The Scriptural narrative is littered with stories of “strangers in a strange land.” Noah, Lot, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Israelites and Moses in Egypt, Israel in Babylon, even Israel under the Greeks and Romans – beyond the Scriptures – Israel in the diaspora. It is perhaps among the most unifying threads in story of the people of God. Only the later flirtations of Christian empire have ever made believers think themselves other than strangers in the world. Today the days of empire have passed, and although some engage in the sentimental exercise of wondering, “What if?” it is but a daydream, a distraction from the greater task at hand. That task can seem tedious and deeply wearying. How to live as a stranger in a strange land?
In the previous series of articles I have described some of the characteristics of our modern period – characteristics that are decidedly contrary to Classical Christianity and its way of life. But we are born into a modern world and are permeated by its assumptions and the ethos it creates. In our present period it is dominated by consumerism and pop culture. Having exhausted the inheritance of earlier Classical Christian civilization, the modern world stands like a Potemkin Village – all storefronts with no stores. It only has form – no substance.
A faithful life will therefore always feel somehow dissonant:
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows in the midst of it
we hung up our instruments.
For there those who captured us asked us for songs
and those who led us away called for a tune:
“Sing us some of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
There are temptations that are natural to our situation. Despair is perhaps the most common, followed by various forms of assimilation. There is also an almost opposite temptation – becoming hyper-vigilant and angry.
Despair, interestingly, is described in great detail within the fathers. It is not just the product of modern dissonance. Evagrius of Pontus, treated despair or despondency (acedia) as the most common spiritual malady. Fr. Gabriel Bunge’s small book on the topic is a spiritual treasure – that I strongly recommend.
Human beings are created to avoid pain – a reaction that frequently saves our lives. But it is also a reaction that constantly drives us towards assimilation and mediocrity. Islamic countries, following the dictates of the Koran, have often set in place laws governing the “dhimmi,” Christians and Jews under their political power. These laws are not a matter of tolerance, but of pressure and taxation, giving a measure of defined freedom but creating enough pain that assimilation (conversion to Islam) comes as a great relief. It is inherently a long-term strategy, with predictable success.
A dominant culture does not have to pass laws to specifically create a “dhimmi.” If its ethos is contrary to the nature of the faith, its dominance is sufficient by itself.
The answer to these temptations is a truly integrated life of faith. Orthodoxy cannot survive as an afterthought or a consumer’s option for the spiritual life.
The modern cultural model of Christianity cannot sustain Classical Christianity. Sunday attendance alone creates a very thin Orthodoxy if it is not accompanied with private or family-based practice. Things such as feasts and fasts, foods and fashion are, in themselves, of little theological importance. But within a dominant and strange ethos, they rise to greater significance.
Allowing our lives to be shaped by our faith and its practices, almost as if we had no choice, is both a strategy for survival as well as a model for growth. Connection with monasteries (where possible) and other institutions permeated by the faith is essential.
Avoiding anger and reaction are equally essential. Anger, as a healthy emotion, is meant to be only of short duration. It provides needed energy to fight or run away. But anger as a long term and frequently accessed emotion is death. As a friend said to me, “Anger is like drinking poison expecting someone else to die.” It also feeds despondency.
Thus, it is necessary to live with a certain peace within the modern period. We cannot curse the world around us, nor be emotionally driven by its insanity. That peace is an integrated life.
Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, wrote 55 maxims for the spiritual life. They have been widely published. I know of nothing comparable as a description for a spiritual life well-lived. I append them here for your use. Print them. Study them. Do them.
1. Be always with Christ.
2. Pray as you can, not as you want.
3. Have a keepable rule of prayer that you do by discipline.
4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times a day.
5. Have a short prayer that you constantly repeat when your mind is not occupied with other things.
6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
7. Eat good foods in moderation.
8. Keep the Church’s fasting rules.
9. Spend some time in silence every day.
10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
12. Go to confession and communion regularly.
13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.
14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings regularly to a trusted person.
15. Read the scriptures regularly.
16. Read good books a little at a time.
17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
18. Be an ordinary person.
19. Be polite with everyone.
20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
22. Exercise regularly.
23. Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time.
24. Be totally honest, first of all, with yourself.