In traditionalist circles, puritanism is a polarizing topic.
On one hand, many traditionalists deride what they call “puritanism”, lump it with the general rebuking of Protestantism, and point out that “where there are strict traditional priests, there is still joy and dancing” and that “In Catholicism, the Pint, the Pipe and the Cross can all fit together” (they can all fit together in Chesterton as well).
On the other hand, many Catholics and Orthodox quote actual beatified Saints, and oftentimes their advice and writings would put even the most staunch of Puritans to shame.
This is an important topic for a number of reasons, one of which (we’re back to quoting non Saints and even non Catholics!) is that “virtue is the means between two extremes, each of which is a vice”. So Aristotle is credited with saying it first, but many renowned Christian writers echo this sentiment and indeed this is manifest in the Orthodox ideal of the Royal Path. As the Fathers say, the extremes from both sides are equally harmful; (We must) go on the royal path, avoiding the extremes on both sides. (St. John Cassian, Conference 11) St John Cassian is a pre-schism Saint, so his words should have equal weight to both the orthodox Christians and the Catholics.
For example, in one of our chats we were discussing dancing and whether Christians should dance. Saint John Vianney had warned and pleaded with his faithful not to attend dances and balls. He had said that they are like a cesspool of vice, where innocence is lost, and where a soul condemns itself to the pleasures of the world and, ultimately, away from God. The dances he was talking about in particular were not even the vulgar ones we see today, but ball dances, waltzing, etc. This is in stark contrast to what many traditionalists consider to be a higher standard of conduct, we look at waltzing and ballroom dancing as something beautiful that was lost by the Godless and degenerate society. Many Catholic books make the same warning, there are stories of innocent and pious women who had gone to balls and dances, only to end up perverted and irreligious. The only dances that are permitted are cultural dances that have dresses that cover the knees and wholesomeness towards both sexes. To the “Pint and Pipe” traditionalist this seems like absolute Puritan nonsense, and yet it comes from authoritative Christian sources. There are many other examples of activities which are traditionally considered to be good, which are decried as sinful by the Saints.
Even in modern times we find authoritative sources which warn against very innocent things. For example, Fr. Chad Rippiger, a traditional FSSP exorcist with over 300 confirmed exorcisms, speaks against reading Harry Potter (he says it contains real spells). He also has a long lecture on music in which he condemns most forms of secular music. Fr Daniil Sysoev, a recently martyred Orthodox priest who wrote many books, converted many muslims, and had founded many churches, condemns yoga and the practice of eastern martial arts. As extreme as it seems, we have had members in the old /rel/ group who came forward and spoke of their experience, that they actually had to get an exorcism and the causes were yoga and/or reading Harry Potter.
What are we to do then? Should we shun dancing, joy and mirth, laughter, music and singing that is not done in a Church choir? Stop reading books and seclude ourselves in small Christian communities? It seems like an extreme position, even among those who are called extremists already. And yet, if the author may be so bold as to contradict the opinions of Saints, exorcists, and Martyrs, I believe that we must use our discernment, and that one of God’s trials given to everyone individually is that we must find our own Royal Path. As a matter of personal example, the Royal Path on drinking has, for me, always been extremely close to absolute abstinence, because I understand myself and my tendencies, and falling into the sin of drunkenness is something that is easy for me to do, and with it come many other sins. But for many other people that is not the case! They have their own Royal Path to follow. Just as every tree branch and leaf follows the same pattern of every other like tree, every one of them is unique and finds its own way towards sunlight. God has given us our intellect not that we should shut it down and blindly follow the letter of the Law but that we should use it to find the ways to bring even more glory to God by following the Spirit of the Law. Obedience is a virtue, but it means “to listen intently”. We must listen intently to Church authorities. But listening does not mean just doing what is said, regardless of context and the larger context of the Church. Because even though we have Authoritative sources who tell us to shun certain things, we also have Authoritative sources who say it is not an issue, and we must use our intellect and our unique situation to understand when to shun something and when to embrace it. Ecclesiastes 3 is especially important in this context; there is a time for everything, everything was good when it was made by God, and everything was made evil when it was corrupted by Satan, and everything is greater still when it is redeemed by Jesus Christ. The fall of man was the greatest tragedy imaginable, and yet Angels are jealous that we partake in the flesh and blood of God for the sake of our redemption for it bestows the select few of us who will be worthy of Heaven greater glory than them, beings of pure Good and Light. And the ascetics of old, knowing what our degenerate age will bring, were jealous of us, because in our sanctity, we will gain greater glory having resisted greater temptation.
That aside, let us consider the actual matters in hand. Going back to dancing, we must understand, first and foremost, why such a dire warning was issued over such an innocent looking activity. Chesterton’s fence comes to mind - just because I don’t agree or am skeptical of what someone says does not mean there is no merit to consider in his words! The thing about dancing is that, having left the Creator’s hands, dancing, especially pair dancing like waltz, is the traditional, Godly means of seeing if a man and a woman are compatible because dancing requires that the participants move as one, the same way that a Church (a family in scale) must be unified, or a married couple (the Church in miniature) must be unified. Which is why dancing is not just a secular activity, but is also the basis for many spiritual and religious activities and rituals.
For the man and woman, it works on the level of intuition and subconscious. The man leads, the woman follows, and they do so to the rhythm of a Higher Authority (where the music that orders them represents God and indeed beautiful music is Godly as Beauty is a Divine attribute).
So if a woman dances well with a man, her body and psyche naturally responds with attraction to that man if he is a suitable suitor (i.e., not a dad or an uncle or a relative), and vice versa. This is why Godly men and women should be prudent and guard their hearts. When we put on the Armour of God, we are secure in a castle, but the Enemy will lay siege to it, and failing that will look for means of subterfuge and treachery to turn our own defenses and sense of being secure against us - many castles stood fast against brutal siege and many castles were brought down by treachery from within. It is imprudent for a man and a woman to dance if they are not ready that the activity should result in their mutual attraction - for example, if one or both are already married or betrothed to someone else, or if one sees that the dancing partner has vices that would make marriage difficult. On the other hand, one should dance with one’s chosen mate, as there's nothing inherently sinful in such an activity and the more the two dance together, the better they get at it, the better their psyches will become adjusted to one another, first becoming one in mind and heart, as well as flesh. Likewise, it’s important to understand the context of accounts of balls and waltzes being “cesspits of vice”. Today we have raves and nightclubs, where degenerates engage in all manner of open debauchery - but back in the day, they had no such outlets, so the more disordered and the unchristlike had to find innocent looking activities to mask their dark deeds. But today, waltzes and balls are a niche activity for people who, generally speaking, love Christ and yearn for a traditional society, so it is a much safer activity than before. It’s also worth noting that while there were always degenerates, the rates are much different. Today I can pass on the street hundreds of people whose very appearance is vulgar and repulsive and not even blink an eye, and yet in the past only one such person was enough to cause unrest, scandal, and community action.
There are a couple of more interesting examples. One is, many catholic churches today use bingo and lottery to attract attention to charitable events, and to provide many with a good time and build up the community. But many strict spiritual advisors condemn all forms of gambling as the domain of demons, who use luck and randomness specifically to inspire other passions in people (recall again how with dancing, it's not the activity that is harmful but that it can be a slippery slope to other vices). In fact, the quarrels caused by gambling and gaming have been so profound that both the catholic and orthodox churches have even historically outlawed the playing of chess, independently of one another at certain times. Now this ban didn’t hold, but it’s still something worth considering; because we consider chess to be a high class, traditional activity, something that trains the intellect, so of course it is good! But it is not always good, and that is the essence of the bans and warnings. We must not allow demons to inspire animosity between brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter the means they use. If we allow them to do so, no activity will be safe. And the main reason for the bans were that many priests were so engrossed in the game they ended up slacking in their duties. But if we engage in such activities with love for our neighbours, not of money or victory, or our own vanity and curiosity, no matter how the demons shuffle the outcome, they will be powerless to do any harm to us. So the question really depends on who one is and what one’s tendencies are. Can you keep your cool? Can you laugh off a loss and smile genuinely at your opponent? If not, then don’t engage. Pick your battles, salvation is hard enough as it is, reach for the low hanging fruit and develop the virtues that come easiest to you. For traditionalists in particular, it is important to understand how hobbies such as video games and tabletop wargaming affect their disposition, as well as how it affects their ability to fulfill their duties. People often get emotional over videogames and sports and engage in unchristianlike behaviour. Video games are designed to be addictive, and so one may stay up late playing a game, disrupting one’s schedule, being tired and less attentive when working (and by extension either defrauding your employer who expects better work of you or, if self employed, losing money that should go to your family’s need or church donations), or skipping prayer sessions, or being weakened, assaulted by other temptations. Here, I speak for myself, which is mainly why I restrict gaming, my long time passion, to a couple of hours a week, usually with friends (because such activities build group cohesion and camaraderie, and they still can exercise the intellect if not overindulged). Sports and games for men and mannerbund are what dancing is for communities and couples. For wargaming, I recall having my explanation met with ridicule by a traditionalist, who then shortly started complaining how his wife was unhappy with how much he was spending on overpriced plastic men. Again - wargaming is a great hobby, it trains artistic skill and taste, fosters a community, exercises the intellect and imagination - but it must not be allowed to interfere with one’s responsibilities nor to inspire passions!
The next example is yoga and karate, something condemned by the late Fr Sysoev. As a long time practitioner of karate, I can confirm that he is correct to warn Christians of it! And yet, I still intend to practice it, having understood the warnings and being steadfast in my conviction. Why is karate or yoga dangerous? Many westerners think that yoga is just stretching. But my father, who is a Hinduist convert, when asked what yoga is, says that "you bend down, you endure the discomfort, this is yoga." This is a description of a devotional position, like kneeling or bowing. Yoga means “connection” in hindu, and there are many different forms of it - poses, breathing, meditation, prayers and mantra, devotion to either a deity, a set of rules or a teacher. The positions of yoga are not just random poses, but they are usually meant to bow or show humility and respect - to whom or what? To the deities of the sun and moon, the wind and the rain of course. Christian martyrs would be put before pagan idols, with a hot coal in their hand and a pinch of incense on top, so they would drop the coal and thus “offer” the incense to the deity. Certainly there is no evil intent there, and even St Paul tells us that it is safe for Christians to eat meat that was sacrificed to pagan gods! And yet… the martyrs refused to drop the coal and would endure the pain. Is this necessary for salvation? No. But it is more glorious that they were so steadfast. But - that was their path to follow. We all have our own Royal Paths to Salvation to discern. Likewise, eastern martial arts are inseparable from buddhist religions. Buddhist meditative techniques are integrated in the foundations of the martial techniques as eastern martial arts generally trace their lineage to Shaolin monks, who used the martial arts as a form of dynamic meditation. Meditation in itself is not dangerous. It is simply to clear one’s mind, to empty it. But nature abhors a void, which is what makes buddhism dangerous even when one doesn’t praise pagan deities. If you empty your mind and don’t fill it with Christ, demons most certainly will use whatever means to fill it themselves. As Fr. Ripperger says "demons have a motto - 'anything but Christ'". Another example - before entering the mats, one bows to the empty room (empty to the eyes - we do not see the spirits the masters speak of) and to the mirror, where one’s reflection is (the worship of self is the foundation of satanism), and to the photos of the (deceased) founders of the style (ancestor worship is integral to oriental folk religions). I don’t think there is something inherently wrong with showing respect to admirable men, even if they are dead and not recognized as Christian Saints. But then, I am a practicing Orthodox Christian, I bow even deeper in Church. Many Churches do away with or minimize positions of respect or humility, the kneeling and bowing and standing at attention. It was Archbishop Fulton Sheen who said that whatever the Church drops, the secular world picks up; and along with incense and sacred languages, the new age world has picked up positions of respect, obedience, and humility. Our bodies and minds are not separate (see the dancing example above), this is the error of gnosticism. Our mind and spirit are deeply interlinked with the body, if the body shows respect to a thing, the mind and the spirit will do so as well. Again, the issue is not that any particular action here is inherently sinful the same way killing someone or stealing something would be, but that it can easily lead one to the wrong places. Many people who are into one new age thing rarely stop at just one thing: they end up going beyond that to spiritual ruin.
This final example seems like a strange one: The monks of Mount Athos. The elders and hardcore asceticists do not bathe. Neither do they recommend bathing. At least, such was the case for Elder Paisios, as related in a small book that I have. To the modern ear, even the traditionalist one, this seems like something out of the worst caricature of the Middle Ages. Bathing is sinful! This one requires some clarification. First, Mount Athos is special. Many pilgrims and monks describe that, while they were there, miraculous things happened but they did not seem anything special because miracles are the norm there. And so, for the ascetics who dedicate their life to God and implore Jesus, Mary, and all the Saints to aid them, a thing such as not emitting a foul smell or getting sick due to lack of bathing is not too out of the realm of the possibility. They are also constantly fasting, and fasting changes the body, so it's not impossible that their diet and the climate of the mountain doesn’t lead to odours or conditions that make bacteria spread. The essence of this piece of advice is that one should not indulge in vanity or pleasure of the senses, as one is prone to when one takes hot baths - again, not inherently sinful in itself, but it is a slippery slope, an occasion to sin. And the Orthodox have a tradition of dipping into cold water (which mortifies the flesh) on the feast of Epiphany of our Lord; the essence of this piece of advice is integrated into our Tradition. But this advice is also for monastics, for ascetics. And many Christian Saints who warn us of seemingly innocent things were also either monastics, priests, or those who have renounced the world.
But we are not Saints, not yet anyways. We do not have the mindset so devoted to the love of Christ that anything irrelevant to it annoys us. And we are not gnostics either - God made this world, and he made it for us to enjoy and partake in and to use it to glorify Him. “He hath made all things good in their time, and hath delivered the world to their consideration, so that man cannot find out the work which God hath made from the beginning to the end. And I have known that there was no better thing than to rejoice, and to do well in this life. For every man that eateth and drinketh, and seeth the good of his labour, this is the gift of God.” (Eccl. 3).
One who is wise and prudent might say that this is all very well but surely we can enjoy the gifts of God in restored paradise, after Judgement Day and after one secures one’s salvation? After all, the risk still exists in all those innocent things, even if the risk is negligible.
This may be true, but consider the game "Russian Roulette" - even if there is but one bullet and a hundred empty chambers, should one really play it? Even once? It seems foolish and reckless to do so and that is why Saints who speak out against such things (playing Russian Roulette with your salvation) speak so strongly and harshly. We have an infinity to win by avoiding such things, even the most subtle and innocent thing that could conceivably lead to our spiritual ruin - and we have an infinity to lose, and the deck is stacked against us, salvation is difficult enough as it is. But, God does not just desire our salvation - He desires that ALL are saved. And He desires that we be the instruments and vehicles to the salvation of all, through our actions, example, words, and prayers. And He desires that we fight, we struggle, we grow. That we learn not just to avoid the Devil, but to defeat him, to drive him back. As tempting as it can be at times, we cannot renounce the world and go join the Amish or the Old Believers because a lamp on fire is to be put on a high place to light the room. There are two commandments we must follow to fulfill the Spirit of the Law - to love God and also to love our Neighbour.
When one looks at the Old Testament, which served as the inspiration to the Puritans, one sees that the ancient Israelites forbid many innocent seeming things on pain of death. But there was a purpose to that. The Israelites were to be a people where someone like the Virgin Mary could be born, so that Jesus Christ could be born. They were set aside from other people, and God demanded a special level of purity from them, and God was especially harsh when they did not live up to His standards. And everything about their customs and laws was meant to reinforce this separation. Which is why, in the New Testament, we hear stories about the Samaritans. Samaritans were an Israelite people, but they mixed with the foreigners, and so the Pharisees and Sadducees declared them unclean. Many people don’t understand the significance of the story of the good Samaritan, where the law-abiding Israelites pass by a body, out of fear of touching a dead body and defiling themselves (having fulfilled the letter of the law and not really doing anything wrong by passing by). But many people also don’t understand that many law-abiding Israelites would prefer to die rather than accept aid from a Samaritan and allow an unclean one to touch them! Many also miss the significance of St Peter’s dream, where God commands him - “Rise Peter, slay and eat!” Of course, the overt meaning is the abolition of the kosher dietary laws, God specifically allowed Christians to eat all of the animals which were unclean and forbidden before. But the hidden meaning is that God allowed St Peter and Christians to mix with the unclean people. And again, mind and body are not separate entities. To sit down and eat with someone is an act which builds rapport with others, it builds communities. It is a sign of trust, and acceptance, and there is something absolutely primal about sitting together and eating. This is why Communion, which makes the people into One Church, is essentially a supper, bread and wine. This is why Israelites had to keep Kosher – not just because some food was unclean and prone to being infested with parasites, but also because it separated them, it created physical barriers to them mixing with and becoming friendly with their neighbors. And it is also why St Paul says there is nothing inherently wrong with eating meat offered to pagan idols. Because being in the world, being a part of it, participating with others in it, is what allows Christians to evangelize, to carry their light out into the world and make it light, to set others alight, instead of just hiding it under a basket. Which is also why we should as Christians participate in worldly secular activities, even if they are rife with dangers and slippery slopes, even if we must associate with people whose character is not spotless, even if we must put our own souls into danger to save the souls of others from it. “Life” and “soul” are often used interchangeably in the Bible, and after all, greater love than this no man hath: that a man lay down his life for his friends.