The following is Part V of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV. There are six parts in all.
This question therefore brings us to the practical side of this anthropological question—that is, the applied theology. In Orthodoxy, all theology is necessarily applied theology, or else it is merely speculation. Fundamentally, what is needed is a change in attitude, but the part of attitude that needs the change is our attention. We are called upon again and again to “attend” in Orthodox Christian worship, to pay attention to what is before us, to collect our fragmented thoughts into the moment at hand, to become one with our place and what is happening in it. “Let us attend!” has been the call of the Orthodox deacon for so many centuries, precisely because the Fathers who developed our liturgical tradition knew all about the impulse to let our attention wander, to be every place but the place where we are.
For this reason, I believe that the applied solution to our spiritual problem of globalization is one of attention. I pay attention to every place but this place. I pay attention to everyone but the one in front of me. Why, after all, are we a nation filled with bad listeners? It is precisely because we have not learned to control our attention. Why are we a nation of gluttons and the lustful? It is because we have not learned to control our attention. You can see that attention is right near the bottom of many spiritual problems. It is no mistake that one of the cardinal virtues spoken of, especially by the ascetical fathers, is vigilance—in Greek, nepsis. Watchfulness. Where are we watching? To what are we paying our attention?
When we pay money to something, then there is a necessary change in our relationship to it. The same holds true for paying something else, our attention. And believe me, attention is very much something that is paid. And like money, we only have so much of it. So where are we spending it? And what kind of return are we getting on this spiritual investment?
It is clear that most of us are wasting our precious resource of attention on things that are not near to us. So how exactly do we pay our attention to what is local? More and more in our day, as local economies buckle under pressure, we are being encouraged to “buy local.” This is a great thing for a lot of reasons! But we should not only spend our money locally. How do we “buy local” when it comes to attention?
For one thing, spending your money locally really is one way to pay attention to your actual place. When your economy is a local one, then that means you have the possibility for relationship with your local shopkeepers. The connection of your lives become defined by more than simply the exchange of goods and services. When you pay money, you also pay attention. And when the person to whom you pay money is in front of you, then you are paying attention to him. And most especially if he produced what he is selling you, then your attention becomes multi-dimensional. Buying local is actually a spiritual act. Mind you, it is not merely a principle of address location—it doesn’t count if you buy local from someone by using the Internet and getting it shipped to your house. You’re not just trying to put money into the pockets of your neighbors, but God into your relationships. There must be a meeting of persons. And in that meeting, communion can be established.
Another practical way of paying attention to your place is to try to move your disparate places closer together. The easiest time to make these kinds of decisions is when you’re about to move—whether you’re moving your residence, your workplace, or your church. Consider getting a job closer to your home. Consider going to an Orthodox church closer to your home. Or—and here I know I’m being revolutionary—consider moving into a home closer to your church. Or even closer to your job. When you bring these places closer together, the space in between comes to be not just scenery seen from the car window but actually a space that defines you and your life. And if you can walk it, so much the better!
Indeed, consider walking almost everywhere you go. If you can’t do that yet, try to walk somewhere nearby, especially if it’s a place where you can go and do something, like shop in a store, play on a playground, walk in the woods, read at the library, or most especially worship in your church. Because when you walk around a place, your attention is getting paid to it in a far more thorough manner. You begin to care about it. They’re not just roads any more. They’re places with people. They’re trees and rocks that you begin to love. And your unceasing prayers—you do practice unceasing prayer, right?—bathe these places gradually in the love and holiness of God. You can’t love a place that you don’t know, and you can’t know a place that zips by at 45 miles per hour.
So here is a list of some suggestions for living a more local life, one defined by an unfragmented attention paid to people and places who can be loved and not merely distantly connected through a supply chain:
1. Buy local, especially local food. It tastes better, for one thing, and it’s had less time for its nutrients to drop out. But you also have the chance to meet the people who make it. Meet them, talk with them about their vegetables, their goats, or what have you. Most farmers are actually pretty cool people. But it’s not just the farmers. Someone who is selling you the work of his own hands has a different relationship with you than someone merely passing on a “product” that got shipped in from somewhere else.
2. Attend the church closest to you. Obviously, don’t attend one that’s heretical, but attend whatever’s nearest and is preaching the true faith. (Yes, that means it has to be a canonical Orthodox church.) If you have some sort of major, major problem at that church, then check out the next nearest one to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your preferred cultural flavor. Those are still God’s people, and that’s still the Eucharist there.
3. Don’t worry so much about having to “maintain” friendships with people. Just go about your business and show genuine interest in the people you encounter. Favor old people over young people, or at least try to favor people who aren’t your own age. Do all that, and you’ll probably find that “maintaining” friendships will be a joy. Our relationships were meant to be mediated by the everyday commerce of life, not by deliberately planned phone calls, text messages, emails and dinner dates.
4. Walk around your neighborhood. Walk around your town. It’s a different place when you walk it, and it’s a lot more interesting when, once again, you’re not zooming by at 45 miles per hour. (Plus, your kids will be less antsy.) It’s also a lot healthier, and you save money on gas. (This will also stand you in good stead if we ever do hit peak oil, that is, if supply can no longer meet demand, making fuel skyrocket in price.)
5. Take pictures of your town. They will help you to look for what’s beautiful in it.
6. Try to do all your shopping, banking, and other business within two miles of your home. The closer, the better.
7. Move out of the suburbs and into an area where there is a real center of the community. Or better yet, do what you can to get your suburb to turn into a semi-urban area (also called “new urbanism”), where almost everything can be walked to.
8. If you are ever involved in building something, try to make your new building be reminiscent of the oldest architecture in your area. It doesn’t have to be identical, but it should not draw attention as radically different from the surrounding landscape. Good, humane architecture is about tradition, not really about innovation.
9. If you are building or altering a house, put a front porch on it, one big enough to put chairs on. Go outside when it’s hot inside rather than cranking up the air conditioning. Likewise, make your bedrooms small and your common rooms big.
10. Learn how to garden. Use up less stuff. Reuse more stuff.
11. Think up a name for your house. (Not “Ralph,” either, but something appropriate for a place.)
12. Give up the idea that privacy is an inherent good. It’s not. You were made to commune. That doesn’t mean that everything you do has to be in public, but the public good needs to become more important to you than your private good.
13. Learn the history of your town. It’s probably really interesting.
14. Get involved in local politics. Support candidates for public office who will work to devolve power to the lowest possible civic level. When the people on whose behalf you are making decisions are your neighbors, you will govern quite differently than if you were hundreds or thousands of miles away. Less concern will be given to systems and policies and more to people and community.
15. Figure out ways for your parish community to connect with its immediate neighborhood and to be involved at local civic events. Invite your priest to give the invocation at public events, such as graduations, sporting events, club meetings, etc. Have meetings of your parish organizations at public places other than the church.
16. Give to local charities and minister to people with local problems. I think this is largely one of the biggest reasons that our charitable output, on the whole, is not very good. I get about seventy to eighty people on Sunday morning at my parish in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. I recall when it came time last year to give to earthquake relief in Haiti, we took up a collection of less than $100. But earlier this year when there was a natural gas explosion in Allentown, immediately to the north of Emmaus and just blocks away from some of our parishioners’ homes, we collected over $700 to help with the needs of those affected (and then the parish council kicked in to make it an even $1000). There are needs everywhere. People are more likely to feel connected when the need is next door.
17. Have your parish or a group of parishioners start a non-profit small business in your town, perhaps selling coffee, books and icons. Not only will its non-profit status help to keep it afloat better in difficult economic times, but it will provide a set-aside, sacred space for relationships, will provide some part-time jobs for parishioners and others, and will introduce the faith in a non-confrontational way to your town.
I’m sure you could probably think of many more practical ways to connect yourself and your parish to the local community.