The Mystique of the City: Illusory and Real

Some people feel no instinctive attraction to city life: they want a quiet existence, away from the commotion of the modern world. I know there are such people, but I find it hard to understand them.

No doubt they also find it hard to understand me, someone whose heart gravitates toward the fast pace, late hours, and strange beauty of urban existence. They would probably find it stranger still to know that, despite my attraction to the city, I will soon be departing to live in a monastery located in a small village.

I find it strange, too. But for the fact that God has always worked in surprising ways with his people, I might not believe it to be his will. The city – in all its strange, flawed beauty – is what I know and love. Any other way of life, even within the US, feels almost like a foreign country.

Granted, there is another side to my relationship with cities, borne of my tendency for rigorous social criticism. If one grasps the root problems of the modern world, it is hard not to see them all summed up in the urban skyline, and lash out accordingly.

 

In the city, one finds unequalled evidence that mankind was made “in God’s image”; but one is also faced with dramatic proof of humanity’s fallen condition. There one finds the good fruits of art, commerce, culture, and other marks of our unique place in the cosmos. But all of this is intermingled with chaos, greed, and every kind of hedonism barely masking an abyss of despair.

Perhaps I have a love-hate relationship with urban life. If so, I would like to think it is the kind of relationship where one really does “love the sinner and hate the sin.”

Whether or not that is true, I certainly feel a deep ambivalence on the natural level: the same sort of tension that moved Ray Davies to look out over London and compose one of the most beautiful songs ever, beginning with the words:

“Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, rolling into the night / People so busy, make me feel dizzy, taxi light shines so bright / But I don’t, need no friends / As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise.”

*

But there is more than just this sublimity and this ugliness coexisting in the city. There is a great mass of dreams and desires that we project onto the urban landscape, the place where we imagine our future may materialize and our hopes might be fulfilled. At the same time, there is a sense of urgency and risk about these hopes, a feeling that the stakes are high and the time short. Yet this only increases one’s desire to play the game.

This feeling is largely a function of youth, but that does not keep it from being real and profound. Lit up at night, filled with life, the city seems to promise and threaten everything simultaneously: romance and rejection, success and failure, lasting recognition and one’s place-in-the-world, or permanent anonymity and a consignment to perpetual drifting. And the promises are all the more exhilarating because of their corresponding threats. One could lose everything, it seems; but amid the elation of certain nights, it feels as if nothing could be gained anywhere else, in any other way.

Such a feeling is not unique to modern life; St. Augustine described it in a passage about his student days in the Confessions – with words that can apply not only to romantic love, but to every kind of love that set itself up in one’s heart as a rival to the Love of God:

“I came to Carthage, where a cauldron of unholy loves was seething and bubbling all around me. I was not in love as yet, but I was in love with love; and, from a hidden hunger, I hated myself for not feeling more intensely a sense of hunger. I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving, and I hated security and a smooth way . . .”

On a fundamental level, this feeling is deceptive, bordering on idolatry. Idols – false gods – always promise mastery, and deliver slavery. What is really of ultimate importance is “not of this world.” And the things of this world, even (or especially) those most seemingly desirable, cannot possibly have the absolute importance they so often take on in the mind of the one who is drawn to the city as the supposed place of ultimate promise and risk.

In this sense, the mystique of the city can only be – at best – a half-truth; at worst, it is a recapitulation of humanity’s original temptation and fall. For whoever sets out to succeed purely on the world’s terms, will become a slave – to his own possessiveness, pride, stubbornness, sense-gratification, and the like – precisely in proportion as he seems to grasp the prize of external mastery dangled before him. I can attest to this not just as an intellectual conviction, but as something learned through experience.

Nor is there any easy or painless way of escape from that slavery-disguised-as-mastery. As St. Augustine said, of his experience getting what he wanted out of life in Carthage: “My God, my Mercy, with how much bitterness didst thou, out of thy infinite goodness, flavor that sweetness for me!”

But Augustine also learned, in the course of conversion, that evil has no independent existence: it is a parasitic and derivative phenomenon, something that can only exist as a distortion or diminution of the good.

How, then, does the city derive its largely illusory appeal? On what distorted good does it depend? What measure of truth might it still contain?

*

In a 1941 journal entry, Thomas Merton described Gethsemani Abbey – the monastery he would later join – as “the only real city in America.” Though clearly overstated, the observation can be understood in a way that accords with Scripture and sacred Tradition.

In speaking of a secluded Cistercian monastery as the “real city” – in contrast with the cities he knew, such as New York or London – Merton was quite likely influenced by St. Augustine’s analysis of history, as a conflict between the proverbial “City of Man” and the “City of God.” These two metaphorical cities represent the fundamental choice in human life – for they, in Augustine’s words, “have been formed by two loves: the earthly (city) by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly (city) by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.”

There is a sense in which the purely earthly city – the secularized world of man’s own making, built up in a supposed autonomy from God – cannot be fully “real,” for it cuts itself off from the Source of all reality. The “real city” can only be that place where God is worshipped, where Christ is the center, and where all are brothers in Him: no other existence is rooted in truth. (On this reading, Merton’s remark – which speaks of one monastery as the only such place in the country – is not literal, but a poetic exaggeration.)

This urban image is not a mere contrivance on either Augustine’s part, or Merton’s. God himself has given us the image of Heaven as a city, the “New Jerusalem” described in the Book of Revelation (ch. 21). We project our misguided desires onto the metropolitan centers of this world, though we are really meant to seek that transcendent City where our true fulfillment is found. The allure of earthly cities derives largely from a distorted desire for Heaven.

One of the perennial human problems is our desire to obtain in this life, what can only be had in the next. I think God wants us to understand that the cities of this world – with their romantic aura of life, possibility, and variety – are only imperfect and flawed images of the ideal City awaiting those who persevere in faith and grace. In this life, we have not yet arrived there: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb. 13:14).

That is to say, we have not fully arrived. The Book of Revelation describes a reality that exists not only in Heaven, but also on earth through the Church’s liturgical and sacramental worship (CCC 1136-1139). The same New Testament epistle that speaks of awaiting a “city which is to come,” also indicates that those who partake of Christ have already come “to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). This is no contradiction, but the mystery of the Church’s sacramental life: the Heavenly “city” we seek is fully here, even if we are not fully there.

This means, among other things, that the distorted desires we project onto earthly cities can be corrected, and find something of their true fulfillment even in this world. There is, among us even now, a place where one can live at the absolute Center of things, and become one with that Center, sharing in its Life and Activity. There is a place where one truly can, and should, risk all that he has for the sake of infinitely more. That place is the Eucharistic Liturgy.

The City of God exists among us wherever the Eucharist is celebrated. And there is every reason to transfer that volcanic burning of one’s heart – the inward intensity without limit, the desire that wants to swallow all of New York City and London and Berlin – to the only object of desire which is, under a humble appearance, absolutely Infinite.

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former atheist, and incurable philosopher, with experience in journalism, speechwriting, and monasticism. He published a short autobiographical book, “Shouting Through the Water,” in 2014 (available as a free download at http://tiny.cc/sttwbook), and is preparing a sequel reflecting on his post-monastic life. His current interests center on the integration of psychology and meditation within a traditional Christian framework

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