The NHS has found itself dealing with the needs of an increasing number of geriatric cocaine users. Newspaper Headlines proclaim “Cocaine crisis in the elderly: NHS is treating patients as old as ninety with mental health issues due to ‘extreme use’ of Class As – while number of over-60s in hospital soars 500% in a decade.” It turns out that just as Marijuana has the potential to tip users into paranoia, so cocaine leaves a time stamp in the brain, threatening the onset of increased anxiety in old age.
Old age brings enough anxiety of its own, threatening everything from Alzheimers, strokes and arthritis. Secularists have recently failed in their first attempts to introduce a bill legitimising state assisted suicide, but they will be back. Nonetheless, it seems that the Mephistophelian pact that the hedonists of the 1960s and 1970s entered into cannot after all be bucked.
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul? – Mark 8.36
Marlowe’s Faustus could have told them that. Choosing the short and illegitimate route to wisdom, money and a variety of other five star pleasures, the day – or midnight – of reckoning for Faustus suddenly appeared. As Faustus faced the count down to midnight, the moment he had committed to surrendering his bartered soul, he prayed:
“Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, …
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!”
Or indeed, if Kit Marlowe and the Faust legend was not accessible enough, there was always the account of Christ’s confrontation with the devil in the wilderness where the devil promises all the kingdoms of this world; but the price to be paid is always one’s own soul. St Mark succinctly has it :“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul?” (Mark 8.36). What has come as a surprise to the erstwhile swingers of the sixties and seventies is that there is a price to be paid with one’s body as well.
Altering reality is a great temptation when reality seems to suck. But it is an obvious truism that those tempted by a temporary escape are not going to be sufficiently influenced by any moral megaphone.
Recreational drugs have attracted pleasure seekers and escapists through the ages, but never more than in our chemically adept culture. Studies claim that at least ten per cent of the American population have suffered from some form of narcotic addiction.
Suppressing consciences and moral instinct, many cheerily clung to the assumption that there was no price to be paid beyond what it costs to get the stuff from the dealer. But life does, after all, require a physical and metaphysical price as well as an economic one.
In the first half of the last century, there were adventurers who thought that drugs might offer a less demanding shortcut to spiritual insight. It was the fashion for reductionists to claim that the Western Catholic mystical experience could be replicated free of its accompanying dogma. Aldous Huxley charted his own explorations into the eternal provided by his use of mescaline in his Doors of Perception (1954).
He relied on William Blake who in his esoterically tempting Marriage of Heaven and Hell who insisted: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
The Christian perception and prescription is a different one from the gnostic or hubristic one. It is not our imprisonment in a cavern of self-limitation that distorts our perception of ultimate reality, it’s our sin. Confession and absolution are more effective than ecstasy and mescaline.
There was a dreadful moment when a popular Bible translation gave us the beatitudes as “happy are the pure in heart” instead of blessed, as if happiness was what the Kingdom of Heaven was intended to produce. You would think that the moment they found themselves writing “happy are they that mourn” they would have realised they had entered the world of contradiction rather than paradox.
It is not our imprisonment in a cavern of self-limitation that distorts our perception of ultimate reality, it’s our sin.
Following the Christian perception that there is no evil that surrendered to God, it may be that the brutal murder of Sir David Amess can offer some fresh vision of what real joy consists of. Faces can act as windows into the soul. And as Sir David’s face was flashed onto millions of screens, what was seen was a man lit up by joy. It was not the passing emotion of happiness, but the deep sculpted lines of Christian joy that had such a profound impact on the casual viewers of a political tragedy.
Many commentators believed that he has been targeted as a public Christian figure of note. If this is the case, his death was a martyrdom and his face a testimony to the passion that fuelled his soul. His was a joyful face and a joyful life. But what was it that Catholics rebuked the police who blocked a priest from offering him the last rites as he lay dying? It was the refusal to understand what the last rites represent for the Catholic Christian. They include an anointing for forgiveness that is part of the true precondition for entering into eternal joy. And that is what we are encouraged to pray for: the grace of not encountering death unprepared, unshriven.
It may not be the Church’s task to condemn people for hedonistic behaviour as they take drugs to escape the human condition. But if instead they are trying to take a shortcut to bliss, we can re-direct them to the Cross, to confession and to absolution, and the foretaste of real ecstasy in place of chemical imitation.
Gavin Ashenden is a former priest of the Church of England, and a former continuing Anglican bishop. He was an Honorary Chaplain to the Queen from 2008 until his resignation in 2017.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund