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Into the Desert, Into the Woods
What's next for the Abbey of Misrule
As you probably know by now, the essay series which I launched this Substack to publish, over two years ago, has just drawn to a close. A summary of that project can be found here. So, what now?
Let me try to answer that question.
I have been writing for the last two years about who we are in this strange anti-culture of ours: marooned people, flailing for truth. I started this project with no idea of whether anyone would read it, or even where it would quite go. I just needed to unburden myself of the swirling thoughts in my head. Two years later, 41,000 people have signed up to read me here, and some of you are even paying for the privilege. The thing took off in a way I never really envisaged.
But writing like this builds up on your back after a while; it becomes a burden. I know this burden well, because I have been writing about the darkness of the times - about collapse, about anti-culture, about the Machine - since at least 2009, when I started the Dark Mountain Project. I don’t regret any of it. It had to be done. I needed to know what was at the root of what I could see all around me. And I know that doing so has been useful to others, because they have told me. The appetite for these essays is just one example of our common need to make sense of these insane times.
Still, it feels like I was on an underworld journey all that time. It feels like fifteen years of staring into the abyss. The danger of doing that, as Nietszche famously warned, is that the abyss will start to stare back into you. Too much focus on the darkness and you can forget about the existence of light. Aldous Huxley summed up the problem in The Devils of Loudon:
No man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected. To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous. Every crusader is apt to go mad. He is haunted by the wickedness which he attributes to his enemies; it becomes in some sort a part of him.
In every human life, the underworld has to be negotiated. You can’t avoid the journey into what Dante called ‘the dark wood’ of your interior. There are things in there that you need to find and face. But at some point you have to find your way out again, or you are in trouble. You end up walking round and round in circles in the thickets, raging at the darkness, imagining you are moving forward. You need to start heading out and up.
Well, I think I might have emerged at last, blinking in the light.
Those of you who have been reading me for a while will have seen how I have found it harder and harder not to write from my newfound Christian perspective. My religion has taken me and bent me out of shape; or rather, I hope, back into shape again. If the pressure keeps coming, maybe one day I’ll approach the shape I was supposed to be. Daily I can feel myself being turned, ever so slowly, towards the light.
The consequences of this are intriguing. Once, I would look out at the world made by the Machine and despair. It’s a rational reaction in my opinion, but it is a rarer one for me now. The Machine is still there, but today I look at it with subtly different eyes. I see different things. An apocalypse, certainly; but maybe not an ending. A collapse, of course; but also an exile. A breakdown, for sure; but a liberation too.
Bear with me. I think I can explain.
In a few of my essays here - Exodus, for example, or Watch the Great Fall, or The West Must Die - I have approached the idea that the dissolution we are undergoing should be embraced. If we have faith in God, after all, this must be happening for a reason. And if we don’t have faith - well, the dissolution is unstoppable now anyway. The question is how to live with it, and what we can learn from it. I wrote explicitly about this eighteen months ago, in my essay Exodus. We are all heading into the desert, I wrote, like the Israelites:
In the desert, strength is needed, and prayer too. But the desert, perhaps, is not a bad place to be. Civilisations come and go, but nature keeps renewing, and God is eternal. There are things higher than our cultures; there are things higher than the Machine. If we are in the desert - if this is our Exodus - then we can work to understand how we got here and we can wonder, as we wander, about what the Promised Land might look like. As one cycle ends, another begins. The dead leaves of one culture fall to cover the seeds of another, already sown beneath. The more things fall apart - the more the centre cannot hold - the more new centres are seeded on the margins, which is the only place they can ever grow.
I stand by the claim I made in my last essay here, that the ‘three Ps’ - people, place and prayer - contain the essence of the good life. But the reason it has been so hard for me to write my way back to that place - not just here, but in all my writing, because from my first book onward I was always seeking this shore - is that it is not attainable to many of us now. That’s how it is.
But perhaps this is meant to be. Maybe it is not a time to be at home. Maybe it is a time to wander abroad, and to learn from the wandering.
Six years ago, I wrote an essay for Orion magazine about how we were living in a ‘new Axial Age.’ I wasn’t a Christian then, but in retrospect I can see what was coming. Even then, I thought we were in need of a religious solution to our crisis of meaning, though I didn’t know where to find it. ‘In the wound lies the hope’, I wrote. Hundreds of thousands of words later, I find that I have the same feeling.
The ground is shifting everywhere now. A new religion is rising - the religion of the Machine. It may be that all the old structures - cultural structures, Christian structures, all the familiar things - need to fall away in order that we can see beyond them to what is really going on; see again what truth looks like at its root, and understand how to face what is happening. There’s freedom in that prospect, if you ask me. Maybe even joy.
It is a desert time now. I wonder what it means to write from the desert?
I want to find out.
The next phase
I have written myself over these two years into an explicitly spiritual understanding of our place and time. It is impossible for me now to see the world any other way, and I don’t want to. Quite the opposite, in fact: I want to put God firmly at the heart of the matter, because that’s where he belongs. I want to turn away from the darkness and walk into the light, and see what I find there. Then I want to write about it, for as long as the words are given me.
What does this mean for my work here? It means that in future I will be writing explicitly about the spiritual dimensions of the times, from an Orthodox Christian perspective. That doesn’t mean that I’ll only write about Orthodoxy, or Christianity, or that I’ll only write for Christians. My readership at the moment contains many Christians of differing backgrounds, but it also contains Buddhists, Sufis, pagans, atheists, Jews and doubtless plenty of people without spiritual labels. I like this. Long may it continue.
Still, an Orthodox Christian is what I am now, and as anyone who has been on this journey knows, it has a tendency to take you over; to consume you, as it should. After all, either God is real or he isn’t. Either Christ is real or he isn’t. If he isn’t, then you’re wasting your time even thinking about him. If he is, then understanding him - and being changed by him - should be the work of your life. It’s the work of mine now. It continues to surprise me, and it isn’t always comfortable. But I am slowly learning to give in to whatever surprises are in store.
So, this will be the future of the Abbey of Misrule. I take the collapse for granted. I am done writing about it. Instead, I want to follow my intuitions about what the new faith of the Machine age is going to be, and I’m going to write about a wild Christian response. I want to head back to the roots of our faith and see if I can help to water them a little. I want to find the soil they grow in. I want to grow in it too. You know I think we are living through an apocalypse - a revelation. But what is being revealed? We should pay attention to that question, I think. We should search for the diamonds in the rough. I want to write about that search. There are stories to tell about our exile’s journey. Some of them might even be beautiful.
If you stick around, expect all this and more. There will still be essays on the theology of the Machine, and some musings on the times. But there will be other things too. Expect stories. Expect art. Expect wild saints and holy wells. Expect an in-house illustrator. Expect thoughts and tales and reports from my journey into Orthodoxy. Expect book reviews. Expect conversations with others about our path in this strange new day.
Not for the first time, in other words, I will be undertaking a great big messy experiment. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. Either way, you are all invited to join in. We’ll see where this road goes and how long it takes. Perhaps I’ll only be left with a hundred readers coming along on the journey with me, but that’s alright. We’ll head off into the desert, and see what watering holes we encounter. Or perhaps we’ll enter the forest in search of dragons.
Everything is in the hands of God now. But then, it always was. Exciting, isn’t it?
What happens now
After the July salon is posted next week, I am going to take a break from writing for the rest of the summer to recover my wits and energies, and to spend some time with my family and my land. The new phase of the Abbey will begin in September.
I don’t want you paying me while I am on sabbatical, so I will be suspending everybody’s payments to the Abbey of Misrule until I begin writing again in early September. You’ll all remain subscribed, and you can continue to read anything in the archives over that time - you just don’t pay while I’m not writing. You do not have to do anything. When I start writing again, payments will resume, and we’ll all continue on into the new day.
I hope all of this makes sense; and I hope some of you will want to stick around to see what happens next. To anyone who doesn’t - I’d like to thank you for your support and your interest thus far.
Blessings to all of my readers for the rest of the summer. Enjoy it. I intend to.