When Belief Is Complicated

londonrain“It’s complicated.”

This statement sums up much of the modern experience. I don’t think the world we encounter is actually complicated – but our experience is. Simplicity is the reflection of an inner world free of conflicts and undercurrents. The truth of the modern inner-world is that it is generally pulled in many directions.

Modernity is a juncture in history – a place where many rivers meet to form one raging torrent. The stream of history meets a stream that distrusts the past. The stream of religion meets the stream of science. The stream of affluence meets the stream of ever-present poverty. We live as though we are trapped in a spider’s web – not drawn to one direction – but drawn to all.

And so the world seems complicated.

Kierkegaard wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” But we don’t will one thing. We will everything, regardless of the contradictions. Alasdair MacIntyre offered a work, reflecting on the competing visions of good in the modern world: Whose Justice, Which Rationality? We do not agree with one another because we don’t even agree with ourselves.

This makes faith in God very difficult. Faith is not a matter of “belief,” an act of intellectual willing. Faith is a perception of things that do not necessarily appear obvious. In the language of Scripture – “faith is the evidence of things not seen.” But the perception of faith is similar to the perception of objects beneath the surface of a lake. If the surface is disturbed, the objects disappear. The objects do not go away – but we can no longer perceive them.

In a world of manifold complication – the surface of the water is rarely still.

The journey of faith thus becomes a movement away from complication. In the Christian tradition, many have sought the stillness of the desert, the absence of distraction, as a means to spiritual perception.

The Orthodox faith has generally held to this tradition of stillness. To the seeker who wants to know the “truth” of Orthodoxy, the advice given is usually, “Come and see.” The noise of argument and the cacophony of comparison are not the place of discovery.

I have always been struck by Met. Kallistos (Timothy) Ware’s story of his first encounter with Orthodoxy. Though he is a great scholar, he did not find Orthodoxy in books. He found it in a street in London. He tells of walking in London one summer afternoon (in 1952) and going inside the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. It seems to have happened rather by chance than design. In the dim light of the early evening, the hushed tones of the Cathedral choir offered the hymns of Orthodox Vespers. His initial impression, he says, was that the Church was entirely empty. But in time, he adds, he realized quite the opposite. The Church was completely full, with “invisible worshippers.” He stayed rather longer than he intended – until he stayed for his whole life.

C.S. Lewis told of his acceptance of the existence of God occurring on a bus ride in Oxford. He had engaged in long conversations and arguments with his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien (and, doubtless, even longer arguments with himself). But it was only a bus ride, an occasion where we usually lapse into a numbed silence, that the existence of God became a clear perception for him. He got on the bus an atheist and got off a believer. He had no sense of having made a decision.

Not everyone dashes into a Church at just the right moment, or gets on the right bus at the right time. But it is possible to understand that sometimes – more information is not a solution. Less noise and a quiet mind are more to the point.

Suggestions for the complicated:

1. Quit caring so much. The world does not depend on you getting the right answer to life’s questions. Answers often come when we learn to wait patiently for them.

2. Quit comparison shopping. Truth is not a commodity. You don’t want the “better” one. You want the right one.

3. Quit thinking so much. If thinking would solve the problem and make things less complicated, you’d be through by now.

4. Look for beauty. Beauty doesn’t make us think so much as it makes the heart a better listener.

5. Take some time off – from as much as you can.

6. Get some sleep.

7. Give away money. At least someone will benefit by this discipline.

8. Sing (beautiful things). The part of your brain that sings is much more closely wired to your heart than the part that thinks.

9. Ride a bus. Worked for C.S. Lewis…

10. Go inside a Church. Worked for Kallistos Ware…

 

55 comments:

  1. Thank you for stating this truth.
    So many complications, self induced and otherwise, lead to doing and accomplishing nothing, actually. At least that’s my experience.

  2. Wonderful advice.

    In fact, I’m printing the list, so that I can look at it when my mind starts running on the hamster wheel, and I start thinking that I have to figure it all out _right now_.

  3. Thank you. This touches the nerve center of life today. As the psalmist prays in Psalm 86:11 “Unite my heart to fear Thy name.”

  4. Father, how would you describe the difference between the “better one” and the “right one”? (And how does it relate to not using comparisons?)

  5. Greetings, Father!

    I am always in a struggle in trying to find a ballance in my life between the heart and the head, so to speak. I usually get quite aggitated about having to study that, beeing curious about this, wanting to read that and so on. Other times, I just sink into quiet contemplation and all my concerns seem petty and useless.

    Any suggestion on how I might ballance out the thirst for study without taking my eyes off the One Thing necessary?

  6. “If the surface is disturbed, the objects disappear. The objects do not go away – but we can no longer perceive them.”

    Father, thank you! This post came at the perfect time for me and hit me where I’ve really been struggling of late. I had a thought this week (before this blog post) that it seems like in our world, everything is so overly complicated. I spend seemingly all of my time fixing and dealing with things that my father never had to deal with. The computer doesn’t work, the wireless internet doesn’t work, I had to take time to go get a new battery for my watch (my father simply wound his each day), the computer display in my car went out….and on and on. Everyone tells me how great technology is, but I just see all of the problems it creates. Beyond that, Heaven forbid that one turns on the news. Five minutes of that will leave me with ten more things I’m worrying about. My thought is that due to all of this utter nonsense, I spend less time in prayer and less time in silence/solitute than my father did.

    Sadly, I also see my oldest child (mid teen years) turning away from Christ. Oh, this child is not rebellious and is not doing overtly “bad” things. By contrast, this is a “good kid”. But I can see in my child’s heart and actions that Christ has simply become obscured by all of the trappings of modern society. As Father said, the surface water in my child’s life has become too disturbed to perceive the truths that still exist beneath the surface.

    I fear that my life is spiralling out of control and that I’m powerless to do much about it. The surface water has become so disturbed and I long for it to become still.

  7. Alan,
    I tend not to watch “news” any more. First, it’s not news – it’s something entirely different – and it is not meant to inform us – but something entirely different. It might be the 8th deadly sin.

  8. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this beautiful article.

    It reminded me of something surprising I learnt recently, that in Greek the opposite of hesychast is *activist*!

    (What beautiful image of London, thank you for that :-))

  9. Father, stillness is the way because we can see more clearly in still water. Thank you for this image as it makes things, uncomplicated.

  10. St. Issac the Syrian said, “The language of God is silence. All else is just a poor translation.” Thank you Father for your encouraging words.

  11. I have the testimony of at least three people including me that abstinence from the “news” contributes to one’s serenity.

  12. abstinence from our computers and the internet would do wonders too, but we ain’t giving that one up just yet 🙂

  13. Read the Scriptures–it worked for Met Anthony Bloom and many others. But read with a mind that only wishes to know what they say..

    Ask for Him to make Himself known to you. Worked for a close friend of mine. But expect an answer.

    What is true and beautiful and real has no comparison. It simply is.

  14. Boyd, I whole heartedly agree with going on a news fast. I gave up TV of any kind 10 years ago and discovered serenity, health of mind and a whole lot more time to study things that really matter like the writings of the Fathers and Scripture etc. So now you have four testimonies. I still like the Simon and Garfunkel lyric: “I can gather all the news I need on the weather report…”

  15. Nicholas,

    Yes, I’ve pretty much ditched the tube too, except for exercise videos, and the occasional film or episode of American Pickers. I used to like Charlie Rose, but I quit caring what our elites do and think.

  16. Father, how would you describe the difference between the “better one” and the “right one”? (And how does it relate to not using comparisons?)

    David P, I find that “the right one” tends to be known very quickly, if not immediately. For example, when I stepped into the house I was to buy, I knew right away that this was where I was to be-I did not need to shop anymore (although my Mother and Sister insisted I go to see other houses before buying). There is a “rightness” about the “right one” that transcends the need to compare and seek more (or less). It is rather like Truth; once you find it, you don’t need to continue to search–only to know it better as itself.

  17. Father, have you ever read Iain McGilchrist’s work? I think you might be interested in his The Master and His Emissary. He provides a neurological view on our culture, based on brain lateralization, that is very consonant with the themes you have been talking about recently.

  18. David P,
    For one, the “right one” needs no comparison. It implies rest and fulfillment. “Better” requires comparison and implies change (there might be one that is yet better). In a way, we only bless what is right. Whatever is merely better and thus conditional and is not something we can do more than conditionally bless.

  19. How can you know what is true unless you search for the right answer through the intellect? How can you be certain when one section of christianity claims the other is not christian and vice versa? The fear of hell and false teaching is what keeps one from consulting the heart. You can have all the smells and bells but still be decieved.

  20. Father Stephen,

    But when the Oriental Orthodox say “We are the Church,” and the Eastern Orthodox say “No, we are the Church,” and the Catholics say the same thing, and you aren’t OO, EO, or RC, and don’t really consider yourself Protestant anymore …

    … It’s, well … complicated. You certainly don’t feel like singing. And it’s hard to stop thinking about it because salvation is THE most important thing.

    I’m 40, but I feel 90.

  21. Wordsmyth,
    But do sing. And of course each of those groups must say, “We are the Church,” because it’s what a Christian should say. It’s in the Creed: “One Church.” And what you see is the result of schism. They each recognize that there has been a schism and it makes those conversations quite different. The nature of the conversation between EO and OO is unlike any other that I know. And we treat each other differently than we do any others. I believe they will be reconciled at some point. I do not see that with Rome.

  22. Paul,
    There are certainly things to be considered by the mind. But then, I do not think there is any legitimate claim apart from traditional, pre-Reformation Christian groups.

    That narrows things down to three. I am Eastern Orthodox. I believe it is faithful and has preserved what it received. There is a sense in which I have to say the same about the Oriental Orthodox. They preserve, essentially, the Christology of St. Cyril, which was certainly Orthodox in its time. It is an argument/conversation that has been taking place since the 5th century, and will continue. It’s closer to solution now than ever.

  23. Thank you for this blog post and the suggestions. They remind me of Anthony Bloom’s reflections about silence in our lives. I am still on suggestion # 1. But as a person who cares a lot (too much!), I have only recently started to realize that it is ok not to care as much and it is ok to let go off some things and have a lighter touch on others.

  24. Michael,

    You said:
    “Ask Him to make Himself known to you. Worked for a close friend of mine. But expect an answer”.

    I am sure this is a typo and you meant to “expect *no* answer”…. To expect an answer is to set oneself up for sadness and disappointment, since most of the time the Lord stays away to protect us… As Dino often says, we just want to put ourselves under His loving gaze, in simplicity and trust in Him. He knows what we need, when and how, if at all… Just to sit in silence, in His possible presence, is blessing enough, but only when we “do it”, not “think about doint it”…

    “Pray by night. Pray alone….Say nothing, Think nothing. Imagine nothing. Do not pray. Do not move. Just wait for His presence. Wait for Him to notice your silence, your stillness, your death. Wait for Christ, He will come, because love forces Him.”
    (from the book “Killer Prayer”, The Orthodox Monastery of all Celtic Saints)

  25. Father, regarding your suggestion to look for beauty, can you recommend any other blog posts you wrote on this topic? I feel like I’ve seen a blog post about it or may be it was a video recording of your sermon, but cannot find it now. Thank you!

  26. Fr. Stephen,

    The book (a small booklet really) was a gift from a dear friend. In the back of it there is this website listed for contact:
    http://www.mullmonastery.com

    I looked and cannot see any way to order more copies, which I would like to do myself, to share with others. But I am sure we can, with a little effort….

  27. Write poetry.

    Reading “Inner River” last night, I ran across a quote from somebody who said something about ‘the scientists climbed the mountain of knowledge and when they go to the top they found the theologians already there.’

  28. Father,
    Those little booklets (‘Killer Prayer’) were given out by Fr Andrew Louth who received them in turn from Fr Stephen. They were distributed after a Liturgy for whatever anyone wanted to donate for the sake of the founding of his new monastery in the Hebrides…

  29. Fr. Stephen,

    I have connected with Fr. Seraphim and he offered to send the booklets to me. I’m planning to get at least 10, but I could get 20 or 30 (to save on shipping) and I’ll offer to send them to anybody in the US who would like a copy (your followers here :-))
    You can share my email contact with those interested to receive it. The book is absolutely wonderful!!!
    Let’s do as much as we can to help the monastery.

  30. Byron,

    I have contacted Fr. Seraphim, who is the author, and he promised to send me some. I asked Fr. Stephen to share my email with those in the US who would like a copy. I will be happy to send you one once I receive them, they are not yet available on the web site. I can ask Fr. Seraphim if he would like me to post his email, but I imagine he would rather not deal with many people. I am happy to be a middle-man (woman) for this project…. Once you receive the book from me, maybe you can make your donations directly to the monastery…. All details are in the back….

    But the book has the most beautiful, profound and practical words on prayer, specifically for our contemporary experience of it….

  31. Agata, it sounds like a PLAN! I look forward to it. If there are any issues with communication, I will be happy to provide my e-mail address.

  32. Agatha, there is a kind of expectation that is one of faith. My friend simply assumed if God was real He would somehow make Himself known. The way my friend described it, it was quite similar to what occurred for Met. Anthony Bloom. Suddenly, a person was there and there was no doubt who the person was. Still unseen but palpably present.

  33. Michael,

    Thank you for the detail. Please forgive my presumptuousness (it always gets me in trouble). What a privilege it would be to receive such assurance and response from the Lord…. Sounds like your friend received a very special gift, that often only great Saints receive.

  34. I think Agata refers to the ongoing art of remembering that, while our encounter with God is what we exist for, we mustn’t fall for the self-absorbed mistake of “asking for a sign” like the Pharisees (Matthew 12:38) but constantly strive to make ourselves present to His presence rather than demanding the reverse from Him. The deeper our respect of God’s freedom of expression towards us, (despite our hopeless, constant need for Him), the swifter His heavenly embrace (which we only humbly await after death -yet this presentiment makes us anchor our mind at the escahata from now). This gracious dignity is more compelling than our ungracious demands. We prove that we want God as a person and not God’s gifts objectified. Our business is to stay united to Him, His unity to us is never in doubt.

  35. Agatha, my friend is just a man struggling like all of us. He asked, not for a sign but for reassurance. He was given a gift. A moment.
    Saints take those moments and magnify the Lord.

    I am not certain that such moments are not a great deal more common than we know but they are ignored, unnoticed, or forgotten.

    The parable of the slower and the seeds comes to mind.

    Perhaps the greater gift was my friend’s grace given ability to receive.

  36. Consternation certainly applies too. What I mean by complexity is that doubt and fear concerning the nature and existence of God can have the effect of causing a person to seek after alternate sources and expressions of reality or maybe more precisely, unreality.

  37. Byron,

    The “Killer Prayer” booklets are heading my way. Please email me your contact information and I will be happy to send you a copy (my treat to ~20 of Fr. Stephen’s blog followers, first come, first serve :-)). My email is agatamcc (with the gmail ending).

  38. Byron and Dn. John,

    The “Killer Prayer” books are on the way to you! I hope you find them meaningful and inspirational. And do consider supporting the monastery, Fr. Serafim has taken on a formidable task, I am certainly inspired to help him. Can’t wait to go visit that monastery!!!

    I have extra copies I would be happy to send. I promise to keep all information confidential. Allison, do send me your address!!

  39. Thank you again. Could you forward information on the monastery to me? I am very suportive of the monasteries as I do my retreats at the St. John Monastery in Manton, CA.

  40. Dn. John,
    You will find info in the back of the book, but the main website is http://www.mullmonastery.com.

    I’m so glad to hear you visit Manton! I visit them often too and have been friends with them for a few years now. Such wonderfully small Orthodox world!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *