Sixth Sunday after Pentecost / Sixth Sunday of Matthew, July 12, 2015
Romans 12:6-14; Matthew 9:1-8
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today we have a rare privilege in church life in that today is the very first time the feast of a saint is celebrated—St. Paisios the Athonite. He was canonized just this past January, and since today is the day of his feast, this is the very first time that he is celebrated as a saint.
And he is a saint very much of our own time. He was born in 1924 and died in 1994, when most of us here were already born. And there are many people now living who met Elder Paisios and received his wisdom.
I will leave it to you to learn more about this newly-canonized saint, but I wanted to focus today on one particular piece of wisdom from him, an excerpt from the book Family Life. Here’s what he has to say in response to a question as to how one can practice the virtues in the context of a family:
Silence greatly helps in spiritual life. It is good for one to practice silence for about an hour a day: to test himself, to acknowledge his passions and to fight in order to cut them off and purify his heart. It is very good if there is a quiet room in the house which gives him the feeling of a monastic cell. There, ‘in secret,’ he is able to do his spiritual maintenance, to study, and to pray. A little spiritual study done before prayer helps greatly. The soul warms up and the mind is transported to the spiritual realm. That’s why, when a person has many distractions during the day, he should rejoice if he has ten minutes for prayer, or even two minutes to read something, so as to drive away distractions.
I really like this advice. It is very practical. Often, it can be difficult to know how to translate the lofty spiritual language of the Church into specific tasks that we can take up in our daily life, but this is direct advice that is very doable. So let’s talk a little about how we can understand and implement this advice.
St. Paisios understands very clearly that distraction is a huge problem in modern life. He says that we should rejoice if we even have ten minutes for prayer or even two minutes to read something good! As a wise father, Paisios is not expecting superhuman efforts out of his spiritual children. He is suggesting something that can be done by anyone.
Distraction really is an enormous problem for us, isn’t it? It is something that I struggle with myself. I like to check my smartphone way too often. I like to have some kind of noise going on while I work or while I drive or even while I am being entertained some other way—I literally will be watching something on my television and yet distracting myself from that by reading my email or checking Facebook or whatever. I have distractions from my distractions!
Distraction seems harmless enough. I just don’t feel like focusing very much. I am tired. Or I am bored. So I pull out my distraction. It doesn’t hurt anything.
Yet what is probably not so obvious about our dedication to distraction is the toll that it takes on who we are as people. And what is that toll?
Distraction trivializes everything.
Think about most of the music, movies and television series that are out now—they’re not designed to enrich your mind or help you to think more clearly about the human condition, but just to grab your attention for a little while. Nothing in them is really very important.
Even if we think about that new greatest arbiter of news and information, Facebook, it similarly trivializes even what is genuinely important. A story about injustice and death in the world can be right next to the latest piece of celebrity gossip. And it’s probably the celebrity gossip which influences the advertisements you see while using the service. And it’s also the celebrity gossip which gets clicked on the most.
Our precious attention and mental energy are getting spent on distractions. It’s one thing to relax a little from time to time, but our diet of distraction has come to dominate our minds. It’s come to the point of spiritual crisis, because we cannot pay attention very well. Everything has to be a sound byte now, or else we can’t grasp it.
So enter the advice of Elder Paisios. He suggests trying to be silent for an hour a day. He says it’s best to do this in a quiet room in your home with study and prayer. He suggests a little reading before prayer. It gets you into the right mood, or, in his words, “The soul warms up and the mind is transported to the spiritual realm.” Just like you do a little stretching before exercise so that you can exercise well, a little warm up from spiritual reading before prayer gets you into the right shape to benefit the most.
This can apply not just to private prayer at home, by the way. What are you doing to prepare yourself to come here so that you can get the most benefit from the corporate prayer we do together? Are you reading or talking about spiritual things before you come here so that our prayers together and our reception of Holy Communion and other sacraments together is maximized?
But let’s say that’s impossible for some reason. At least try to keep silence in some other way—perhaps while you are exercising, instead of plugging those earbuds directly into your head or turning on a TV, try saying the Jesus Prayer many times—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”—or at least don’t plug in.
Paisios says that if we can keep silence, then we can test ourselves and “acknowledge” our passions. What a great thing to notice, especially if you consider the alternative: If I am always distracted, it’s hard for me to acknowledge my passions. It’s hard for me even to notice my sinful addictions. I don’t ever have to think about them, because I’m distracted, because I’m entertained. Just keep me entertained so that I don’t notice them.
Don’t leave me alone with my thoughts.
But we need to be alone with our thoughts, with no other thoughts being suggested to us by distractions. Why? It’s because we have to “be still” to know God (Ps. 45:11 (46:10)). We cannot hear the voice of God speaking to us if we do not quiet things down and quiet our thoughts. His voice will be drowned out in all the distraction. But if we will be still, if we will be quiet, if we will take a little time to turn off all the distractions, we might hear Him.
These words from St. Paisios are very helpful for us, because they give us practice advice to refocus us on the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), which is to draw near and listen to our Lord Jesus Christ and His Gospel.
We as Christians have been and continue to be preached the good news. But what happens if the good news is lost somewhere in the trivializing mess that is the modern information age? There is only one way for us to get back to it, and that is to do what Paisios tells us to do.
Calm down, turn everything off, say “no” for a little while to entertainment and distraction. And remember that you are a child of God, that you are a joint-heir with Christ, His brother or sister. This is the good news, that we can become like Christ if we will spend time with Him and connect with Him.
Being with Jesus is the “one thing needful.” Let’s remember that. And let’s thank God for His gift to us of people like the new saint Paisios the Athonite, who helps us learn how to set aside distractions so that we can practice being with Jesus.
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.