In 2010 I published Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. The articles examined the modern, secular tendency to see God (and religion) as belonging to a sphere somehow removed from daily life. God is there if you want Him, but absent if you don’t. It is a habit of thought that conveniently ignores one of the possible dividing lines in our so-called multi-cultural nation. If religion is a private matter, then, as far as the rest of the population goes, it doesn’t matter. I countered with the classical Christian teaching concerning God. He is everywhere and the world is His. More than this, He chooses to make Himself known in and through the materiality of this world. We encounter God here, in the very world in which we live. That encounter is a sacramental understanding of the world. However, over time, I have come to see that many people this understanding as a suggestion to think differently. This, however, is inadequate.
We are so constructed that we do not live “in the mind.” We often think we do, but this is itself a product of the environment we inhabit and its shape. What I will suggest here is that the modern world, particularly in its American form, is shaped for the purpose of abstraction. Our spaces, both public and private, are often designs of “convenience,” meaning, “shaped in a way that I do not have to pay attention to them.” The coming advent of the “wireless” home, in which almost everything can be controlled from your phone, is simply one more way in which our “train of thought” can be less interfered with. It’s so much easier to adjust the temperature in the house without getting off the sofa (I know because I have a Nest Thermostat in my home).
Space, both geographical as well as architectural, is generally a result of choice and design rather than nature. And the choices that drive those shapes and spaces for us have their origins in deeper assumptions about how human life is lived. It is entirely possible to see what matters to a people, by how they have choose to arrange themselves and their spaces. In America, that arrangement is largely driven by individualism, consumerism, privacy, and the automobile (itself the mode of individualistic transportation). Our space is not constructed for efficiency, nor for the generation of community, nor for the relationship with the Divine. Our spaces are repeated endlessly across the country (America is a franchise operation). They are built for automotive convenience. But in very few places is the space actually interested in anything more.
James Howard Kunstler describes our space as “ugly.”
The immersive ugliness of our everyday environment in America is entropy made visible. We can’t overestimate the amount of despair we are generating with places like this [photo of a suburban shopping strip].
Whether we want to admit it or not, suburban sprawl (Kunstler calls this is the “greatest misallocation of resources in history”) is a sacrament of our secularized lives.
The Church, for example, occupies precisely the place that any other joint along the strip might offer. My parish bought the lot next to our building a few years back. Had we not, a drive-through car wash was to be built there. The Church becomes just another consumer option in an otherwise consuming life.
The “commuter” Church has become standard fare in America. There is very little choice, given the other choices that govern the shape of our landscape. And this shape is conducive to a commuter spirituality. It is drives us towards mediocrity and shallowness.
It is important to understand that the space we inhabit, the commuter Church model, is anti-sacramental. It creates a false relationship between the individual and the surrounding world. Isolated and insulated from nature and community, the sense of what is occurring in the mysteries of the Church becomes distorted. Bread, Wine, Water, Oil, Honey and the like are reduced to mere commodities.
Obviously, not all communities will be farming communities. But our globalization now distorts the most basic necessities of human life. Everything is in season in every season. The global sphere we inhabit is an abstraction, an electronic world that hides its work (and its exploitations). Things simply appear on our doorstep, delivered by men in brown shirts.
I am not an enemy of convenience. However I am suggesting that how we relate to the world around us is primarily governed by the shape of the world around us. Given that our spaces are anti-sacramental, extra effort is required to live in a sacramental manner in the modern context. This is part of the peculiar sufferings of our time. Faithfulness comes harder to a modern person than it has at any time in history.
Architecture and design are not destiny. I think of a passage in Father Arseny, describing a monk who managed a holy life in worst years of the Soviet period:
The confession of the dying Mihail brought Father Arseny to see how even under the unbelievably complicated circumstances of modern life, with its political upheavals, its complex human relations, the officially supported atheism, the trampling of the faith, the fall of moral values, the constant suspicions and false reports, and the lack of any spiritual guidance, a man of deep faith could overcome everything which came between him and God.
“Overcoming everything” is a truly great feat. I offer here a few suggestions for the struggle:
Our usual commuting distance makes the sacramental presence of the Church problematic. It ceases to have its proper, even casual presence and becomes only a destination. Break the commuting cycle and find ways and reasons to be there apart from service times. The Temple is something to be loved and cared for. If we treat the Temple like a store, we’ll get very little from it.
Wean your eating habits from the global market. There is a growing movement of “local foods” drawn from the farms nearby. Become a patron and work at learning to eat locally. If it’s not in season, maybe you should do without.
Become active in the community. You don’t have to be a leader, but you should be a member. Resist the temptation to live life in the workplace, car, and home. There is a world outside of them all.
Work at making connections between the home and the faith. Orthodoxy is filled with customs associated with feasts and devotions.
Learn to sing and find ways to sing with other people – even outside of Church. This was once a universal human activity. To be a non-singing human being is wrong. My mother never hit a correct note in her life, but she sang frequently and with gusto.
If your commute makes attendance at Feasts difficult, then make a plan (or work with others and your priest) on how to keep it in the home. Never let a Feast go by unobserved.
We all use the internet (how else would you read this?). But work at structuring your time such that your primary engagement is with the external, physical world and not a digital simulacrum.
Pray always. Everywhere. Give thanks always for all things. Never be ashamed of your faith.
And immediately beneath that, a photo of my hometown. It was an effort not to burst out laughing in the office!
Possibly (hopefully) the single ugliest part of it, though the way things have been going in recent years more of it is going to look more like that photo despite all sorts of well-meaning efforts by our city planners…
Fr. Stephen, I’m wondering if you could expound more on what you mean by the “commuter” church. Thanks in advance!
Many thanks, Father! I have been wondering about my current home, whether to move closer to my parish or not (I am 20+ miles away), how to get rid of some of the things that clutter the house, etc…. I’ve actually been thinking of trying to change the space I’m in but, in good American fashion, I had done everything *BUT* extend that space idea outside of my home! You’ve given me much to reconsider.
Note: This line appears to be missing a word or two: “However, over time, I have come to see that many people this understanding as a suggestion to think differently.”
I think we need to reevaluate the blanket criticism of suburban living.
I think we can make connections in our residential areas if we make the effort.
In the immediate post-World War II years, housing was limited. We first lived in a simple prefab row house in Chicago when my father was in school. Then we moved to an apartment in my grandmother’s two-flat home in a working-class neighborhood of Chicago. Stores and my school were within walking distance, as were busses. Then we moved to the suburbs.
I remember many contacts with the neighbors in the row house. But at my grandmother’s home, we did not speak to any of the neighbors. Both sets of grandparents, living in two-flat buildings, socialized with people from their nationality or religious group, but not with the neighbors. All my grandparents were immigrants, with very few extended family members in town. So they had to drive to see their friends, and the visits were on special occasions.
Our life in the suburbs was very social, in part because of my mother’s love of people, entertaining, and giving back to the community. We knew most people in the neighborhood and many in the elementary school area.
So, just closely-spaced housing and having stores close-by does not guarantee community.
On the other hand, in some neighborhoods where I have lived, I have helped to develop some connections, limited as they may be. Do you remember, after 9/11, that a plane crashed into a neighborhood on Long Island? And we were afraid it was another terrorist act?
I got to thinking that I’d like my neighbors to know how to contact me if something happened to my house, and that it would help if they knew how to contact a friend or family member if something happened to me at home.
So I invited the neighbors within three or four houses to meet and exchange emergency contact information. I feel better knowing that our information is shared, and it has helped to increase the connections in our neighborhood. I didn’t ask them to become friends, but we can help look out for one another.
Wonderful article. I’m so glad you mentioned eating locally. That is a subject that I have been waiting for Orthodoxy to address. I believe that the modern food and pharmaceutical industries are among the greatest sources and facilitators evils in our time, and no one realizes it because we all were born into a generation with major historical amnesia. My journey into Orthodoxy in the last couple years coincided with my journey toward regaining even mundane aspects of humanity and freeing myself from the truly unnatural conventions of our society:
I gave up my aspirations toward an academic career to be a stay at home wife and mother and teach my kids that they don’t need to go to college like I did to “find themselves” or even to make a living.
I have been learning how to cook like my great great grandmother and have become really passionate about it! (Cooking “nose-to-tail,” learning about how to grow my own food, fermenting vegetables and dairy, supporting local farmers whenever possible, spurning modern new-fangled foods like margerine and industrially produced vegetable oils for old-fashioned lard, butter, olive oil, etc).
I suddenly realized how much power the culture’s idea of beauty had over my thoughts and time and so I decided to stop pursuing that by embracing the way I look without makeup and trying to have a simple, functional wardrobe (This idea of external beauty was the most painful of all things to give up, but if I realized that if I can’t pick up this cross, what cross could I pick up?)
My greatest desire is to be able to live within walking distance of my parish one day. And I also have a dream of starting an organic community garden near the parish in order to feed the poor in the surrounding area and teach them how to grow their own food!
I have been trying to be mindful about everything I do because so many of the evils of our present day and age only continue because people aren’t mindful. Industries hide their production from us so people don’t get the opportunity to question them. Tradition has been replaced by consumerism. Our “reality” is shaped by businessmen and their politicians rather than by humanity and tradition. You have written about this extensively and it gives me hope that others see this too. I, for one, am totally game for the Benedict Option, and if you ever want to start a self-sufficient Orthodox community in this country, count us in! 🙂
“Our space is not constructed for efficiency, nor for the generation of community, nor for the relationship with the Divine….They are built for automotive convenience. ”
This is true. I would not want it to change because “efficiency” is defined by secularists who put some notion of “saving the planet” before everything (including saving the baby humans). “generation of community” would also be a secular definition, and based on the recent past secularist “engineered communities” are murderous in the literal sense (which might be the least of their problems). “relationship with the Divine” is a non-starter, because most of our neighbors are secularists and getting more militantly so with every passing year.
Thus, “automobile convenience” carves out a small space in a secular wasteland, our little community within a much larger madness; my children go to non-governmental religious school, we do things that are consistent with God (work that is not an affront to the conscious, the only Orthodox church within a nearly 100 mile radius, etc.).
“…suburban sprawl (Kunstler calls this is the “greatest misallocation of resources in history”)…”
Until one goes and spends time in an “urban” area. We spent some time in the heart of San Francisco for a medical conference 6 months or so ago. Talk about waste, noise, inefficiency (e.g. that cities “social engineering” hybrid car cab system that is simply incapable of transporting my family – they are too small and inefficient – we had to order “special car service” to get a REAL car), and in your face secularism (do I need to talk about the bathrooms that accept all 17 1/2 sexes/sexualities recognized in hells like this?). The place is much more of a real and living hell than my small suburban area in almost every way. Also, one has to be RICH to live there as the cost of everything is off the charts.
I, quite literally, thank God for our automobile lifestyle.
“Our usual commuting distance makes the sacramental presence of the Church problematic. ”
This is true, but without an *economic* opportunity to actually live-in-orthodox-community than such a situation is understandable and has to be. I don’t see a way around it, and a secular “urban” (or agrarian, or any other) lifestyle is not a solution in-itself – only an Orthodox community (and the organization of “space” that would naturally occur) IMO.
“Become active in the community. You don’t have to be a leader, but you should be a member. Resist the temptation to live life in the workplace, car, and home. There is a world outside of them all.”
In what way is one to be “active”? I hear lots of secular ways to “be active” all the time (one form or other of making the world a better place in most every case). What does it mean to “be active” in a secular, anti-Christian “community”, and how does that build up a Christian and a Sacred space/community? The “world outside of them all” is the acid that one has to somehow resist – the suggestion seems to be to get in there with the acid and “do some savin of souls” perhaps?
I (and my family) am “active” in the anti-Christian community through sporting activities for example (I coach, etc.) and thus I get to know many nominal christians and non-christians and get a sense of their lives. We occasionally even have a conversation about something important. I am even rather intimate with some. I don’t know what good it does (God knows), but I am more acutely aware of the dangers and positive harm that can come from it (to myself, my children) without a good foundation in my Church and home. Our economic life is also another area that certain walls and boundaries must be very attentively built up and maintained for our own spiritual safety.
I suggest “the community” is the problem, and thus the only thing we can really do is in a sense “re-arrange” our relationship to it. This is necessarily going to seem “inward” and “private”, but it has to be done otherwise you will quite literally lose your soul in the modern “community”…
” I believe that the modern food and pharmaceutical industries are among the greatest sources and facilitators evils in our time”
Not quite following you here. Despite some negatives (such as a learning curve around how to use pesticides in a way that does not kill us or everything else) the “modern food industry” has eliminated the continuous famine cycle that every generation of man lived with up until a 2 or 3 generations ago (and they sill live with this cycle in certain parts of the world). This is not “evil”.
Claiming Big pharm is “evil” makes even less sense. “Big pharm” is a creature of “big government” and it’s idealistic regulations more than anything. Despite this, it does an enormous amount of good. I’m willing to bet that when you or your children fall ill (not if – when) you will be a rather grateful partaker of what “Big pharm” has to offer, and will even thank God for it…
Fr.Stephen, It was in 1981 when my wife and I took a 7000 mile trip with our two young daughters that I first noticed how the Wal Mart type mega stores were beginning to decimate small town businesses. It is very hard now to find small towns with thriving downtown areas, though there are some beautiful exceptions. Our own town of 25,000 is one. When we travel now, whenever possible, we take the blue highways. You can be delightfully surprised by what you may encounter in out-of-the-way places…genuine country stores, real home cookin in restaurants surrounded by farmer’s pickups, etc. We try and avoid the interstates. Everywhere you drive you see the same motley, monotonous grouping of franchise stores. Makes me want to pull out what hair I have left! Continue with your excellent articles. Since I can’t read much they are a spiritual life-line for me.
I spent a week in Providence, RI this summer. I walked everywhere I went and enjoyed every minute of it. But I saw something so striking I had to take a picture of it because I couldn’t believe my eyes. A three story building with the “DOWNCITY church” (note the lower case word church) on the third floor, a Dentplus Dental Center on the first, and a “Psychic Advisor” on the second. It shook me the hyper consumerism. What progress we have made…
For those who take the “blue highways” and back roads: have they ever considered that they are adding noise, pollution, and increased traffic to residential neighborhoods?
Lynne…my Prius isn’t too noisy! 🙂 Also try and avoid residential areas.
There are no homes along the blue highways?
That’s why I tend to take the major roads whenever I drive. Bike or foot, though, all bets are off. 🙂
Sunny and Christopher:
It seems like both of you have your respective axes to grind that are strongly triggered by this topic. Christopher somewhat more so than Sunny.
That said, I definitely agree that there is a great danger of demonizing suburban development to the exclusion of the same problems existing in urban life (and the underlying common source of the problems in both).
Maybe trying to consider a few specific examples might help. Given Sunny’s description of her experience making her a potentially perfect fit in our parish (unless you’re posting under a pseudonym and you are a member of our parish!) and the coincidental reference to my hometown, I guess I can start:
Bad: Richmond, north Brighouse area on Three Road – the area shown in the photo. In my own experience it is definitely an area where you’re just driving through to get to one of the shops there, get in, do your thing and get the emphatic particle out – the one time I can remember being in that area on foot in my 27 years living in Richmond, I was out of a job and desperate and couldn’t afford the gas to get to the youth employment centre there.
Good: Vancouver, Fairview just off Commercial/Victoria Drive – beautiful tree-lined neighbourhood filled with gardens and narrow, deliberately-difficult-to-drive-through streets. It is normal to interact with neighbours. Our parish is located here; we seem more or less split between the people who come because they are Orthodox who live in the neighbourhood, and those who commute either because they only came after converting to Orthodoxy or lived nearby in the past but could not afford to raise their children in Vancouver anymore.
At this point it should be noted:
1. the caliber of the people making up the neighbourhood feeds into the design as well: north Richmond is predominantly full of people who have bought hook, line and sinker into the suburban auto-centric American Dream, while Fairview has a very different (younger, poorer, less upper-middle-class-Asian) demographic who tend to be fleeing that same thing, or at least the auto-centric part of it.
2. the first is a commercial area and the second is a residential area. However, if you compare north Brighouse to Commercial Drive itself, or the Fairview suburbs to any of the cyclopean sprawlfests in newer Richmond suburbs, the same difference remains noticeable if to a much smaller degree.
“Good”: Vancouver, Downtown Eastside Ground Zero – I believe this neighbourhood is world-infamous enough not to need an introduction. Every time I pass through this area and eavesdrop on people on the street, it seems that the overall tone is consistently more relaxed and friendly – or at least sincere – than in the downtown core or the Granville strip, or the gentrified areas right next to it. Interacting with neighbours is far more a norm here than in the other two places.
Much of this area overlaps with historic Chinatown, and has missed much of the development boom and gentrification. I believe this, along with the mere spiral of homeless/addict congregation and lowering of property values, has allowed the people there to define their own meeting spaces and routines (if, sadly, to the expense of the local businesses most of whom are not gentrifiers but just longtime mom-and-pop shops trying to get along).
Good: Pretty much every park in Vancouver. We definitely have it better than many.
Now I’m sure many other Vancouverites will disagree with me strongly about at least a couple of these, so those of you reading this let me know where I’ve gone horribly, horribly wrong! 🙂
When I look at pictures of monasteries and churches in Russia and Eastern European countries, I weep, because they are so beautiful. The scale, the architectural details, the height of the buildings are wonderful. How did they create such beauty in the midst of the harsh Russian winters and the never-ending struggle to produce enough food in the growing season?
I visited Holy Trinity Cathedral, in Chicago, designed by noted architect Louis Sullivan. This church is built in that tradition.
Would that we could create such beauty for our place and time.
OK, disclaimer here: In my other life I was a city planner.
About suburban sprawl–would you build your home facing a busy urban multi-lane road? No, and very few mortgage companies would give you a loan. So, commercial it is.
Have you considered that many of those monotonous shops are actually small, privately-owned businesses? Sure, they are probably franchised. But, the hopes and dreams of many families are built on those strip mall businesses.
And my favorite take-away from city planning school–everyone is in favor of public transportation, so that the other guys will ride the train and leave the roads clear for me.
You’re in Richmond? I know it was the Northwest. But the image page I googled had an endless supply, all of which looked the same. America is a Franchise Operation. But your mountains!
I think there is indeed much to think about and much that can be done (hence the list at the end of the article). What we probably cannot change is what has been done. We have lived on this street for 25 years. I know most of the neighbors and they matter to me. I like to make my town a “small town.” I shop mostly at the same places and, if possible, get to know the people who work there. At Waffle House, I’m such a regular that when I walk in they say, “Your usual, Fr. Stephen?” And I know some of their prayer needs, because they tell me.
In the Sit-com “Cheers” they celebrated the bar “where everyone knows your name.” That is deeply important. And if we are proactive and not passive consumers, it can make a difference.
You are St. Benedict!
I posted on Facebook about an experience I had in a nearby mountain town this week. I ducked into “Ralph’s Donut Shoppe” for coffee and a donut. The coffee was 50 cents. The donut – a dollar. I was astounded and commented on how cheap it was. One of the two ladies working there said, “We want to make a living, not a killing.” Joy.
Your probably right. I don’t particularly think the word “community” is often helpful when talking about our life in relationship with our secularist neighbors. It is a term that secularists largely own IMO. Even when useful, beyond forming an “intentional” community (where a group of Traditional Christians plan a community), I admit I don’t think of it in terms of “what we have in common”. I suppose I am more struck by what we don’t have in common, and the dangers thereof. This does not mean you cut yourself off – it just means you don’t idealize the relationships either. I suppose I don’t buy into the idea that immersing oneself into the shape or “community of secularism/individualism” holds much except danger for your soul. I also don’t think that eating locally, or driving a Prius, or choosing to reside in the noise of the inner city, or anything of the like has much to do with salvation.
As far as your examples, I am unfamiliar with Canada. You seem to live in an “intentional community”, or maybe a “community by accident” – a real parish/neighborhood community. Most, or at least many of us don’t and it is not realistic to do so. For example, there are not enough Orthodox for a hundred miles where I live to do such a thing.
Some of the places you describe seem to be aesthetically nice, and places where “people interact”, even when they are truly diverse in habit, creed, culture, etc. That’s nice. In what way does it move beyond “nice” to part of our salvation – given that it is still all very democratic, individualistic and secular…
I didn’t know about your city planning background! Interesting. My thought, that I hope will come through after the distractions of our particular take on the details – is the shape of our suburban life. It facilitates loneliness. We have to work at not being lonely, but the shape of things moves in that direction. It is a positive “privacy” but privacy quickly becomes loneliness for many.
The small shops are indeed small businesses – but they have little choice about the shape of infrastructure. We have lost the instinct in America for the village. What you see in Russia is a sacrament of an Orthodox vision of reality. I read somewhere that the American instinct for safety is to get away from people. The Russian instinct for safety is to gather with people. I suppose wolves and Tartars will do that to you.
I don’t want to simply join the ranks of the critical. Mostly, my thoughts are about our common struggle to live the Orthodox life in the modern world. We obviously have to be intentional about some things that in another time and place could be done more naturally. And that is indeed our struggle. I think of all the “secret monks and nuns” during the harshest of the Soviet times. They had to leave the monasteries, get jobs and pretend not to be monastics, all the while maintaining a disciplined life of prayer and fasting. They were the true St. Benedicts. And they are re-building Russian. In time, perhaps America can be re-configured. But that’s something for a futuristic novel…
I would recognize that Simpson Ho Autobody sign anywhere. 🙂
The city definitely doesn’t all look like that – last I checked Steveston Village is still intact, and there is plenty of green park space. But for everyday life, unless you live and work in the Village or the parks(!), what you see will be primarily dominated by suburban commuters, strip malls and industrial areas.
The Greater Vancouver area has been described as “Zurich surrounded by Phoenix”, and Richmond is still more Phoenix than Zurich. The urbanization expected from both the rapidly growing population and the addtion of the SkyTrain line hasn’t quite finished materializing yet, so what we have now is a really congested suburban sprawl with condo towers – with pretty much the societal results you would expect from that description.
James Kunstler’s comments about Nature Band-Aids is spot on – we just happen to have much bigger ones than in other places (not shown in the photo which only includes a moderately sized one).
Note what one of the “good” places was. Make no mistake: there are people here who have serious problems and if they didn’t have those problems they wouldn’t be living here.
It is, however, the first thing that comes to my mind when I attempt to think of the exact polar opposite of the shut-in, insulated lifestyle of the big sprawl-suburb house where the kids are discouraged from going outside and taught daily to never speak to the hypothetical strangers they never meet, and the only outlets for them are unsupervised mischief and TV, videogames, junk food and internet. Certainly not as bad as hard drugs, but the addiction and isolation patterns remain and there’s no obvious, physically present Others to provide a reality check. They are forced to suffer and be ashamed, but also forced to suffer and be ashamed with and for other people that the suburban shut-in might not have the opportunity to do even if they actively sought it – it’s pretty rare see a homeless “crack-head” go on a shooting rampage.
Those guys trying to scrounge up change for their next hit or just a place with a roof for the night, they’ll be seeing the Kingdom far ahead and above me.
Fr Stephen, I read with joy your book you mentioned which is also the theme of this article: Christ who is preeminent and filling all things is in our midst, God is with us. This is Christianity’s meaning and this what Christians believe (ideally), and thus our everyday lives are transformed from the mundane (secular) to everything sacred. “And God finished the creation he had made and said it is very good.” Since God became flesh, our understanding of the universe (in reality) is restored to “all things in subjection under His feet.”
So I don’t get your meaning that suburbs are by nature somehow “secular” and your obvious preference for the rural life as somehow more sacred. If I am a follower of God Incarnate, how is my homebound, introverted life in ugly suburbia somehow less than holy? Seems this worldview requires an extrovert’s (what you may yourself refer to as “protestant evangelical”) solution for the world that sees God as at work “out there,” if not “the Man upstairs.” That would seem to at least tend to lead to a dissatisfaction with “a quiet life” for which the apostle Paul says we ought to pray, so that living in suburbia ~ or anywhere, even in a more ugly, war-torn Ukraine or Fergusson, for example ~ is sacred. But is it not compatible with your orthodoxy that requires the adoption of feasts and devotions in places the Church would perhaps really not prefer to go?
If however my circumstances are in a suburban “uglified” part of this entirely good creation, can I not also learn contentment here as in any place else? Cannot a ghetto be a holy place wherein the Son Of God may be incarnate in one called to be a saint (e,g., a Christian in the truest sense of the word)? May not I receive all things as a grace and gift of God? That seems to me a more holistic way of life.
My experience with American Orthodoxy’s enthusiasm for a kind of stoicism (monasticism’s and the celibate clergy-inspired emphasis on fasting, for instance) is not too different from my experience of American evangelicalism’s variations between stoicism (pietism) and hedonism (anything goes). It would seem, however, the Word of God calls us to peace in whatever our circumstances, wherever we may be. Even in sacramental, ugly suburbia.
I have not said that the suburbs are not sacramental. I have said that they are anti-sacramental. If secularism did not proclaim a two-storey universe so well and completely, then I wouldn’t have ever written the book. But “secular” doesn’t refer to any actual thing – suburbs are not secular – nothing is secular – Secular is a false consciousness. And I am suggesting that this false consciousness has created a certain shape in our world that also sustains that false consciousness.
But God is everywhere present. I do not at all prefer the rural to the urban. If I was idealistic, I would most prefer a village – American “rural” is very strange and lonely. America was settled by homesteads rather than villages.
But, I live in a small town and I like it. It’s ugly. But I like it. And its ugliness is a reflection of something in me/us. It is a “sacramental” ugliness, a manifestation of something broken. Sin is ugly.
Your characterization of Orthodoxy has enthusiastic for a kind of stoicism is actually off-base. You’ve spent too much time look at us through the internet. Orthodoxy feasts in a way that puts anyone else to shame. And, since most of our clergy are not celibate, but married, I do see where your critique comes from. The very fasting rules we observe, would have once obtained in England as well. We simply fast in the same manner as Orthodox England. No more, perhaps a little less.
Again to Christopher, now that I see your reply:
I think Fr. Stephen addressed it best:
Now I don’t know your situation exactly, but I don’t think we can be effective if we are not at least somewhat prepared to engage the non-Christian world – giving the Truth to those who do not have the Truth does not entail losing it, even if they are not in possession of it at the end of the day. Most of the community-minded “secularists” I know (I think you’re using it in a slightly different sense from Fr. Stephen) are sincere, kind and earnest people who seriously believe that what they’re pushing for must be done as a matter of compassion. Almost all of them – even the LGBTQ advocates and Planned Parenthood volunteers – will also be seeing the Kingdom far ahead of and above the ill-tempered suburban shut-in violent loner typing this.
Working with them is, I think, often a simple matter of setting boundaries where necessary: our ultimate end is God and caring for the wellbeing of humanity is a means, where to them the latter is the final end, so often they’ll stop where we must press on without them (but ever inviting them to join).
The difficult thing is to not let yourself get dragged into the culture-war stuff before they learn to trust you, while tipping your hand respecting those issues early enough so it doesn’t seem like a betrayal when it eventually comes up: remember that they(we) are trained from childhood to believe that all anti-abortionists are rapist-enablers who are waging a literal war on womankind and everyone who isn’t actively in favour of gay marriage is secretly itching to round up all homosexuals in death camps, and the important thing is not to prove that the anti-abortionists and “homophobes” are right so much as to help them question and deconstruct those received narratives.
For me, I think the challenge isn’t to rail at what I don’t like – anyone can do that… but instead to find the beauty, to see Christ even amidst the ugliness… and to celebrate real beauty when we see it… ’cause we do. Many times it’s there… we just chose not to see it in our rush through the day, the scene, or on our commute. But ..if you take a moment and really look for it…. it’s amazing how it unfolds. The eye begins to anticipate, to see and to find. And I think it’s this change in our point of view that makes the ordinary rather extraordinary. Give it the right light, choose the right angle, see the gentleness, the playfulness and rhythm of a scene’s patterns … and I think it is there… even when we prefer to think it isn’t. Our dismissiveness lets us rush by and avoid connections… yet I think the real christian response sees the same view, looks at the same waste and instead of “normal”…. sees an extraordinary invitation. And their smile… lights up a change. Christian joy is easy to forget, but also something we can add to a scene. We should do that, too.
I don’t usually get involved in the discussion on this blog, and I had no idea that if I did, people would actually READ let alone give such critical thought to my words! If I had anticipated this I would have been more cautious and reserved in what I said. Though I am tempted to defend myself against some of the criticisms you made of my comment, I don’t have the time, and I feel bad for hijacking the dialogue to something that is really besides the essential point here. HOWEVER, I want you ALL to know that I think it is awesome that there is such an awesome group of critical thinkers within Orthodoxy out there! I wish I could have the honor of knowing you all in person. God bless you all. 🙂
One day, I was pondering the verses from St. Luke, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor, He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” I thought it was great that Jesus had come to do all that for the people He had mentioned, but what about the rest of us? Of course there was and is no “rest of us”. He has described us all.
Sin in Greek is an archery term. It means missing the mark, the bull’s-eye. We know that there has been only One who hit the mark. For the rest of us, there are 360 degrees of ways to miss. I mention this because even though the evidence is all around us and even in us, we are sometimes amazed and dismayed at how obvious the problem is and yet that so few see it, or have the freedom, resources or will to fix it! (See above).
The picture of the street above is a picture of our own hearts, Claptrap from ‘A Pilgrim’s Regress’ that nearly obscures the majesty of the mountains in the background. It’s the best we can do by ourselves. In fact there are times I think that our modern culture with all its technological advances and all our science and philosophy are simply attempts to get back to Eden, blindly and on our own terms.
You made me conjure of an extreme case: I am sure one can self-teach themselves and their children the Greek language and culture while living in Falkland Islands – with concentrated effort – but it can also be done – with relative ease – while living in Greece.
What I mean to say is that anyone, in any context can become a saint, [it is actually much easier, in a sense, than the ‘Greek language example’ I suggested] but this does not change the fact that some environments are far more conducive to this; especially considering the needs of a novice in the spiritual life.
Besides, man always someway readjusts his environment (as his means permit him) according to his deeper priorities. And the deeper the desire the more radical the readjustment. The conflict with the secular arrangement is therefore inevitable.
I think the comment by jamesthethickheaded points us all in the right direction. The gerondes (elders) would say that we should be thankful for our “spiritual poverty”…
May God grant that we all see the world through His eyes.
I think we need to be careful about romanticizing the place where everyone knows my name. Often that means everyone knows exactly what I’m doing, and is judging me. And if I’m different, or creative, it may lead to isolation and being ostracized. Just ask anyone in a seventh-grade homeroom about being different. (And aren’t we all seventh-graders?)
Yes, loneliness is a huge part of modern life. I wish there were easy solutions.
Could it be that each of us has our “cell”? I think that living or working in any environment gives us the opportunity to depend on God and give thanks. In that way, maybe we are all monastics.
I live in a very rural area on the Delmarva Peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean in a village of less than 300 and the largest town in the two VA counties has about 1500 people. I do not know everyone in my village, but I do pray for the whole village and walk/cycle around and speak to everyone I meet. Recently my husband and I noticed an area that has had a long standing water issue that reeks in front of a rental house where many children play. After many phone calls we found the right agency to fix it. We shop locally and some of the best conversations are in the shops and roadside stands where we buy organic veggies. We live a quiet live and love it, the downside is the total lack of an Orthodox Church. I thank God for AFR and do the best I can (my husband has chronic health issues and we are unable to travel the hour and a half to an Orthodox Church on any kind of regular basis). I believe we are called to be sacramental people wherever we live and to call for God’s blessings on all who surround us and live a joyful and repentant life. I am grateful to the men in brown shirts who deliver all of my Orthodox books! God finds us in all sorts of places and situations – what a wonderful God we have!
Romanticizing any aspect of salvation is flawed. Even in the most ideal village, salvation is a struggle. However, my point is that in our modern context, even the shape of the village presents a struggle, and that the shape itself was dictated by a misunderstanding of what we need as human beings. Knowing this shouldn’t make us romanticize what we do not have, nor simply rail about our circumstances, but with understanding and discernment wisely struggle for salvation. Just that. Even the monastics in their cells still come together. There is no salvation without other people. Your point about the 7th grade is quite apt. All of our struggle happens in the context of a cultural Middle School. I suppose it’s like Irenaeus’ adolescents in the Garden of Eden.
Regarding eating seasonally and locally, we should also be mindful of eating humanely raised and slaughtered animals and consuming eggs and dairy products from humanely raised animals. Farmer’s markets are a good source of these foods, as our food co-ops. We are lucky here in Austin to have Wheatsville Food Co-op which sells only humanely raised meats and eggs.
I ran across below text that is excerpt from Thomas Merton’s ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’. I hope it adds to our reflections today.
“What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what he Himself takes most seriously. At any rate, the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Bashō we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash–at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.
For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things; or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”
Matt & Fr. Stephen;
I think I am hearing you better. Just shows the importance of the comments section! In a way, I have to take what you are saying on faith. I *am* this guy:
“they(we) are trained from childhood to believe that all anti-abortionists are rapist-enablers who are waging a literal war on womankind.. ”
The only time I ever spent on the very front lines of the cultural war was as a young man with a group of pro-abortionists. We were “protecting” the “clinic” from those crazy religionists. When I think of the path I walked out of this secular thinking/commitment (I’d like to say secular living as well, but the truth is my living is still stuck in the mud), I am not struck by any “community” of other men (though there were some important ones) as much as I am by a more hidden working of the Other. Perhaps I am looking past faces I should not however, I will give it some thought…
p.s. Matt, the link on “7 reasons” contains real wisdom. I also think we are not “annoyed” enough, at least in a certain way!
It is amazing to me how easy it is to slip into ideological solutions for any perceived problems when we focus on externals. I don’t think one poster on this thread is free if it.
I might as well add to it:
Community unless it is founded on God is an idol.
All of us are called to sacramental lives. The liturgical celebrations are both the fount of and the result of my being a priest in my own sphere.
We cannot nor are we meant to overcome sin by rearranging the detritus sin leaves in us and our world. God alone transforms.
If I want transformation I must seek Him in myself and see Him in everyone I meet. Even if they are not my friends or part of the community.
That can be just another plaititude or it can be real.
Be real. Then you will hit the mark.
Fr. Stephen… Your words,
“Faithfulness comes harder to a modern person than it has at any time in history,” remind me of a quote I once heard from an elder. I don’t remember it exactly….perhaps Dino can help. “It will require more faith from a believer in the latter days to remain true to God than it would to raise someone from the dead.”
The new Acton lectures on AFR might be of interest.
Mark I would add joy brings thanksgiving and thanksgiving-joy.
When we live sacramentally we are constantly lifting everything we are, have and inhabit up to God in thanksgiving and joy.
To dance is to live, to live is to dance.
Christopher, they say ex-smokers are the least tolerant of all to the smokers in their environment! I’m reading a bit of this kind of struggle into some of your comments. Probably no one reading here has not found themselves affected in the same way at some point around a tender issue. I know I can relate.
Spending more time in physical reality than virtual is one of my challenges. I love all the practical examples and suggestions in this post and so many of the comments. I can see many ways I can more effectively engage the struggle, even if not all will apply.
Father, my daughter loves singing in the school choir even though she can’t carry a tune. My parents are frequent patrons of a breakfast place in their neighborhood, where my dad always gets “the usual”, and the owner and employees know things about my parents personal lives and vice versa.
This afternoon I walked into our local Home Depot, in civilian clothing, but one of the checkout persons who always greets me, immediately called out. “I’ve been looking for you!” And she told me about a friend diagnosed with liver cancer. We spoke and hugged and I promised to pray. Most of that relationship came about because I usually wear my cassock (I frequent that store a lot). I find that the cassock helps bring the sacramental character of all space into greater clarity. It reminds everyone of God. Her request is only one of many that I regularly get. This is obviously an advantage of the cassock. But the same principle applies to us all. Being sacramentally present (through relationship) is important. I’m not a faceless customer. Their not a nameless check-out person. The whole world is a cathedral.
Father, I have never driven down that street in the mountains. But in my small city, I give thanks for its counterpart.
The Walgreens/CVS pharmacy provided medicine for a small cost that saved the use of my right hand. The Sam’s Club provides the best quality produce I have found, at a reasonable cost, as well as goods that improve the quality of life for thousands. The branch of the bank is small so that I can conduct my business in a few minutes and still have time to chat with Jill, the teller. The coffee shop (either the popular local one or the popular global franchise) offers a place to relax and study, read or meet friends. And the storefront gym, beauty salon, Thai restaurant and tutoring service for K-12 students all lift up those who use their services.
I have read “Everywhere Present” several times and given copies to friends. But if God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not present in the second floor church above the coffee shop, becoming real to those who don’t know anything about incense, icons or those too-many-syllabled words of the Desert Fathers, then the vast majority of us don’t stand a chance.
Karen, the Holy Spirit and our Lord can and often is in places that are not healthy. I am Orthodox because Jesus pulled me out of such a place. I didn’t want to go at the time.
Did you say dance?
Just a thought on commuting to church–
I have to drive a half an hour to get to an Orthodox Church. Many years ago, I got caught up in the community bug and my husband and I talked about moving closer to a church. Long story short, we got poor and couldn’t afford to move. It allowed us to continue living in this particular town– a town in which I have now lived for an accumulated 3 decades.
Eventually I noticed that many of the Mennonites, driving to church in their horse-and-buggies, had at least a half-hour ride to their church— because when you have a lot of family farms next to each other, someone’s got to be the furthest from the church! So in a sense, “commuting to church” isn’t even a historically foreign concept. 🙂 That was a very freeing notion for me.
But I have to admit, that while I completely understand what you are trying to communicate about community, Father, I tend to identify more strongly with Lynne’s viewpoint— small towns can be horrible places to march to the beat of a different drummer. That said, when my mom died, it was the people in the town who knew her (albeit superficially– she was too different to ever get included in any of the real small town social circles!) who were able to express sympathy to me more so than the members of our parish.
Oh, and Lynne, I like that thought about each of us having our own monastic cell. 🙂
Michael, indeed (Luke 15:1-2)! Thank God for that.
I’m puzzled by the stress on eating locally. For me this would entail giving up coffee, tuna, and most fruits. My friends in Alaska would need to revert to eating mainy fish and wild game. What is wrong with transporting food across state lines?
Goodness knows there’s nothing dogmatic about my list. Eating locally, where practical, is simply part of being present where you are. The globalization of everything, however, has some serious issues surrounding it, most of which we don’t notice here in the US. It’s pretty high on the chart of modern evils decried by contemporary Orthodoxy outside the US. State lines is a relatively minor thing.
A few years back, I was shopping for Talapia, a fish that is typically farm-raised across the South (though it is native to the Holy Land, I think). The first place I went had no fish that were not from China. So, I made a thing of it and went to another grocery store. As it turned out I went to all of the grocery stores in town. All of the fish were from China. That’s problematic in my book.
Because of heart issues like yours, I’ve been eating healthier. I tried to find mackerel, containing as it does lots of omega 3 oils. All that I found also came from China. After a long search I did find canned mackerel at Trader Joe’s from Tunisia. Eating local depends on many factors. It’s easy here in the San Joaquin Valley of California. It grows over 240 crops. However, I was in Panguitch, Utah, this past May. I overheard a lady telling another about a trip to Sacramento. She was very bubbly describing to her friend how fruit stands and simple fruit stalls abound all around it. She had never seen this before. So lots depends on where one is situated. Plus unscrupulous merchandisers will advertise local when it is no such thing. I like what one lady commenter from Virginia wrote about cycling to different local fresh fruit vendors and getting to know them. That personal touch really helps!
Thanks especially for the observation about homesteads vs. villages in regard to the American rural experience. It’s a good point I don’t hear brought up frequently. Having been born in Rhode Island and a resident of Boston for my entire adult life, I have many friends and family who embody the “rugged individualist” persona, which I know you’ve commented upon in several other essays.
One additional comment: I’m seeing these issues arise everywhere in my own life right now. I’m thirty, beginning a family and, thank God, I do have a wonderful parish with a strong community-centered atmosphere, but I struggle mightily against the sense that merely making a living (not even considering a ‘killing’) in a major urban area demands a certain amount of giving-in to this impersonal, non-sacramental, and many times virtual way of life. I find it especially frustrating since I’ve recently discovered the essays of Wendell Berry, who has been commenting on these topics–including their spiritual overtones–for decades now.
So, basically, I resonate deeply with the sense of something fake and missing, and am grateful for the practical advice at the end to make it more of a productive enterprise than merely a regretful one.
Mark G. Part of the problem is that “local” in many places used to include a much greater diversity of food but because of the industrial approach to agriculture such diversity has been destroyed.
One can grow a whole panoply of vegetables in Alaska during the growing season..
The lack of biodiversity has many many problems associated with it.
If you have not read books by Wendall Berry do so. Just don’t buy them on Amazon. Try Eighth Day Books instead.
Modern agriculture has lost its humanity. In the process a good deal of nutritional value.
Father a great dance to be sure and Balkan line dance has long been a community activity. Great stuff. Indeed all traditional folk dance is the same. We in the US have square dance and country and western dance. Plus clogging. One of the great evils of rock and roll is the destruction of genuine folk dance in the west among the young.
Unfortunately Kantaszakis’ novel Zorba the Greek from which the movie was taken is a celebration of the two- storey ideal even the nihilist and Zorba the hedonistic principal. There is a reason Kantazakis was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church of Greece.
I’m sorry that Father Stephen’s excellent list got overcome with urban planning issues.
He suggests “Make something.”
But how can they make something if they’ve never seen anything made?
To overcome the prevalence of life in a box and on a screen, we held a crafts demonstration a few years ago. We wanted people of all ages to see what we can do with our hands. After coffee hour, people set up their “made things.” We had quilters, furniture builders, crocheters, wood carvers, knitters, photographers, prosphora bakers, and beer brewers.
Did anyone start a new activity? I haven’t heard. But the seeds have been planted. In addition, we had a good time making connections with other parishioners—we know them in more than “Hi, How are you?” ways.
Many communities have international folk dance groups. The leaders know simple line dances that come from countries of our Orthodox heritage. They are often glad to come to a church for a family-friendly activity. It’s fun! The joy of shared movement is a tradition we can recover.
Michael, I’m not familiar with Wendall Berry, and I see that he has many books. Is there one in particular that you suggest starting with?
Hello Fr Stephen;
I haven’t read a blog post for two months.
This because my family has joined some friends on their acreage in Saskatchewan this summer (spotty internet), precisely because our faith has made our ‘typical north american lifestyle’ more difficult to justify. Ours was a way of life so incompatible with real fasting and feasting, real rhythms of life, real community.
Here, we are not commercial farmers but we are in a new relationship with God’s world (milking our cow and learning to make feta cheese), with our bodies (hard physical work, away from the clock), and with each other (we have a measure of prayer and eating together).
While this is not the answer for everyone, I can say that I have had to face myself here and grow up in ways that I could not imagine doing back in the “conveniences” of our life on the West Coast. It was too easy to hide. Too easy to wear my masks.
We could not have done anything like this on our own. Our friends moved here a year ago- they and we are children of some monks who showed us this way through their own example and teaching. It is not for everyone but I would like to say to anyone who has a similar sense that modern life is not for them: it is an option. It is not impossible to at least try. Even taking one or two small steps (as Fr. Stephen outlined so helpfully above). The effort is an offering that Christ will receive.
And as the monks said to me as my fears about this simple, community lifestyle rose up before I came: “Sure you may fail. But try anyway. Our greatest heroes were all failures.”
Asking your prayers, that we may continue to fail gracefully.
May you fail right into the Kingdom of God!
I would love for more of this to come back, but it’s pretty painful to think about how…
First I would like to thank you for the kind welcome you, your wife and the members of your parish showed my wife and I yesterday. We were blessed to have the opportunity to visit on Sunday and loved meeting you all! We were so touched by the welcome we received! Thank you!
I too would love to live a more sacramental life but I think we may gradually be getting there. We live in an 80 year old house in a quiet shady neighborhood. Our 3 old cars and RV are a combined 97 years old! 🙂 We are 9 miles from downtown Pittsburgh but on a daily basis we see deer, groundhog, squirrels, rabbits, countless species of birds (we especially love the hummingbirds!) and an occasional wild turkey in our yard! We make our own butter, in small amounts. My wife makes the most wonderful pita bread. We buy raw olives in the fall prepare them and can them just like her mother taught her to do. And I can’t count the number of Greek Cypriot dishes she makes that I love dearly. We recently found my wife’s fathers 100 year old wine press and are preparing to make our own wine from grapes shortly. We buy local if possible. If you’ve never had a Chambersburg peach you are missing out! We help some of our neighbors when they are in need and they do the same for us. The last time my young Granddaughter came to visit she asked out of the blue What is your favorite world? Of course , I told her this is my favorite world! So blessed we are!
Alan I like “Gift of the Good Land”
I am a bit uncomfortable with the way this discussion tends to drift.
It seems to be all the rage these days to want to flee to the rural small towns and try to live a “natural” “traditional” “down to earth” life, packing everything up and going where all the other “noise” people are not to try to reconstruct some past.
From what I’ve seen of development over the decades around here, the inevitable result of these migrations is that:
within a decade, the land values in that quiet town have climbed to previously unimaginable levels as the developers take notice.
within a generation, the area turns into a huge suburban sprawl.
within a century, the area turns into a huge, paved-over, noisy and crowded suburban sprawl, or if we’re lucky an actual city centre. (Or if we’re unlucky, a huge, paved-over, mostly abandoned and rotting suburban sprawl.)
Meanwhile, fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas production spikes from all the additional commuting, because you will have friends and relatives in the city you left and you will need to get supplies of one sort or another.
That is, of course, for those for whom this kind of drastic move is even a realistic option. For a lot of us, this kind of uprooting would likely just make the isolation even worse – “wherever you go, there you are” and all that.
Perhaps this is just my own conditioning – living almost all my life in the Vancouver area (and having lived in Hong Kong before that) it’s hard not to instinctively associate “having a home on an arable parcel of land and not being a professional farmer” with “absurd, shockingly decadent luxury”. But at the same time, with world populations as they are, we will end up with a large portion of us stacked on top of each other in the cities whose only regular access to “nature” is either the human nature of the people they work with (along with various pigeons, rats, crows, gulls, roaches, bed bugs, etc.) or, in the First World, the park.
How can we help to make that environment more salvific (or at least less actively anti-salvific, though perhaps already much better than the suburban sprawl)?
Which is to say (without limitation): Father Stephen’s list at the bottom of the article, notwithstanding what tends to be “triggered” by the first item, is an excellent start, though I’m still wondering what implications that might have for civic design that is a building up from the principles behind the previously-ignored traditions instead of attempting to recreate the circumstances under which those traditions arose.
Excellent observations Matt, and I share your concern.
“Boutique religion” comes to mind, which is on the same page as “decadent luxury” and “hipster”.
A very good question – “what would it look like?” It does indeed look like a village, but Constantinople was much larger than a village and it was there, too.
But, this is not about a new Orthodox-America project. It’s not going to happen. It’s really about, how to survive America and remain an Orthodox, sacramental Christian. And to suggest that even things like structure and design have to be considered and compensated for. It’s the “suburban Church” model that, at the moment, most dominates our Orthodoxy.
That model, is, essentially, a model that differs little from the typical Protestant suburban Church, except the services and beliefs look different. But the lifestyle-relationship with the Church are the same. For example, it becomes a Sunday only thing.
This obviously fits our lifestyles best (demands the least change and accommodation). But it has a long-term deleterious effect and tends towards a very moderated, Orthodoxy. Do you want to know where pro-choice Orthodox members come from? From just such culturally homogenized parishes. Perhaps still quite ethnic, but with a pattern that is quite American/suburban.
The One-Storey Universe begins in our neighborhood. I’m not trying to lay out prescriptions, just sketching the outlines so that we can all ponder and see where it takes us.
-just a small note of correction: Kazantzakis never was excommunicated; it’s a myth.
The one thing I do like about our “commuter” church which is about 20 minutes away is that it gives our family time to read the epistle, gospel and say a few communion prayers followed by the usual mutual asking of forgiveness. This would never happen if we lived 2 minutes away.
Matt et al.
I too am weary of a sentimental, “back to nature” idea of what is necessary to live an Orthodox “lifestyle”. Such is the influence (for better or worse – in this context worse I think) of monasticism, or at least a certain understanding of monasticism.
Sister Vassa is herself a monastic and does a bit of needed correcting of this and similar ideas in this presentation (if you have not already seen it):
“Living Tradition in the city” is the title – sort of gets to the heart of the matter because as you rightly point out how to live Tradition in the city is the only way the vast majority of us are going to live it (or fail to live it) for a host of reasons beyond our control.
I appreciate very much Fr. Stephens contribution, this is exactly correct I think:
“this is not about a new Orthodox-America project. It’s not going to happen. It’s really about, how to survive America and remain an Orthodox, sacramental Christian. ”
This is simply a way to think about the “Benedict option”. In the future, I think it is going to look more like a “ghetto”. As reports of discrimination stream in (yesterday I read about the Denver City Council denying Chick-fil-La a franchise at the airport because of the owners “discriminatory” stance on homosexualist marriage – this is simply for his beliefs, not for any actual policy of the company), I wonder if in the future (my children? certainly their children) will not be forced into a “village within the city” simply to survive economically.
Any answer to “how should I live” that entails abandoning/rejecting the city is a form of idealism, at least for the majority of us. As Sister Vassa points out, this is not how it was done in the early church (quite the opposite).
Thanks for the link, Christopher! Needed correcting, indeed… (and reminds me of a few things that drew me to Orthodoxy to begin with that I seem to have forgotten about as of late!)
Christopher, I’m going to gently push back a bit on your comment. But first, this disclaimer. On this point, I suspect I’m in the same boat as you, living fully immersed in a city. So my push back is at much directed at myself, as it is at you.
I was just wondering though if any people who lived in Sodom and Gomorrah felt that perhaps they ought to abandon the city, but deemed that view to be idealistic.
My favorite comment in this thread is the one by Mark Basil, telling about his experience this summer in Saskatchewan. While I could very easily make the claim that doing such a thing myself would be idealistic, I wonder if Mark could have made that same claim at some point in his life, but ultimately decided it simply had to be done. I of course don’t know Mark or his situation….just wondering out loud.
Thank you for sharing this comment. Most of us are so immersed in this worldly life that even tentative thoughts of changing anything about it are scary…. But some day we may get an opportunity to “take the plunge” (as Mark Basil did) . May God grant us wisdom and courage at that moment…..
The conversation reminded me of one of many great quotes from “The Ladder” of St. John Climacus. As a person transplanted from one continent to another, from growing up in Orthodoxy to having to struggle to be Orthodox in America, I also see the blessings this “exile” bestowed (in my particular case, ability to worship and study in a language I understand )…..
Here is St. John on “exile” (xeniteia, “living as a stranger”…):
“Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of the religious life. Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination to love God, abundance of charity, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence.”
That is a profound quote by St John, thank you.
“Country” here is used metaphorically, which is striking, I was expecting to hear about a literal moving away to the countryside, fleeing the city, or what not. Nope, nothing of the sort.
No one is going to accuse St John of being secular, or a nominalist, having it all in his mind now, are we? I hope not.
Kunstler’s ideal communities are playgrounds for the rich and famous thanks to the authoritarian policies he promotes (strict growth controls, various Smart Growth restrictions, etc.). They often are beautiful places. I agree that so much of our nation is disturbingly “look alike” and disposable, but I’ve also found the tony New Urbanist paradises often have the worst sense of community as the people there work so diligently to control others’ lives. These elite places rarely do much to elevate more permanent things. They often celebrate just a more stylish form of consumerism. Note all the trendy home-renovation shows with the buyer’s craving just the right $1,000 hammered copper sinks for their classic Craftsman homes, etc. And note the trendiest and loveliest looking cities and communities are basically devoid of children now. The New York Times had an interesting feature on these beautiful childless cities. Traditional families can’t afford to live there. Slow-growth policies push them out to the cookie-cutter suburbs so they can afford a yard. And then the New Urbanists put them down for their choices. There’s more to community than charming neighborhoods. I love Jane Jacobs’ take on Ebenezer Howard, whose 19th century Garden Cities remind me (more than a little) of what Kunstler and others are promoting today: “His aim was the creation of self sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge.”
One more comment: Here D. J. Waldie’s book, named Holy Land, is about how a cookie-cutter suburb (Lakewood, CA) became a place filled with beauty and community. I know Lakewood a little (and have heard Waldie’s touching speech on the matter), and would guess the values it promotes are closer to our Orthodoxy than many of the values espoused by some of suburbia’s most vitriolic critics. http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Land-A-Suburban-Memoir/dp/0393327280
Must you rain on our parade?
As to Lakewood, that must be a different Lakewood in Los Angeles that I know, as it is about as far from Orthodox values as just about anything I have ever encountered, architecture, space, community wise. Maybe it started out good but turned into dystopia rather quickly?
It is interesting that we are not all called to move away from the city to the country or a desert.
It is possible to live a God-focused life even in our crazy world. But a more intense effort will be necessary, to tune out the distractions. If we make time in our busy life for prayer, silence, attending services as much as possible we too have a possibility of attaining closeness to God.
We do the best we can in *our* circumstances, instead of waiting for the circumstances to change to do better…. (this seems to be most common excuse we like to use to justify ourselves in our inaction and lack of spiritual integrity).
Even the greatest of monks St. Anthony was once told by God that his spiritual accomplishments in the desert are less impressive than the work a doctor in Alexandria was doing together with his wife…. Opportunities for holiness are within our hearts, not in the conditions of our life.
I am not sure if intensity of the struggle is the right way to understand this issue. Maybe the effort is different in nature, but equal intensity. The monks seem pretty intense. I can only image that the temptations they face manifest themselves differently though.
It seems to me much of this discussion has and underlying assumption, it is being approached as if we are called to the monastic life (whilst not being monastics, nor in a monastery etc.).
Robert we are all called to a life of kenotic ascesis. I fail in that. Monks seem to do a better job but not always.
To fast, to pray, to give alms, to worship in praise and repentance with our fellows. We either do that or allow the world, the flesh and the devil to interfere.
Seldom, if ever, does the devil have to raise a sweat to mess with me. With St. Silouan, the devil got directly involved. Failed.
I once asked a monk why he became a monk: “I love to pray”, he said.
Kenosis indeed, no disagreement there. But the question at hand here is whether place, design and such, are more/less conducive to kenosis. And there’s (at least) two aspects of this which seems to be opposed to each other – on the one hand place, architecture, design, etc, are important because it is “not all in our head” using Fr Freeman’s words. On the other hand, it really doesn’t matter where you are, we carry our darkness with us, “for out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries…” to use Jesus’ words.
Hence my contention: it is not a matter of intensity but of quality or mode, as far as the struggle goes. The struggle can be equally difficult and intense, regardless where one is in the suburbs, the city, Mt Athos or where not. But the struggle does manifest itself in a different way, it takes on a different nature if you will.
This is all to say that I question the underlying notion of (forgive the simplification) suburbs are bad/ countryside is good. Steven’s comment above, about Kunstler’s ideal communities “These elite places rarely do much to elevate more permanent things. They often celebrate just a more stylish form of consumerism” is quite apt, in my estimation.
Michael I posted a response yesterday but it must have been caught in the spam filter.
Fr. Stephen…that spam monster caught a response here as well.
Great saints can flourish in a gulag. But you wouldn’t want to raise your child in one. Just because something is possible doesn’t make it salutary. I have been describing a salutary construct in order to point accurately to the nature of our arena.
Fr. Freeman is right that we can flourish anywhere, but that doesn’t make gulags the place to be. But I would love if he would address some key points. The New Urbanist movement (and its angriest and most profane advocates, such as Kunstler, author of the Cluster**** blog) insists on using governmental policy to force the population to live in the kind of aesthetic places they say are uplifting. I’ve seen that at work here in northern California. The result is that wealthy people get to enjoy these lovely Mill Valley-type places, where zoning regs and requirements keep out the less-affluent riff-raff. Everyone else is priced out, pushed into long commutes or driven into two-income long-hour days that hardly conform to the Orthodox vision. Often, the New Urbanists are so fixated on outward appearances of beauty — and I do tend to agree with their architectural and land-use preferences — that they miss the bigger point of community. I’ve lived in and have been around those lovely picture-perfect places where most of the neighbors were obsessed with what everyone else was doing (That fence is 6 inches too high! Call the historic-preservation committee and force that family to remove its imperfect brick stairway!). I’ve lived in an old cookie-cutter suburb in the LA basin, where people were community minded, always helping each other out, etc. I raised my kids in that lovely place — a place Kunstler would condemn. It’s pretty well documented that some of the most wealthy and aesthetically pleasing places are also the most secular. I’m not arguing for suburban ugliness. But I also think we fall into a trap by focusing too much on creating the right built environment. I think of ugly strip malls near where I live — and often they are filled with life. They are the places where new immigrants have dreams and start businesses. Try that in some highly regulated community that fits our aesthetic. I’ve reported on this quite a bit. You’ve got planning commissions and historic review boards and busybody neighbors worried about their property values and on and on. (You’ll find much better local restaurants using local food in the average California strip mall than in trendy New Urbanist downtowns, by the way.) It just saddens me when the Orthodox buy into this kind of aesthetic snobbery rather than looking more deeply at the people living in what oftentimes are very nice neighborhoods. Modern suburbs might not be to our taste, but they aren’t gulags.
You are right, “intensity” is not the best word. Maybe a better one would be “sincerity”. I like to think that we are all capable of the same sincerity in our approach towards God as the Saints have/do. They managed under the circumstances that would break most people (as Fr. Stephen pointed out in an example of a gulag), why can’t I pray, fast, give alms, give thanks in my comfortable life? And especially thank God for not yet requiring from me to prove my faith under some extreme circumstances?
Thank you for these words.
“To fast, to pray, to give alms, to worship in praise and repentance with our fellows. We either do that or allow the world, the flesh and the devil to interfere.”
May we all be granted acceptance of our God-given surroundings and be most sincere in the repentance that is available to us in our life.
It is a matter of degree, then? The most salutory would be to live in a monastery, no possessions, no family worries, etc., but of course only monastics attain to this to the fullest degree.
I know I’m a Calvinist crashing this party, but I’d rather have a one storey universe with God firmly planted in the one storey than a two storey one with Him kicked upstairs.
It is rumored that on occasion a few Calvinists get some things right. 😉
Part of the problem with this topic is that here in North America we would really like a formula, a golden ticket, a secret formula that was simple and absolute. That’s why suggestions of living in the cottage in the woods or in a small village – or any other suggested panacea – can always be shot down. For every person who knows a success success story there is another one who can poke holes in it.
This is because the environment is not a guarantee to the desired state of living. As Fr. Stephen says, some environments are indeed much more conducive to it than others, but by themselves they cannot work magic. The true steps toward this place start in our hearts and require repentance. This practice leads to us becoming a piece of that place we’d love to live in. And from there it is anyone’s guess. Following God’s lead and our own heart we could end up in the country or elsewhere, but we could also end up staying where we geographically are right now.
We are the Body of Christ and Heaven is found wherever the Body is.
Well said, drewster.