse, to create a family, to fearlessly face the challenges that will inevitably come — it is crucial that at the precipice that awaits them (i.e., should they have kept out of or escaped the many cul-de-sacs along the way), Mother Kirk will be there to champion their effort to cross the canyon. She must do as she has always done, but now with even greater vigor: encourage the endeavor, stress its importance, and light the way. After all, only her light is bright enough, as it was the very same first kindled by the Landlord and His Son.
Peterson underlines the importance, relevance, and timeliness of Mother Kirk’s role, yet sets her among unequals:
“The churches have this great opportunity to say, ‘Hey, they [those other social institutions] don’t want you, we’ll take yah. And maybe we can muddle through this together or you can help revivify the institution, moribund as it always has been and always will be, and we can give your youthful vision and enthusiasm some traditional guidance. There is a moment here that could be gripped…I hope the Orthodox manage it, and I’d like to see the Catholics and the Protestants do it too.”
The good doctor has an understandable affinity for the Eastern Orthodox church, and with Rod Dreher recognizes that in this moment of civilizational sickness, all Abrahamic peoples have more in common than not, at least when confronting the soft-totalitarians, radical leftism, moral relativism, the Culture of Death, standardizations by low standards, and the like. Nonetheless, among this cadre of believers (i.e., in the Landlord), it is only Mother Kirk who boasts the authority, the memory, and the light to help us navigate the darkness below. (It also helps that, unlike her affluent younger relatives — which Kenneth Clark determined were disinterested with God — Mother Kirk can at least still define a woman.) With the benefit of Kirk’s knowledge of the way into and out of the canyon, this fellowship should call on young pilgrims to give it a go.
Peterson notes that Mother Kirk and company shouldn’t do as other institutions have done: claim that the “spirit of adventure calls you to become a patriarchal despoiler of the planet” and suggest that it’s best to rot in Puritania than ever risk pain, death, and meaning. Rather, she has a responsibility to remind pilgrims that the road was lain to be trodden upon; that its transit ought never be easy; that even God found death in the canyon; and that when Christ told Peter (i.e., in Matthew 16:18) that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church, the suggestion was not that the Church could withstand an attack, but that death and evil cannot withstand an attack by Mother Kirk and the pilgrims under her charge.
We find ourselves now at a time when: empty alternatives to the island are everywhere offered up; the road is frequently denied or dug up or covered; Mother Kirk is roundly attacked throughout the world; and when many of the brave souls who nevertheless endeavor to cross the canyon do so blindly. The problem is compounded by miseducation. Those who haven’t the lifelong appreciation for Mother Kirk like Kenneth Clark may not similarly be able to recognize her footsteps in the mud or have the humility to call on her when it matters.
As it concerns our civilization, it is prudent to revisit another insight shared by Clark:
“People sometimes think that civilization consists in fine sensibilities and good conversations and all that. These can be among the agreeable results of civilization, but they are not what make a civilization, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.”
Despite all of our fine sensibilities and good conversations, our civilization is dying. But it was dying also in the 1520s, stricken by uncertainty and paralysis, as Clark noted in “Grandeur and Obedience”. In fact, it has suffered a number of deaths from which it recovered, though these recoveries were hardly ever guaranteed. Fortunately, our civilization—like each of us pilgrims—can turn once again to Mother Kirk. She who helped raise civilization from its infancy can help raise it from the dead, for Mother Kirk, daughter-in-law of the Landlord, has been taught the way out of the grave.