Some Thoughts on the Roaring 20s — for 2020 (and Beyond)

I’m writing this on the second day of January 2020 — and I’m mindful of an amusing meme that made its way around Facebook last week. By the time you are reading this, it will be a stale joke, but imagine you saw this on December 26, 2019, and perhaps you can appreciate the humor.

And of course, as I scrolled through Facebook to find this one image, I had to wade through all the various announcements for “Roaring Twenties” New Years Eve Parties that took place on 12/31/2019.

Why are we so in love with the 1920s?

Maybe a better question: what is there not to love about that decade!? It was the jazz age— the age of flappers and the Charleston, of The Great Gatsby and Downton Abbey, of Art Deco and women’s suffrage. The 20s was the heyday of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe; of Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin, of Babe Ruth and Coco Chanel and Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. Virginia Woolf was smoking cigars while T.S. Eliot mused on the wasteland. On top of all these cultural riches, the economy was booming… at least, until it wasn’t.

It was also the time when Evelyn Underhill was widely respected as a modern day authority on mysticism, while Pierre Teilhard de Chardin went off to China where he celebrated the “Mass on the World” later immortalized in his Hymn of the Universe — so while it may not be a decade we think of as a hotbed of contemplative activity, nevertheless we can see that the Spirit was up to some cool stuff. During the roaring 20s, Thomas Keating was born, Edith Stein was baptized, and C. S. Lewis abandoned atheism for a meaningful, living faith in God. Howard Thurman went to seminary, and met the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones who became one of his mentors.

Moral of the story: even in the midst of a big fat secular party decade, some deeply transformational spiritual stuff just might be going on — even though it might not bear fruit for years to come.

If C. S. Lewis hadn’t said “Yes” to God in 1929, we would in all likelihood never have been brought to the wonders of Narnia. Without Thurman’s hard work as a seminarian in the 20s, his career might have taken him on a path other than becoming the spiritual godfather of the American Civil Rights movement. Without Edith Stein’s carefully reasoned conversion, mystical classics such as The Science of the Cross might never have been written.

It’s always so tempting to isolate key moments in our lives — or in the lives of people we admire. I do it myself — I continue to emphasize February 5, 1977 as if that one date is the only one where God ever bothered to love me! Then there’s Julian of Norwich (although,  to be fair, no one knows if her “special” date was May 8 or 13, 1373). Likewise, so many Merton fans pay particular attention to “special” dates in his life (like March 18, 1958) that after a while you might begin to think that contemplation is really only about the “peak experiences.”

But that’s just not how contemplation rolls.

At Thomas Merton Square in Louisville, KY in 2014 (when I still had a furry face).

Yes, sometimes we have particular days or moments in our lives that are singularly meaningful. That’s what happened to me in 1977, and I suppose many people can report something similar from their childhood or adolescent years. But my spiritual awakening wouldn’t be worth the electrons this webpage is printed on, if I didn’t follow it up with a lifetime of saying “Yes” (some years more fervently than others) to the Spirit. On the other hand, let’s never forget that the mind-expanding epiphany that Merton experienced on 3/18/58 only came about after he had been praying daily at the monastery for over sixteen years!

So when I sit and think about the Roaring 20s, I don’t think about all the spiritual fervent that rocked American society like it did in the 1960s or 1970s. But I do remember that people were praying, and living, and writing, and reflecting, in ways that would impact others for years to come.

Which brings me to today. I’m writing this on January 2, 2020, and it’s my first blog post for the new “Roaring 20s.” Living in a time when there is so much political division, partisan anger, suspicion toward religious institutions, and mainstream skepticism toward spirituality or mysticism, it would be easy to get cynical about the moment we find ourselves in. Forty-nine years ago this week, George Harrison’s interspiritual anthem, “My Sweet Lord” was a number one hit, receiving near-constant airplay. Would such an unabashedly idealistic love song to God be a #1 hit record today? I really doubt it, and that, frankly, breaks my heart.

But the point of this post is not to get cynical or discouraged, if the moment we find ourselves in tends to “roar” more than “contemplate.” Make no mistake: I’m all for sustainable economic growth, for cultural expression, for the flowering of literature and music and dance and fashion. I love the roaring twenties, and I hope this new decade will “roar” too.

Of course, I’d like to see us dodge some of the shadow sides of a century ago: we could do without the stock market crash of 1929, the great depression, or the rise of fascism and Nazism. History does repeat itself for those who fail to heed its lessons, so let us all work together to learn the lessons the 20s, so that this time around we can do things better.

But back to contemplation. When it seems like not very many people are interested in such things as meditation or contemplation or deep interior work, it is incumbent upon those of us who are interested in these things to persevere, even if in relative solitude. After all, the choices we make, the communities we form, the books we write, and the love we generate, all will bear meaningful spiritual fruit — even if not for years to come. But eventually the blossoms will come; the fruit will be borne.

So, may the 2020s roar! May we all embrace the best of culture and prosperity that our society can offer us. And for those of us we sense we are called not just to roar, but to be silent, to listen within for the still small voice of the Divine, let’s be sure to do that as well. After all, we have no idea what adventures in the Spirit await us — tomorrow, next year or even four decades from now.

I trust the adventure will be worth it.



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