John Ruskin: Useful Work as the Only ‘Pure’ Religion (c. 1886)

In the first three paragraphs, John Ruskin is describing his 1849 visit to the Grande Chartreuse. This is the head-monastery of the Carthusian (Catholic) monastic order situated in the Chartreuse Mountains South-eastern France. John Ruskin remained singularly unimpressed with its location, layout, architecture and patterns of life. He seems not to share the monastic view that following a ‘Rule’ from one generation to the next can unite a human-being with the divine presence they seek (I.e. through ‘grace’).  Despite being brought up reading the (Protestant) Bible from cover to cover, he remained surprisingly detached from any and all conventional religious attitudes. He tended to see the ‘holy’ in the ‘ordinary’, and would never give-up his belief that all transcendental reality could be accessed ‘here and now’ – wherever any one happened to be. All that required was hard and honest work or labour. How extraordinary and empowering to the working-class this attitude of John Ruskin surely was! He appears to reject all dogma for a type of practical spirituality that has within its remit meaningful works of construction that free the human mind through contact with it. ACW (2.12.2019)) 

‘I sympathize with them in their love of quiet – to the uttermost; but do not hold that liking to be the least pious or amiable in myself, nor understand why it seems so to them; or why their founder, St Bruno, – a man of the brightest faculties in teaching, and exhorting, and directing, also, by favour of fortune, made a teacher and governor in the exact centre of European thought and order, the royal city of Rheims, – should think it right to leave all that change, throw down his rod of rule, his crozier of protection, and come away to enjoy meditation on the next world itself. (Page 424) 

Any why meditation among the Alps? He and his disciples might as easily have avoided the rest of mankind by shutting themselves into a penitentiary on a plain, or in whatever kind country they chanced to be born in, without danger to themselves of being buried by avalanches, or trouble to their venerating visitors in coming so far up hill. (Pages 424-425) 

Least of all I understand how they could pass their days of meditation without getting interested in plants and stones, whether they would or no, nor how they could go on writing books in scarlet and gold, – (for they were great scribes, and had a beautiful library,) – persisting for centuries in the same patterns, and never trying to draw a bird or a leaf rightly – until the days when books were illuminated no more for religion, but for luxury, and the amusement of sickly fancy. (Page 425) 

…The one flaw in our faith which at last her charity fastened on, was that we were not sure of our salvation in Christ, but only hoped to get into heaven, – and were not at all, by that dim hope, relieved from terror of death, when at any time it should come… (Page 426) 

But in here recording the impression made on my father and me, I must refer to what I said above of our common feeling of being, both of us, as compared with my mother, reprobate and worldly characters, despising our birthright like Esau, or cast out, for our mocking ways, like Ishmael. For my father never ventured to give me a religious lesson; and though he went to church with a resigned countenance, I knew very well that he liked going just as little as I did. (Page 426) 

But the more I loved or envied the monks, and the more I despised the modern commercial and fashionable barbaric tribes, the isolated remnants of celestial enthusiasm, were hopelessly at fault in their dealing with these adversaries; having also elements of corruption in themselves, which justly brought on them the fierce hostility of men like Garibaldi in Italy, and of the honest and open-hearted liberal leaders in other countries. Thus, irrespectively of all immediate contest or progress, I saw in the steady course of the immediate contest or progress, I saw in the steady course of the historical reading by which I prepared myself to write The Stones of Venice, that, alike in the world and the Church, the hearts of men were led astray by the same dreams and desires, and whether in seeking for Divine perfection, or earthly pleasure, were alike disobeying the laws of God when they withdrew from their direct and familiar duties, and ceased, whether in ascetic or self-indulgent lives, to honour and love their neighbour as themselves. (Page 428) 

While these convictions prevented me from bring ever led into acceptance of Catholic teaching by my reverence for the Catholic art of the great ages, – and the less, because the Catholic art of these small ages can say but little for itself, – I grew also daily more sure that the peace of God rested on all the dutiful and kindly hearts of the laborious poor; and that the only constant form of pure religion was in useful work, faithful love, and stintless charity.’ (Page 429) 

John Ruskin: Praeterita, Everyman, (2005), Pages 424-429 

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