Hemlock, NY. I’d like to take a moment here during the “break” from mandatory mask wearing kindly gifted to us by CDC Director Walinsky to give a “report from the front,” as it were, on the mental well-being of young people. I specifically report about the terrain of faces, which I can finally see again. My report comes from more than twenty years in campus ministry as well as a life-long love of faces (excluding my own, of course). The Orthodox theologian, Olivier Clement, wrote that “Christianity is the religion of faces. Christianity means that God, for us, has become a face, and reveals the other as a face. Macarius the Great says that the spiritual person becomes all face and his face all expression.” This quote is taken from his book, On Human Being. It’s also on a plaque in the vestibule of the Abbey of the Genesee and shows the centrality, at least in the Christian spiritual life, of faces.

It’s admittedly not hard science, this analysis of faces I conduct, but it’s backed up by hard science. What I do, as I write this on a morning in mid-March, is limit my Google query (“covid mental health young people”) to just the last hour, hit search, wait a second and…Wow! There’s a lot. I’ll link to the first one, but there are literally so many and the news is nothing short of devastating. Such stories corroborate my anecdotal study of faces. The Report: Sad and anxious, riddled by loneliness, fear, and anger, a generation of young people in our country have been washed up on a beach, as cannon fodder, in a battle that was forced upon them.

Even as early as late March and April of 2020, mental health was forecasted, and being named, as the “second pandemic.” It should be getting more attention now but I think that, due to the current events in Ukraine, and what Pope Francis (even back in 2014, at the time of the events in Maidan Square which helped precipitate this current nuclear crisis) prophetically referred to as the “piecemeal” stumbling into World War III, the story of the mental health of young people has fallen off the radar. This “second pandemic” is already second-class news even though current events in Ukraine, and the feelings of doom it evokes, only exacerbate it.

Significant, but no surprise, is the preponderance of anxiety-related disorders coming out of this time of masks, isolation, and fear. There is a lot of depression, of course, but it seems a bit different than what I would see previous to COVID and has similarities to what the monks refer to as acedia or “the noonday demon.” Still, and though they are all overlapping, most prevalent are a cluster of anxiety-related feelings and facial expressions where the nexus of fear/anxiety and the resultant search for control and certainty all swirl around each other, creating a dark vortex, chief among them, symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. Time magazine even published an article with the title “Pandemic Anxiety is Fueling OCD Symptoms–Even for People Without the Disorder.”

One of my observations over the course of more than two decades in campus ministry and close to a decade running a Catholic parish (under Canon 517.2), a cluster of 5 churches (former parishes themselves), and a Trappist monastery retreat house, is that a very high percentage of people seeking to join the Catholic Church, especially young people, suffer from OCD symptoms. This often manifests for people who are drawn to the Church or already in the Church as “scrupulosity,” a very, very painful manifestation “characterized by pathological guilt or obsession associated with moral or religious issues.” The person suffering from a fear of germs only has to worry about death-by-infection from germs, whereas the person suffering from scrupulosity worries, not mostly about death, but about spending eternity in hell! I would like to see a study on this but, in the wake of COVID, and of the very few people still in Church (attendance took a freefall during COVID and does not seem to be making a big comeback), a significant and increased percentage of the few pew-sitters remaining sadly fit in this camp. Now, in no way, shape, or form, do I mean to talk negatively about these people or this demographic. In one sense, it’s an understandable reaction to an out-of-control world. I describe it simply to draw attention to how many of the few people in the pews are there with a sense of fear, and not with the conviction of freedom. I’m starting to warn friends who are praying to see the pews full again to “be careful what you pray for.”

Note, in this context, that the Bible doesn’t oppose the primacy of love to “hate” (which might seem more obvious to us), so much as it opposes it to “fear.” For St. Paul, “Perfect love casts out fear.” That’s the lynchpin. (“Hate” actually seems tolerated in some contexts.) Some years ago, the always-interesting John Michael Greer reflect on how, for the new puritanism, “Hate is the New Sex.” It’s worth a read. The much discussed and projected-onto-others “hate,” I think, is simply fear’s appendage. It’s a fool’s errand, therefore, and a selfish diversion, to cast about looking for “hate” in others when we can look for fear in ourselves and see a big mess of hate and projection lurking there in the shadows. Orwell saw and warned us about the totalitarian power expressed in the ginning up of hate (currently getting thwapped on Russia), but we don’t seem to recognize the fear-shaped beam in our own eye.

In this vein I’ve been returning to the works of a Greek Orthodox theologian that I’ve been reading for several decades: Fr. John Romanides (d. 2001). A theological iconoclast, and a lover of faces himself, he was beginning to turn over ground that will very likely welcome the seed of the resurrection of the Church after its current death. Chesterton talked about the “Five Deaths of the Faith” that have transpired since the incarnation and, in my reckoning, this one isn’t just another one; it’s a bigger one, like, “more dead.” This is not a once-in-every-400-years death, but may be the kind that comes on a 2000 year cycle. Regardless, Fr. Romanides explored a form of daring romantic theology featuring a disciplined use of memory to point to the future. He saw, clearly, that “religion,” in the OCD sense I alluded to above, the sense that salvation has something do with pious acts, rituals, moral codes, and correct thoughts that get us to Place A, (Heaven) and avoid Place B (Hell) is actually THE disease that Jesus came to cure. This “religion” is a hypertrophied development of the children’s game of jumping from couch to chair to desk to avoid touching the floor, or the game my children played of not stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk on the stroll down to the post office. Jesus left us a ritual of words said over bread and wine to accompany our kiss of peace (conspiratio) and partaking of the communion in the flesh (comestio) that meet that need and instinct. Too much beyond that, however (there’s plenty of room for discussion here!), and I think we get into the terrain of the “disease” of religion and its attendant neuroses and compulsions. Charles Taylor was mining this identical vein when he referred to “code fetishism” that manifested as a result of the religious reforms of the 15th century.

Drawing deeply from the Church Fathers (but also being famous for his anti-Augustinian, even anti-Western bent), Romanides discerned something in the Fathers that featured more like what we would call a “medical” diagnosis and cure than a system of “religion.” He saw our “fallen” condition as one where people are afraid of death, see other people and nations as competitors in a zero-sum game in a regime of scarcity, operate through mimetic rivalries playing a game of “happiness mongering” where we compete to put ourselves in positions that we think would make us happy only to find out it was a sham, and so forth. But he saw this medically (and echoing many evangelicals), as something like a short-circuit between the heart and the brain. This condition did not require “religious” practices (a worldview of the OCD-like fallen and diseased) so much as a cure of the “noetic faculty, and the cure was offered for others, using scripture and the sacraments, by those more advanced on the way to healing. (Think here of the famous stages of “purification,” “illumination,” and “glorification.”)

Look at our priests or bishops now. Do they seem any more advanced in the cure than anybody else? Some do. But so does the guy who took the snow tires off my car last week, and I don’t know if he’s ever darkened the doors of a Church. I just know that he had an air of spiritual freedom about him, such that somebody might think, “I want what he has. I wonder what makes him tick.” There’s a beginning. Romanides said of the Ecumenical Councils and Synods and their dogmas that they have “nothing to do with philosophy and metaphysics and much more to do with modern psychiatry.” He thought the practice of the cure of the Church should be in discussion with other practitioners of medicine on the basis of experimental medicine. This is timely, to say the least. Along these lines, I have often wondered if the story of St. Thomas Aquinas regarding his desire to burn his magisterial scholastic corpus after having a profound experience of God and seeing it all “as straw” is told most often in the wrong musical register, as it were, within the Church. We hear this story told through the lens of his humility and piety when we might better hear it as a summons, from one who knew, to spend less time, or no time, with those works and that worldview and get on with helping people with the cure; to see the world as it is. Rabelais, though a jester of sorts, was deadly serious and correct in his view that the worst weapon of all tyrannies is the syllogism. Logic is logic, but if it begins from a distorted image of experience based on an unhealthy functioning of the sense organism, there is no stopping the damage that unfolds in its wake. What is needed is healing.

I see a role for the Church here, as what Romanides referred to as “modern psychiatry” in the 1970s has now moved further and further away from understanding the human condition and became, in large swaths, something of a tool of big pharma. Many psychiatrists have become priests in the new “religion of science,” and the profession’s metastization into the medical-industrial complex that takes as its purpose a negotiated submission, adjustment, and accommodation to a very diseased world rather than the healing or cure that Romanides calls for. Here’s Romanides again:

Had prophetic Judaism and its successor Christianity made their appearance in the 20th century, they would perhaps have been classified not as religions but as medical science akin to Psychiatry with the wider impact on society due to its success in curing, in varying degrees, partially functioning human personalities.

A resurrection of the Church along these lines will overturn hierarchies and reshape religious communities. Again, some priests and ministers might be agents of the cure, but others are viral spreaders of the disease of religion. Some religious communities and monasteries might be hospitals and laboratories for spiritual exploration and cures, but others seem to be locations of pathogen development and spread. “But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”

From a very different quarter, a similar approach to our times was explored by Gerald Heard (d. 1971). Heard was born in London and was the son of an Anglo-Irish clergyman but eventually made his way to the West Coast and palled around with the likes of Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts. Groovy, yes, but also seriously important; these guys were explorers. He offered a pretty succinct psychological and prophetic observation of our current, corporate condition vis-à-vis the excesses of the COVID response as well as the beating of war drums:

The futility of a Liberal regime based only on mutual self-interest, its only goal the physical satisfaction of individuals, who know that their individuality cannot be an adequate end, has led to Tyrannies, where the autocrat and his worshippers welcome any group action, however homicidal, because it makes the individual forget his inevitable futility.

“However homicidal” indeed. In his book Pain, Sex and Time, Heard was also prophetic in his observations regarding the burgeoning mass neurosis as well as mass psychosis in the West and predicted the onslaught of mental health issues we are seeing. Politics is downstream of culture, they say. But culture is downstream of sanity. Heard saw, like William Blake and Rudolf Steiner before him, an embedded but fundamental “threefoldness” in the social order. This is the phenomenology of the future. For Steiner, the three realms were the Political, the Economic, and the Cultural/Spiritual. For Blake they were named Allamanda, Bowlohoola, and Golgonooza–but William Blake is William Blake and his funny words align exactly with the Political, Economic, and Cultural/Spiritual spheres. They all have analogs in the human being, too, and align with Digestive, Metabolic, and Nervous systems. Heard himself referenced the three spheres as the need for a Policy, an Economy, and a Psychiatry:

We cannot put right either our economic or our political systems until we cure our strangulated individuality. The first sign of returning sanity, the first symptom that we are attaining the essential objectivity toward our acute problem, is when we begin to realize that our societies are projections of ourselves and that our first radical contribution to a new social order and a conscious civilization will be made, and will only be made, when we undertake the reintegration of ourselves and set ourselves to continue our evolution by enlarging consciousness…as we shall shortly see, the moment we decide really to attend to a real psychology, we shall find ourselves driven to creating a sound economy and to demonstrating the only adequate policy.

I plan to write more on this “threefolding,” as it’s the way beyond the various “theocracies-by-other names” being peddled as the only antidote to the crisis of the liberal order. It will be interesting to many, and very relevant to our theme here, to know that Heard was a seminally important guide and mentor to Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is a great example of a radical “economy” and “policy” that is a result of its liberating “psychiatry”; its organization is distinctly bottom-up and even anarchic and seems to be a herald of many more movements of its kind.

Chesterton, for one, saw the insufficiency of the focus on the purely “spiritual” in the sense of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” as he noted that, insofar as the term seemed to imply simply the movement from the corporeal to the spiritual, it was an open question as to whether it led in the direction of the angels or the devils. What I’ve tried to do here is point to the shortcomings of the “religious” as well. Go to a Catholic college or take a look at the statements of the bishops on economics or politics. Or just look at the way the local Diocese or church-governing body is run. Outside the theology departments and outside the “cultural/religious” sphere, the language spoken and practiced by the Church is as Malthusian as in the surrounding culture, embracing in its statements and teachings the false but regnant and “religious” (in the bad sense) anthropology of liberal individualism, or what Heard called “strangulated individuality.” Insofar as our Church has no social doctrine that’s worth its salt (just a “compendium of platitudes,” in Guido Preparata’s words; a little higher minimum wage here, a little lower interest there), or, as was demonstrated during COVID, influence or impulse beyond the Church doors, it is becoming “strangulated” itself (mirroring the individuals) and filled, more than ever, with the really “religious.”

In his novel, Morwyn, or The Vengeance of God, John Cowper Powys showed, with crystalline clarity, how an infernal dance between official “Religion” and official “Science” leads to a tyrannous world inhabited by people with the sad and anxious faces we see all around us, especially in the young. What he called for, in its place, was a great “transfer of reverence.” This transfer of reverence was one that he saw as migrating from “Religion” to “Life.” In this he echoed the call of those oppressed but sane and lively Jews in the little town of Anatevka in Czarist Russian, now modern Ukraine: “Drink l’chaim, to life!”

Image Credit: Peter De Wint, “Waltham Abbey, Essex” (1840)

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  1. Great piece.

    “In his novel, Morwyn, or The Vengeance of God, John Cowper Powys showed, with crystalline clarity, how an infernal dance between official “Religion” and official “Science” leads to a tyrannous world inhabited by people with the sad and anxious faces we see all around us, especially in the young. What he called for, in its place, was a great “transfer of reverence.” This transfer of reverence was one that he saw as migrating from “Religion” to “Life.””

    Yes, but doesn’t this read a bit oddly after covid? In another sense, “reverence for life” IS our new religion.

  2. Thanks Adam. And point taken regarding how some might view my reference to “life” in this context and especially, as you say, “after Covid”; I could have been more clear. You’re barking up a hugely important tree. In my defense, however, I will point to a distinction between “life” the fetish, (to which you refer), called “bios” and the “Life” promised in the Gospels, called “zoe”. I discuss this seminal and, indeed, apocalyptic distinction, (central to the thought of Ivan Illich) in an essay I wrote on Covid, here: https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2020/05/feeling-claustrophobic-in-the-big-wide-open/

    And one could do no better than to take a deep dive on the subject with David Cayley, here:

    “Concerning Life” https://www.davidcayley.com/blog/2021/6/11/concerning-life-1

    As to how one was substituted for the other, I often think of the line from John’s Gospel, appropo for Holy Week: The angels asked Mary, “Why are you crying?” She answered, “They have taken away my Lord’s body! I don’t know where they have put him.” Illich found it necessary to label the materialist medical machinations that led to this linguistic and conceptual horror, “Antichrist”. The abomination of desolation is standing in the holy place. My friend Michael Martin,and I refer to the “Life Cult” needed to take back the holy place, “Sophiology”.

    • To Michael and David:

      I’ve often thought of the distinction between “life” and “living”, where the former involves continuing to process CO2, and the latter is actually, well, living. Seems to me as though we’re idolizing the former, at the expense of the latter, even as we bizarrely uphold euthanasia on “life not worth living” grounds.

      Interresting that you bring up “Sophiology” in this context, Michael. My only background in this is some familiarity with Vladimir Solov’ev. Is this what you were referring to, or something else?

  3. I myself could have been more clear! What you meant was very clear to me, probably because I’m familiar with Illich and Cayley and with your own excellent earlier FPR essay. I was just struck by how that last part would sound to someone who wasn’t, by how that’s actually a perfect example of what you’re talking about, that idea that the abomination is standing in the holy place – or, more mundanely, of how words like life can be hollowed out and filled with a meaning that is their opposite.

  4. Yeah, Adam, where it gets really mushy, and this was noted by Illich, is when a Catholic prelate puts an image of a baby, in utero, on a screen in front of a community (or is it a “crowd” ?) assembled in the National Shrine before the March for Life, (I have been there for this.), and says/preaches, “This is life (Life?)!”. Is this an icon? Or an idol? I felt felt pretty sure my reference to Fiddler on the Roof gets at “Life” both as it’s implied by Powys, as well as Zoe or, as Aaron, says, to “living”. As well as Sophiology.

    Aaron: Solovyov, sui generis, is central, for sure. He kind of juiced a tree that had been somewhat dormant and is now spreading Her leaves. We’re talking about the design and divine presence (sacramentality), in all creation; Entelechies or ‘seeds’ or logoi spermaticoi. Might this even play out regarding the design, parameters and interrelationships of our economic, political and cultural/religious systems?

  5. I am reading Orthodox Psychotherapy by Metropolitan Hierotheos. He often cites John Romanides. So your article is timely for me.

    Christianity needs to move away from “code fetishism.” This is, as you say, part of the illness itself. Religiously induced “code scrupulosity” is merely the precursor and lead-in to our current ever-tightening control system civilization. If nothing else, it makes people miserable.

    Unless healing the soul becomes the central focus of Christianity, it will continue to decline. And rightfully so.

    Healing can’t be merely a matter of scholarly banter. It must be made concrete.

  6. “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words”.
    – Philip K Dick, (1978)

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