Returning to the Wellspring

Returning to the WellspringAs the stage is set for a great storm, our common peril forces us to look for a vision of life that will serve to unify the nation. We believe this vision will not be inspired by economic reforms, financial policies, or government programs. The question remains as to where we must go to find the ideas that will inspire our return to order.

In our times of crisis, we would do well to repair to the wellspring of our Christian culture in the hope of rediscovering those spiritual values that gave us birth. We should look beyond our materialistic vision and turn to what Johan Huizinga calls “more and higher values than the mere gratification of want and the desire for power. These values lie in the domain of the spiritual, the intellectual, the moral, and the aesthetic.”[1]

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In this spiritual quest, we must avoid the idealized inventions of great philosophers or the complex schemes of sociologists. We must reject the rigid ideologies of modern thinkers who have constructed ideal systems without any link to reality, much to the detriment of mankind. We must embrace instead those ideals, principles, and values that have always served to inspire and unify men. They are ideals that are connected to reality and manifest themselves in the diverse customs, traditions, and ways of life of a people.

Horizontal Vision of Society

By returning to the source of our values, we engage in a real search for meaning and unity. It is not the scattered modern vision of things that so characterizes our age of individualism. To employ a metaphor, we might say that the present socio-economic model resembles a horizontal line drawn on a piece of paper where the line scatters our attention with no single point of focus. This line extends outward; it is flat with no hierarchy of interests.

Such a model corresponds to a horizontal vision of society. It is an image of a model that favors frenetic intemperance, expanding markets, and gigantist networks obsessed with outward progress and the horizontal expansion of finance or empire without any central focus. Lawrence Friedman writes that “urban, industrial, mass-media society” is a “horizontal society” full of superficial links among equals.[2]

A Vertical Vision

Our return to the wellspring calls for a vertical perspective. It supposes a vertical vision of the universe where things are viewed through another prism. To extend our metaphor, we can liken the model we seek to a vertical line drawn on paper. This line draws our attention towards a single point as it progresses upward, much like the vertical lines of a church bell tower draw our gaze upward towards the cross at the top.

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This vertical vision invites us to elevate our minds with singular purpose to transcendent values and ultimately to God. R. H. Tawney describes this vision as a “theory of a hierarchy of values, embracing all human interests and activities in a system of which the apex is religion” as opposed to the modern “conception of separate and parallel compartments, between which a due balance should be maintained, but which have no vital connection with each other.”[3]

This vision confers a great unity of purpose upon a society. This unity, which might also be ours, could be seen in Christendom. “There have been periods in European history in which more rapid progress has been made in some directions, and in which there has been a greater variety of individual genius,” writes R. W. Southern about the Middle Ages, “but there has never been a period which has displayed so great a variety of achievement in the service of a single aim.”[4]

The Good, True, and Beautiful

The inspiration of this vision is found inside man himself. It corresponds to the most fundamental desires of the human heart. It comes from our constant search for all that is good, true, and beautiful. This impulse is something that occurs naturally in us and sets in motion powerful movements inside our souls that call us to sacrifice.

Aristotle speaks of what he calls to kalon, that is, our passionate concern for all that is elevated, dignified, and noble. It was something he recognized as universally present in the spiritual core of each human being. These highest aspirations of rational and free beings are “capable of dedication, devotion, and even sacrifice for the sake of causes perceived as just and as thereby partaking of transcendent or eternal value.”[5]

Likewise, Saint Paul in Holy Scriptures calls upon us to look to these same ideals when he says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”(Phil. 4:8).[6]

When men seek after these high standards of perfection, beauty, or excellence, it gives rise to a vision of life that inspires civilizations. We need only look to our Christian roots as a confirmation of their efficacy. History gives ample testimony to the selfless acts of saints, heroes, and martyrs who put Christian ideals before all else. Their influence permeated the culture, established a rule of honor, and gave birth to a whole civilization.

However, there is more.

“Omne Delectamentum in se Habentem”

When we search for that which is most elevated, dignified, and noble, we inevitably encounter the supernatural and divine, which is at the pinnacle of all beauty and the true wellspring of Christian civilization. Omne delectamentum in se habentem, says the liturgy for Benediction. We might say of this vision that it has “within it all sweetness.”

Subscription8.1By embracing the supernatural, we encounter God and His Divine grace, which communicates supernatural life to our souls and makes our ideals shine brighter. Grace perfects nature and opens up new possibilities for the realization of our ideals beyond that of the merely human. While we cannot quantify the action of grace in history, we can observe those selfless acts of virtue that brought about amazing transformations in society.  We see, for example, the fruits of grace in the noble, dignified, and elevated acts of those who bear suffering with joy and dignity, experience triumph with humility, and treat others with veneration and respect as brothers. We can observe the effects of grace, which enlightens reason, and, guided by the light of the Faith and an infallible Magisterium, creates the ideal cultural conditions for an organic society.

By returning to the wellspring of our Christian civilization, we avail ourselves of this Divine assistance and thus our efforts become proportional to the challenges from the impending storm.

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In short, as increasing numbers abandon the failing materialist culture that adopted the common, useful, and ordinary as its “unheroic” standard, we must repair to this Christian wellspring to regenerate our culture. It is this search for meaning and unity that we will now explore. From this source, we will see its fruits reflected in the hearth and home, the public square, the marketplace, and the sanctuary.

The text above was taken from Chapter 46 of the book, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Go Here, and Where We Need to Go.


[1] Johan H. Huizinga, In the Shadow of Tomorrow (New York: W. W. Norton, 1936), 40-41.

[2] Friedman, Horizontal Society, 60.

[3] Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 8.

[4] R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London: Penguin Books, 1970), 43.

[5] Thomas L. Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 93.

[6] North American Bible Revised Edition.