God is the “only truly existing God.” All existence is a gift from God who is our Creator. None of us has “self-existing” life. We exist because God sustains us in existence (“in Him we live and move and have our being”).
Sin is the rejection of this gift of God – a movement away from true existence.
Much of our lives in the modern world engages primarily with things that have no “true existence.” We engage with illusions, or social constructs. By the same token, these imaginary things draw us into a life in which we become strangers to true existence.
Despite the current popularity of “3-D” films – they are no more real than any other film. Much of our economic system is built on the “market,” that is, what people are willing to pay. The value of most items, and of much work, is not intrinsic but imputed. Thus the mood of a people (“are they optimistic about the future”) can have a direct effect on the “value” of a stock-market.
I am not an economist so I will say no more about something that seems to be largely make-believe.
How we feel about many things has this same make-believe quality. We find certain styles of clothing and certain products (cars, houses, etc.) attractive and desirable, but often with little more than subjective reasons for our desires. The power of this make-believe is so great that it is well-known that many people “go shopping” to battle depression. It is a strange therapy.
The story is told of an old woman who came to the Elder Thaddeus (Serbian) and complained about a neighbor whom she did not like. He told her, “You are arguing with her all day. You should stop.” She replied, “Argue with her? I make it a point never to see her and never to speak to her.”
“Nevertheless, the elder said, “You argue with her in your mind all day long. Pray for her and this will disappear.”
It is strange that in our modern world, afflicted by the make-believe of our culture, we are very likely to look for yet more make-believe to assuage our discomfort – and thus move deeper into the disappearing existence that is the source of all our problems.
God calls us away from make-believe and towards true reality. That which is truly existent has become like God, at least in that aspect. For this reason, many Orthodox monastics adopt an extremely simplified life. The less life is bound up with make-believe and grounded in the hard reality of what is, the greater the chance that we will find salvation and sanity.
A large majority of what I see as a parish priest is not a struggle with reality, but a ceaseless struggle with things that have no true existence. Our battles against, anger, lust, greed, envy, etc. are all struggles with things that are not. They have no more existence than we ourselves lend to them. And since we ourselves are not the Lord and Giver of Life, their existence is as nothing.
And yet we find ourselves attracted to nothing – our minds constantly employed in dialog with nothing.
The sweet work of repentance that is set before us as followers of Christ, is nothing other than the return to reality. God does not call us to spend our time thinking about what we imagine Paradise will be like. He invites us into the reality of Paradise now, which we can know through forgiving everyone for everything; by being generous in our almsgiving; by praying honest, simple prayers.
It is quite possible for our lives to be dominated by things that have no existence. Our dreams and fantasies, our fears and anxieties, take on an existence that overwhelms everything else. Not only can such concerns not be defeated on their own ground (they are the masters of the unreal world) they must be slowly dragged onto the very ground of reality, Christ Himself, so that they can be revealed in their powerlessness and swept away with the dust of non-being.
My children are extremely dear to me and I pray for their health and salvation. But their well-being does not consist in their health or other material measures. Their existence is founded in the life of prayer and their relationship with the good God and source of all life. God forbid, but if I should lose them unexpectedly, I expect to find them where they have always been – in praise and worship before the throne of God. My only concern is that I find myself with them at the end of all things.
I have no “career goals” for my children other than the goal of their salvation before the true and living God. There is and can be no shame in such a good confession.
By the same token, I have no greater desire for those who are my parishioners – that they be found “in Christ Jesus.” The myriad of devices and intrigues that make us want to think imaginary things to be of importance – I pray for the brilliant light of God’s true existence to sweep away as He defeats all darkness. No enmity has true existence. No anger, no bitterness has true existence. No long cherished grudge has any true existence. When Christ comes and the Truth of His existence begins to sweep away all false things – we will see all these things dissipate. Our salvation is that we will greet such a dissipation with joy and not with sadness.
Christ Jesus has set us free.
Amen! … and … ouch
I believe this completely, but I don’t live it fully. I often feel like the the father in Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Yes, Steven Clark speaks for me as well.
I really like the story you told about Elder Thaddeis. Here’s the quotation from “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica [Serbia],” published by Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009, page 70:
“An old woman came to see me and told me that her neighbor was bothering her. She said the other woman was constantly throwing things into her yard, so she was at her wits’ end. I asked her why she was always quarreling with her neighbor. Bu the old woman said that she never even spoke to her evil neighbor. I insisted that she quarreled with her every day. I said to her, ‘You are convinced that she is doing evil things to you, and you are constantly thinking about her. Let her do whatever it is she is doing; you just turn your thoughts to prayer, and you will see that it will stop bothering you.'”
Elder Thaddeus had a great deal to say about the power of our thoughts, and gave good advice about how to overcome depression.
I agree that many or our modern (postmodern?) problems are at root caused by our living in fantasy. Perhaps this is not a new problem. I recall the Fathers condemned fantasy and even drama (didn’t John Chrysostom condemn actors?).
I have seen the power and problems of fantasy. Our daughter was seriously depressed and spent a great deal of time listening to depressing alternative music. I urged her to make her own music, even if it was just expressing her rage at us. She began to gradually get better and eventually she dropped the electric bass in favor of the oboe – she is practicing at this very moment. “Real” music is not the only factor in her on-going recovery, but I believe it was an important element in overcoming the abyss of blackness she was falling into.
Dear Father, bless! Thank you for your true words. How familiar is this battle to me! The virtual world of the Internet too often pulls us deeper into this unreal world of fruitless fantasy, so I’m all the more grateful for your blog.
Father, bless. Very beautiful meditation. Your site is an oasis in the blog desert.
Fr. Stephen: I do not always agree with you, and sometimes I simply do not understand what you are talking about. But, your defintion of Paradise and your definition of “career goals” really touched my heart. For that, I thank you.
Mark,A wonderful story of your daughter. This problem is indeed ancient and has taken many forms – we alone – I seem to manufacture fantasy as a product and make “virtual worlds.”
The story of your daughter moved me, for I think that children and teens who are often defenseless are particularly target by the merchants of make-believe. For teens the marketing of virtual sex, violence, anger, etc. is particularly dark and damaging. Indeed, I think it is evil.
…Great meditation Father Steven…and appreciated all the more knowing you dont shave your head or wear saffron..:)
I have established a link to your blog on mine, and have recommended your writings to my readers:www.caelumetterra.wordpress.com
Great post. I haven’t thought of it this way. So much of our life is dominated and influenced by things that don’t exist–man and Satan’s deception.
Scott Johnson, I wouldn’t argue thoughts don’t exist or that Satan’s deceptions don’t exist. They are all too real. Our existence is only from God and because of God, but I didn’t take Fr. Stephen to be saying non of this exists. If he did mean it that way, I guess I’d disagree but I saw him as making a distinction between delusions and some forms of imputed value versus what really matters, which is our life in Christ. To that degree, I liked the post very much.
Karen, I like that you raised the internet. We are each now using it. So, it can be utilized in a good manner and I think Fr. Stephen strives for this, as do I and as do the rest of you. Yet, there is a quality about the internet which, if allowed to reign in us spiritually, leads to delusions and eventually sins in our own minds and bodies–and I don’t just mean the obvious that I have heard in confession over the years (pornography). I also mean gossip, passive-aggressive attacks, etc. The internet can be utilized but I think your voice of concern as we approach Lent is well to be heeded. Thank you.
Yeah, regarding what truly doesn’t exist: This is the spirit of the antichrist, and he is the author of nothing.
You should consider writing another book. This point is as important as the one story universe and would be a good follow up. Hope to see it come out in a year or two.
One typo, in the second paragraph, a word left out: “None of ____ has “self-existing life.”
Thank you for this excellent reminder! Your book just arrived in our parish bookstore and I am so looking forward to reading it.
(now you can delete this comment)
Not many of you should become teachers because we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1)
This is wisdom, thank you Fr. Stephen.
I have a 10 month old son and another on the way… Your hopes for your own children nearly brought tears to my eyes and cerainly brought repentance to my heart. Thank you Father.
Is there a way to live like this – really – surrounded as we are with media of unreal information (or, if real, packaged and paraded with as much glitter as possible)?
Bill, much less media, more quiet and prayer, and simplifying life.
The best way is shop less,(only for essentials),turn the TV off,(read more,pray more) and spend less time on the internet,step back from electronic devices like mobile phones where you can also where possible claim back the day of rest,we have the choice not to be bombarded with the modern media by just turning off.
frontierorthodoxy … you misunderstood me. I was agreeing with the post. I was simply saying that nonexistent or “imaginary” things can come from man’s deceptions and/or Satan’s deceptions. Satan’s deceptions do exist, but he may create a lot of this “imaginary” stuff around us to deceive us.
Well, I knew that was the answer. But I was hoping there would be a pill for it, or something easy… 🙂
Thanks, as always, for your efforts in these blog posts.
Thanks for the clarification, Scott!
Yes, Satan definitely works through thoughts and delusions and I think that is how he likes to operate, frankly. Thanks again for this clarification.
For clarity’s I should note that “make believe” is not a wholesale condemnation of modern culture. We eat, we work, we think, we love, we do what people have done and will always do in all cultures. My observation is that much which confronts us is actually non-existent, in that it is not the gift of God. Most such things (that are of real danger) are the non-existence imaginings of our own heart. The Lenten call of the Church is to turn towards true existence in Christ. Thus we confess (learning to speak the truth). We forgive (abandoning the imaginations we extend towards others). We seek not to judge (more imaginings). We fast, forcing ourselves to pay attention to food and its true role in our life (communion with Christ).
It is possible to spend most of one’s time in unreal places – places that have no existence other than the one we imagine them to have. It is good to learn to flee such places for they are contrary to our well-being and salvation. Glory to God.
Dear Fr. Oliver, you’re welcome. I was speaking from my own experience here definitely. The Internet can be used for good, as at this site, but I’m sure you know better than I how it feeds our passions as well. Porn isn’t a temptation for me, but I know that if I go to my computer first thing in the morning (even to read Orthodox blogs–a primary use for me) before I pray, I am in deep trouble! I’m one of “Pithless Thoughts” fans. He recently had an “Orthograph” that hit the nail right on the head here: http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/2011/02/orthograph-121-taking-bait.html
From the “Thrity-Eight Sayings of St. Anthony the Great,”
“When the holy Abba Anthony was living in the desert, he was in a state of melancholy (ακηδια) and his mind was darkened by a multitude of imagined things (λογισμων), and he said to God, Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts will not leave me alone. What shall I do in my trouble? How will I be saved? A little later, when he went outside, Anthony saw someone like himself, sitting and working, then rising from work and praying, and again sitting and plaiting a rope, then again rising for prayer. It was an angel of the Lord, sent for the correction and insurance against stumbling of Anthony. And he heard the angel saying, Do this, and you will be saved. And when he heard this, he had great joy and courage, and did this, and was saved.”
I would like to request that someone go back to some of these articles and tag them with the “modernity” tag. I have told my pastor to read the modernity articles in your archive, and sadly, I noticed that this most excellent posting while it talks about modernity, isn’t tagged.
Lord have mercy on me.