ALEX LANGER: LETTER to St. CHRISTOPHER (with a Profile of the Author) DEAR St. CRISTOPHER,
Dear St. Christopher,
I don't know whether you remember me as I remember you. I was a young boy that saw you painted on the outside walls of many small mountain churches. Frescoes that were often faded, but easily-recognisable. You - a large, sturdy, bearded, elderly man - were carrying a child from one side of the river to the other on your shoulders, and it was plain that it was a supreme effort and supreme joy. I got my mother to tell me your story lots of times. She wasn't really up on saints at all, or devout, but she knew how to enrapture us with her stories. So, I never knew your real name, or where you stood in relation to the Church's saints (I fear you have recently been the victim of a purge which relegated you to a minor status, or cast doubts on your existence). But I remember your story well, at least the gist of it. You were someone that felt great strength inside and was very energetic, someone who, after serving under the banner of the most illustrious lords of that time, respected and honoured because of your strength and ability in fighting, felt wasted. You decided you wanted to serve someone that it was truly worthwhile following, a Great Cause that really counted more than any others. Perhaps you were tired of false glory and you wanted the real one. I can't remember how it was suggested that due to your exceptional physical strength you should stay on one bank of a dangerous river in order to ferry the wayfarers who could never have managed to cross it alone, or how you accepted such a humble service, which couldn't have seemed that 'Great Cause' at all which - I understood - you were thirsting after. But I do know very well that it was while you were humbly doing that job that you happened to be asked to do something at first sight far 'inferior' to the strength you possessed: carry a baby on your shoulders to the other side, a task that certainly didn't require a giant like you with those great muscular legs we see in the paintings. It was only after starting to cross the river that you realised you had accepted the most exacting task of your life, and you had to give it your all, making an enormous effort, to get to the other side. After which you understood who it was, and you had found the Lord it was worthwhile serving, so much so that that name stayed with you forever after.
Why am I turning to you on the threshold of the year 2000? Because I believe that today we are in a similar position to yours, and that we are not equal to the crossing facing us, no different to what your task must have seemed like to you that night, so much so that you doubted you could manage it. And because your adventure may be a parable for what is facing us.
Now it seems that all the great causes recognised as such, many of which are undoubtedly important and illustrious, have been served, with dedication, and they have sorely disappointed. How many blunders! How much deception and self-deception, how many failures, unwanted consequences (which are not reversible) of choices and inventions held to be generous and provident.
The chemical poisons, cast on the earth and in the waters to 'improve' nature, are coming back on us: their final resting place being our bodies. All goods and each activity have become merchandise, and thus have their price: you can buy, sell and hire or rent. Blood even (from the living), organs (from the dead and the living), and the womb ('leasing' a pregnancy). Everything is feasible: from interplanetary travel to the homicidal perfection of Auschwitz, from artificial snow to the arbitrary production and manipulation of life in a laboratory.
The motto of our modern Olympics has become the supreme, universal law of a civilisation in unlimited expansion: citius, altius, fortius - faster, higher and stronger, you have to produce, consume, move, learn ... compete, in other words. Chasing the 'superlative' has triumphed, without any shame. The race has become the recognised, accentuated matrix of a lifestyle that seems irreversible and irrepressible. Overcoming limits, pushing back the barriers, forcing growth ahead has characterised in a massive way the course of progress dominated by the law of utility defined 'economy' and a law of science called 'technology' - little does it matter that many times it has been a question of necro-economy and necro-technology.
What would someone who wanted to emulate you have to do nowadays, dear St. Christopher? What is the Great Cause you could dedicate your greatest efforts to, even at the cost of losing glory and prestige in the eyes of others, crouching in a hut on the edge of the river? What is the river that's hard to cross; the baby who seems light as a feather, but in reality is heavy and crucial to ferry across?
The heart of the crossing that lies before us is probably passing from the 'more' civilisation to one of 'that's enough', or 'perhaps that's already too much'. After centuries of progress where striving ahead and growth were the quintessence of the meaning of history and earthly hopes, it might seem futile to think of 'regressing' - that is to say, to invert, or at least stop, the citius, altius, fortius race which has been self-destructive, as many have intuited and are forced to admit (and they are out there to document the greenhouse effect, pollution, deforestation, the invasion of chemical compounds that are now out of control... and another long list of wounds inflicted on the biosphere and on humanity).
So we have to rediscover and put into practice some limits: slowing down (the rhythms of growth and exploitation), lowering (the rates of pollution, production, consumption), attenuating (our pressure on the biosphere, every form of violence). A true 'regression' compared to 'faster, higher, stronger'. Hard to accept, hard to do, hard even to tell ourselves.
So much so that some are still bandying slogans about which try to square the circle in a contorted manner talking about 'sustainable development', or 'qualitative, not quantitative development', except that when we try to cross the river of counter-trends concretely the same people become all vague.
Whereas this is exactly what is required - for reasons based on health and justice: we cannot multiply by 5-6 billions an average white, industrialised person's environmental impact, unless we want the biosphere to collapse, and we cannot even think that a fifth of humanity can go on living at the expense of the other four-fifths, without considering nature and our descendants.
Crossing over from a civilisation impregnated by the race to overcome all limits to one that is self-restricting, one of 'enoughness' [sic], of 'Genügsamkeit'', or 'Selbstbescheidung', of frugality seems as easy as it is gruelling. It is enough to think the enormous effort a smoker, drug addict or hardened drinker have to face to free themselves from their addiction, even if they are convinced, theoretically, of the risks they face if they carry on in that way, and maybe they have already been hit by serious warnings (heart problems, crises ...) that their condition is insupportable. The doctor that tries to convince them by conjuring up or provoking fear of death or self-destruction in them usually fails to motivate them to change their ways, they'd rather live with mutilation and they look for ways to put off the final showdown.
That's why you came to mind, St. Christopher: you're someone who knew how to renounce the use of his physical strength and who accepted a form of service which had little glory about it. You put your enormous wealth of conviction, strength and self-discipline at the disposal of a Great Cause which in appearance was so simple and modest. They made you patron saint of drivers - perhaps abusively, since you had been the protector of porters. Today you should inspire people to change from the car to the bike, or the train or to going by shanks's pony! The river we have to wade across is the one that separates the bank of ever-more sophisticated technological perfection from independence from technological prostheses: we shall have to learn to ferry ourselves from huge numbers of kilowatt hours to just a few, from artificial superfoods to a juster form of nutrition, one that is more compatible with ecological and social balance, from supersonic speed to more human and less energi-vorous times and rhythms, from producing too much heat and too much polluting waste to a cyce that is more harmonious with nature. In other words, go from trying to overcome limits to a new respect for them and from an ever-more artificialising civilisation to a rediscovery of simplicity and frugality.
Fear of an ecological catastrophe or the first heart-attacks or collapse of our society (from Chernobyl to Adriatic algae, from crazy climate to oil spills in the sea) won't be enough to convince us to change our ways: positive thrust will be needed, more similar to what made you search after a way of life and meaning different and loftier than your previous existence based on strength and glory. Your renouncing force and your decision to put yourself at the baby's disposal offers us a marvellous parable of 'ecological conversion', which is sorely needed today.
(translated by Gerry Blaylock ©)