Basking Shark

In October of last year, Bobby Hogg died. He was an aged Scotsman, a native of a remote fishing town. When he died, the ancient Black Isle dialect of Cromarty died with him. It was an obscure dialect, always a bit precarious, teetering at the edge of the Highlands. Buffeted by the winds of urbanization, compulsory education, and the mass media, the dialect finally fell to join the graves of Eyak, Aka-Bo, and Sowa—languages that have all gone extinct within the past fifteen years.

Language is perhaps the most fundamental tradition, the symbolic breath of a living community and the first cultural inheritance handed on to a child. The death of the Black Isle dialect, indeed the death of any language, reveals the frightening fragility of local traditions in light of the homogenizing power of mass media. Today, if a tradition is not in the ascendency, it is almost inevitably in decline. Living traditions, like the basking sharks which visit Bobby Hogg’s Scottish fishing village each summer, must keep moving to stay alive.

While hardly as tenuous as was Scotland’s lost dialect, there is little doubt that the living tradition of Christianity in the Western world is declining in the face of a rival secular tradition. Few dispute the reality of the decline, many dispute how the Christian tradition might be revitalized. Michael Hannon’s report on the recent  Fare Forward  symposium outlines a range of possible responses: should Christians adopt MacIntyre’s melancholy Benedictine option—“the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us” or a more “Dominican option” recommended by Hannon?

Loyalties to my patron notwithstanding, I would argue that both Benedict and Dominic show us the way to a new Christian vitality. As with most things Catholic, this is not an either-or option, but a harmonious both-and.

Benedict’s genius was his humble recognition of our vulnerability to the temptations of the world and his single-minded devotion to sanctification—a sanctification wrought by God’s grace through a communal life of work and prayer. Having withdrawn from the world, his monks served as preservers of the Christian faith, signposts pointing to the kingdom of God amidst the ruins of the Roman Empire. Robed in the color of penance, the monks’ lives continue to whisper the Gospel secret that man is made for more than this world can offer.

The Christian stance towards the secular world must be Benedictine: local forms of Christian community must be fostered as MacIntyre argues, primarily by applying the principle of subsidiarity to our leisure. We must intentionally seek to preserve and propagate our Christian tradition with the humble recognition that, although we may not live in the ruins of an empire and under the fear of barbarian invaders, we are all vulnerable to cultural ruination by mass media banality and the constant barrage of advertisements that keep it cheap and accessible.

Applying Benedict’s wisdom to the domain of leisure, I take this option to be as creative as it is defensive. If it is a retreat, it is a retreat from passivity—the passive consumption of media products by which our tradition’s secular rival often invades our homes. The vital, culture-forming resources of a community are finite, and cultures rise and fall with how a community spends this time and energy. Instead of affecting a withdrawal from civil society, the social capital raised by well-spent leisure will only increase our engagement in the public square, and often at a more local and efficacious level.

But the revitalization of our tradition must also be Dominican. Dominic graced the world with his love of Truth and his unshakeable faith in its power to save. His friars devoted, and continue to devote, themselves to study, digging their roots deep down into the soil of sacred mysteries. Firmly planted in the tradition, intellects honed through dialectical disputation and sanctified by contemplative prayer, the Dominican is at home in every public square, pulpit, and classroom. Even far from his priory, the preaching friar walks on native soil, confidently exploring the dark caverns of error, inviting lost wayfarers to come home to God’s truth.

Our stance towards the secular world must be Dominican for the simple fact that charity compels us to share the truth. Yes, we must first be steeped in our own tradition, fortified with sacred scripture, contemplative prayer, theological wisdom, and our perennial philosophy, but then, out of charity, desirous of the salvation of souls, we must boldly venture out into the wilderness of rival traditions and speak the word that saves.

With more time we could consider a plethora of other options: the Franciscan option, the Ignatian option, and so on. The saints were all animated by the same Spirit of charity, the same Spirit of truth, and each has a lesson for our day.

If Benedict shows us how to be prudent and creative, and Dominic shows us how to be rooted and fearless, Bobby Hogg shows us to act with urgency. Every generation is a bit like Bobby and every tradition a bit like the Black Isle dialect, one generation away from going the way of Eyak, Aka-Bo, and Sowa. I don’t know if Bobby was fond of metaphor, or if he spent much time at sea, but perhaps in his old Black Isle tongue he’d have a word of wisdom: “Yer faith is like th’ auld baskin’ shark. Big it may be, th’ king of th’ sea, but it’ll die if it don’t pass on.”

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