The chances are that you are reading this because you want to know what the odd title means. I will come to that presently but first I want to talk about cults. The word has acquired a sinister connotation in modern English but its Latin original cultus means “care, labour; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence.” It retains something of that meaning in French so Anglophone visitors to Francophone regions are sometimes bemused to see references to the culte Catholique. We can see that culture, cultivation and religious cult share a common root of some kind. I would suggest that community is an implied component of the concept “cult.” People come together to produce culture and worship (also crops but that’s not my interest here.) That is, however much individual creative work an artist may produce or however intense a person’s particular spiritual life may be they do so as the inheritors of a community tradition, participants in a current community of activity or belief and contributors to a future storehouse of artefacts or practices which subsequent generations can benefit from.
Which brings me to Shangri La-sur-Loire. There are three strands I wish to pick out here. The 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, the French town of La Charité-sur-Loire and the idea known as the Benedict Option (Ben Op). Taking the last point first; the proposition is that we are in an epoch of civilisational collapse. A perfect storm of trends and events is combining to put an unbearable strain on existing Western structures and societies which will be unable to endure in anything like their current form. During an analogous period of human history, the ending of the Latin Roman Empire, the best values, culture and religion of classical society were preserved by a loose network of intentional communities formed under the monastic Rule of St Benedict. When the chaos subsided somewhat these formed the basis for the flourishing of a new culture and way of being which led to the world that gave us the Gothic Cathedrals, illuminated manuscripts and all the other glories of the High Middle Ages. The Ben Op proposes the creation of new intentional communities in order to carry the best of our civilisation through the tribulations to come.
In its pristine form the Ben Op is a primarily Christian idea. It perceives that the faith has no traction in mainstream Western society and never will but since that society is dying Christians should prioritise survival and future rebirth over fighting unwinnable battles in a world whose time is in any event severely limited. It is no doubt true that the psalmist’s lament-
We have become a taunt to our neighbours,
mocked and derided by those around us. (Ps 79:4)
applies to Western Christians but given the rising tide of anti-intellectualism and the perceived link many see between culture as such and the despised ruling elites it might with equal truth be said by devotees of the Opera, the fine arts or poetry. To put it another way the different forms of cult as well as having a common origin are currently facing a common fate.
Lost Horizon, which was published in the year that the Nazi’s came to power in Germany, imagines an isolated community, Shangri La, which although originally religious in purpose has become transformed into an entity which deliberately seeks to preserve all aspects of culture against the imminent danger of global destruction. This is a not uncommon literary trope, we see something similar in A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Glass Bead Game and in the kingdoms of Nargothrond or Númenor of the Silmarillion. Possibly the first author to explore this idea was the fifth century Tao Yuanming in The Peach Blossom Spring. As a lived experience arguably the oldest practitioners were the Jews of Babylon who used their exile as an opportunity to refound and reinvigorate their ancient community around the concepts of Law, Land and identity.
What I am suggesting is that the formation of intentional communities to preserve what is worth preserving is not simply a matter that need only concern Christians. And so we come to La Charité-sur-Loire. Loosely translated the name means kindness or generosity on the Loire. It is not the original title assumed by its inhabitants but was given to it by outsiders. The reason for this was the loving hospitality given by its monks to travellers through the town of whom there were many since it sits on the pilgrimage route to St James Compostela. The town went through various vicissitudes over succeeding centuries including an assault led by St Joan of Arc and a great fire. Today the monastic community is long gone but La Charité is now a Ville des Livres (City of Books) and visitors can explore numerous shops selling antiquarian texts and maps. In effect one intentional community has been replaced by another, albeit much looser, one.
The Ben Op idea is not a survivalist retreat to desert or mountain. Many of the original Benedictine houses were hidden, like La Charitié, in plain sight in towns, on main communication and transport routes. They were involved in the life of their epoch and of their region. More than that, however, by virtue of a shared purpose they were also involved in keeping safe and keeping alive the things which they valued most. Shangri La, because of its isolation doesn’t fit into that model but it’s ability to thrive was dependant not only on its intentional community but also on a mutually beneficial relationship with its neighbouring geographical community of valley people. Its value for us then is as a sign of such cooperation and that Ben Op purposes need not be seen as narrowly conceived.
Unlike Christians, perhaps, protagonists of high culture may not see the need to be physically proximate to those who share their interests. The internet, after all, enables a virtual community to be formed which eliminates the tedious business of living cheek by jowl with people whose egos are as monstrous as our own. In the event, though, of total or partial civillisational collapse the net will likely cease to function or at least become greatly diminished. A need for our times is the rediscovery of culture as cult and the creation of cultic communities in real life occupying real space with explicitly formed intentions anent preservation and survival. The chances of survival would be greatly increased if the two cults, Christianity and the liberal humanities, were to act in concert (as it were) but there even my untrammelled imagination dare not go.