Living In The Real World – And Really Living

Nothing exists in general. If something is beautiful or good, it is manifest in a particular way at a particular time such that we can know it. And this is our true life. A life lived in a “generalized” manner is no life at all, but only a fantasy. However, this fantasy is increasingly the character of what most people think of or describe as the “real world.”

A monk lives in a monastery. He rises early in the morning and prays. He concentrates his mind in his heart and dwells in the presence of God. He will offer prayers for those who have requested it. He will eat and tend to the work assigned for him to do. And so he lives his day. He works. He prays.

And someone will say, “But what does he know about the real world?” But what can they possibly mean? He walks on the earth. He breathes the same air as we do. He eats as we do and sleeps as we do. How is his world any less real than that of anyone else on the planet?

A man lives in a city. He wakes in the morning, turns on the TV as he gets ready for the day. He dashes out the door (he’s running late). He gets to his car, listens to the news on the radio, takes a couple of calls on his cell phone. He gets to work and for every minute he does something that he thinks of as “work,” he spends at least another checking his email, looking quickly at Facebook, and maybe checking the news. He gets into an argument at lunch about what should be done somewhere else in the world and who should do it. Angry and distracted, he is frustrated with himself because he swore he was not going to have that same argument today. He goes back to work with the same routine. After work he drops by a bar, has a couple of drinks and decides to stay and watch some of the game. He gets home late and heads to bed.

Who is living in the real world? The man-in-the-city’s life is “real,” it actually happens. But he is distracted all day from everything at hand. He never notices himself breathing unless he’s out of breath. He swallows his food as quickly as possible. Even the beers he has at the bar are as much for the buzz as for the taste.

If the man refrained from these things his friends might taunt him, “What are you? Some kind of monk?”

What is the “real” that we should live in?

Increasingly, the modern world lives in distraction. But on account of the dominance of shared media experience, that “distraction” is treated as somehow “real.” The daily, sometimes non-stop, attention to this distracted “reality,” creates a habit of the heart. It is a common experience for someone “cut off” from this shared media experience to feel isolated and alone. Of course, three days of no media changes nothing. My attention to the distraction is not at all the same thing as attention to the world itself. For whatever reality might be, it is decidedly not the distorted snapshots presented in our newsfeed.

The experience of “reality” that is media-generated has the character of “things in general.” The habits that form within us as we give attention to this abstraction are themselves vague and ill-defined. We “care” about something, but we have nothing in particular that we can do about it. We are angry over extended periods about things that are greatly removed from our lives. Our attention itself becomes a passive response rather than a directed movement of the soul. Our lives largely become an experience of manipulation – only it is we ourselves who are being manipulated.

Against this is the life of Christian virtue. It is little wonder that frustration accompanies our efforts towards acquiring the virtues. The soul whose habits are formed in the distracted world of modernity cannot suddenly flip a switch and practice prayer of the heart. We sit still and attempt to pray and our attention wanders. It is little wonder that our attention wanders. It has been trained to be passive and follow a media stream. In the stillness of the soul, there is no media stream and our attention feels lost and empty.

This is the reason for the life of the monk. He lives as he does in order to be attentive to reality – to see and hear, taste and touch what is true and at hand. It is not so different than most human lives 200 years ago, before the rise of mass culture. And it is real. Deeply real. It is also the basis of the sacramental life. God gives us Himself, His life-creating grace, in very concrete and particular ways. The reason is simple – we were created to live in a concrete and particular way. The life of abstraction is alien to the life of grace. There is no sacrament of the abstract, vague or general. The only Presence is a real presence.

If we want to pray, then we will have to live as though we are praying. We cannot live in the abstract and suddenly attend to the real. We cannot “care” and then turn to love. “To live” is an active verb. The passions of mass experience are something else.

Live. Love. Eat. Breathe. Pray.

35 comments:

  1. Haha! I have to laugh at the “real world” we are living in – A world that doesn’t identify with its Creator and has become very self-centered, materialistic, corrupt and more, is not the real world at all. We can be in the world and not of it by identifying with God as Creator and Savior however, we will soon come to realize exactly what this world is all about and how empty and void much of it is in terms of being real. The Monk has the right idea! This is why our mission is to spread the Gospel message especially to those who have been down-trodden and defeated by this world.

    Good article…..God bless!

  2. I have become increasingly aware that to dwell in the Kingdom, through the Prayer of the Heart, will require me to die to the “playground of the mind:” my desire to play with worries, fantasies, daydreams, newstreams. Those things can seem like actions…doing something to fill the day or fix problems by trying to figure out what to say and do (especially with regard to children and “evangelism.” ) In other words, I can easily justify such obsession as a good thing…”helping others or helping God ” We are conditioned and taught to be doing…not just being…and struggle to know what to do. Lord have mercy. To trust that God will give us the right words at the right time; that He will provide; to trust that being united to Him is our real work and that He calls us to be united to Him above all other actions…that we can rest in His Reality…opens me to the stillness of a life of prayer. But first, I need to learn to trust that this Way is sufficient. It’s a very radical break from this world.

  3. Father Bless,
    I think that you have revealed the very core of the social ills of our culture as we try to live out the modern project. This life of distraction creates an emptiness inside that echoes in the wells of silence.

  4. Yes, living in the life our our times is a distraction from what we study and know of our God and Savior. I worry my attention to this manner of being is coloring my thoughts of people, including friends. I have let this mislead my daily attention to the goodness God provides us each and every day.

  5. Father Stephen,
    I’ve heard my son-in-law say the same thing.. you’ve gotta live in the real world. Ours is probably as far removed from the real world as possible.
    The picture you have of solitude at article’s beginning captures well what you write. I get in my van and often go off for a couple of days alone, at times with no cell coverage…helps free from distraction, though I do like being in contact with my wife. But these steps force me inward. And as a bonus, if I am distracted, it is by the beauty of God’s creation. But even that brings me back into a clearer focus. A good balance…Creator/cre-ation. Very far removed from our own made-up, glib, plastic world that never fills our heart’s void by its void.
    Thank you for another nudge in the right direction. I need it.

  6. Father,
    I’m inclined to think that this kind of distraction is possibly the greatest spiritual hindrance of our times…

  7. “The purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”

    +Saint Seraphim

    These very well-known words by this great saint are what originally brought me to the Orthodox Faith. They literally converted me in the moment that I read them. However, I have been Orthodox for almost 15 years now and, yet, I am realizing just how little I have done in my own life to actually strive for and live for this great purpose. Many experiences over the past few years have converged to bring me to this awareness, all of which I am grateful for. I finally understand that every unnecessary thing to which I give my attention is keeping me from living the true life in Christ that I most desire.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for encouraging us to seek to live in the “real world” of Christ’s Kingdom.

  8. I think even with all the ‘busyness’ in our lives, that we might be able to take time here and there (in addition to our prayer rule) to offer thanks and prayers to God. This might help to ‘re-set’ our orientation, so to speak. I remember Fr Thomas Hopko mentioning the Lord’s prayer as an offering. And then, of course there is the ‘Jesus prayer’ said with the prayer rope, which I think is also helpful. I’ve even kept paper icons in my purse to pull them out in such moments (in privacy). And as I think on this further, this is probably not ideal. It is better to re-think our priorities and habits ‘particularly’ those that press on us.

  9. This is wonderful. It wasn’t until i got older that i realized how much we are all subject to being manipulated as you mention, distracted away from our real selves, into some sort of abstract handwringing “concern for others”. This creates great anxiety and darkness/confusion as you feel you are supposed to “do something”. This, at tender ages, when teenagers/ young people are just beginning to mature. When i was in grade school, i used to wonder why we didn’t read the great old classics that teach personal virtue. Instead we were immersed in depressing modern literature where there was no redemption, but only an oppressive view of the supposedly general misery of the world, with no example of noble virtue to be personal inspiration. We really need to pray more for all the young people today who are caught up in this, some of whom i know personally. They are so young, just beginning to come into their own maturity and look around for their true paths, yet here they are, pulled off track by all the forces vying for their attention.
    Father Stephen I’m glad you are addressing these things. You have a gift for expressing these truths in a way that can really reach someone. Peace to everyone.

  10. Here I go again, multiple comments.

    My life isn’t punctuated with attention to the media, with the exception to this blog (my attention to the comments is enough distraction and sometimes too much distraction). However, we can still fill our lives with the ‘inconsequential’. The issue is discernment and deliberate approach to follow in the Lord’s footsteps. It seems even the Lord, himself, was wearied from time to time with the crowds that pressed upon Him, who begged for healing of issues that might not be oriented to their ‘true need’, that of faith.

    Aside: this week was the Ascension of the Lord. I changed my usual course of daily activities to come to services. When I was asked why I was doing this, there was a feeling within of awkwardness and self-conscienceless. Explaining simply that it was the day of the Lord’s Ascension, left me aware of my own lack of belief. Part of this internal response was an interaction both mentally and physically in the ‘secular world’. It was as though the secular world had some sort of vacuum that was sucking the very faith in my heart out of me. The experience was destabilizing and I resorted quickly to the Jesus prayer and to the memory of the words, “I believe, Lord help my disbelief”. Perhaps this ‘pull’ is a constant pull but I’m not always aware of it.

  11. Thank you for this post, Father Stephen. This perfectly sums up someything that has been troubling me more and more these past weeks (and longer) – how we are rarely present to the Real World. The almost total coverage of cell phones (there are now over 5 billion of them in the world, means that in some sense we live in a world where few if any are present. There is nothing sadder than watching people ‘enjoying time together’ on their phones, occupying the same space, but elsewhere. To take the title of your book and subvert it, we are ‘nowhere present’. So I have conversations with folks who are angry and wound up by events far away . . . The technology that mediates everything to us seems to be the brick wall which creates the Secular Age (a book I’ve also been pondering and thinking about how technology reinforces Taylor’s view of contemporary existence. Kyrie Elieson!

  12. I think it is true that there is no sacrament of the abstract, the vague, or the general, and indeed the ‘infrastructure’ of practical living today is extremely intrusive. (I say no to it a lot.) Privacy is an issue, but even to connect with one another forces us into modes of experience that are shallow and do not allow the positive joy of human to human physical presence. I worry about what this is doing to children, in particular.

    When I was little, my grandmother carried me into the bush, and for some reason left me sitting under a tree for a long time by myself – it’s my earliest memory. I remember the moss, the roots of the big, dark tree, light and shade, a bellbird calling. The gentle, expectant stillness all around, and me just sitting there.

    It is restorative for me to remember that moment – I hope everyone, even when they needfully follow the dictates of modernity, can remember such connecting instances, like the man in the dingy on the curve of the sea, with the moon … and give thanks. And if you have little ones, once in a while take them somewhere safe where they can sit and absorb their own memories listening to nature’s voice. God bless everyone – the man, the monk, and grandmothers everywhere!

  13. Eric,
    I thought that was a deeply insightful remark in your comment: ourselves are ‘nowhere present’, while, all along, God is ‘everywhere present and filling all things’. It’s a wide-ranging description of Man’s decline.
    How true that our various conversations – often demonstrating we are “wound up by events far away” as you said, demonstrate that we, once again miss the key point: if we ever want to know reality, including the Loving Maker of it, we ought to “Be still, and know” (LXX:45:11 / NIV:46:11/10)

  14. Let us all pray we come to know how to follow the paths of the Holy Spirit in all of Christ’s creation and be in awe of what God is doing.

  15. Good idea Mark! Monday June 17th is “Monday of the Holy Spirit!” You are right on time….God bless!

  16. Fr. Stephen, if I hadn’t checked my email, I wouldn’t have known that you had posted another article! 😉

    I cannot argue with what you say here but might like to add some observations. We humans are rather prone to addictions (or obsessions) of all kinds. We find it hard to maintain balance in anything we do. If we taste something really yummy, we want more of it, regardless of whether we are hungry. If we see something beautiful and awe-inspiring, we want to take a picture of it – we want to hold on to it for future moments rather than just being fully in the moment we’re in.

    It makes sense that those with restless hearts (having not yet rested in Him, per St. Augustine) are going to be especially prone to such addictions. But even those of us with prayer lives that know silence are still vulnerable. And sometimes the things we become addicted to are not bad things in and of themselves. I confess I have gone through spells over my years of following this blog where I became “addicted” to it. I had to fast from it for periods of time to regain balance.

    I do not follow the media much at all, no TV, radio or Facebook. I check in with a major news source every couple of days as I have concluded that I have a responsibility to be aware of what other people are experiencing and doing in this world we share. Yet that does not free me from distraction. Even spending a large amount of time painting an icon can lead my mind away from inner stillness. I may pray as I paint but, when I go to give my full attention to God away from the palette, I often find my mind is still blending colors or trying to resolve an artistic dilemma I had encountered.

    I am weak, without a doubt. My heart longs for God but my mind seeks stimulation and pleasure. And yet God did make me to be this way. He also created me in such away that I feel deeply about the sufferings and injustices that I see others experience. Uncorrupted, my mind and heart could drench itself in the beauty of Creation without attempting to possess it selfishly; it could rejoice in the call to be co-creator without a hint of ego; it could work for the welfare of others without experiencing a trace of anger (instead praying for the perpetrators as much as for the victims).

    Our many distractions are, of course, symptoms of our underlying disease. I need to be vigilant, to identify the “symptoms”, however cleverly disguised they are by the enemy, so that I can bring them to our Savior. Only He can purify my heart and free me from this corruption that so readily takes hold of me. Thankfully, He is Mercy and longs to do this for me, if only I will ask Him.

  17. Mary,
    All you said is very astute and I agree. But God could not have asked for 100% of our being to be undistractedly directed towards Him if this weren’t feasible – even in the midst of inescapable distraction.
    Of course, the patristic notion of eucharistically being lifted “from contemplation of creatures to contemplation of their Creator” (rather than enslaved by creaturely beauty without reference to its Creator) is a most healthy first step for this movement towards God-wardness. This step is considered the highest form of the ‘practical’ spiritual life in some fathers.
    However, there is also the greater step, the possibility of direct vision of God – what is termed as the heights of the ‘theoretical [contemplative/visionary] spiritual life’.
    This is so rare, that many can think it practically impossible.
    However, another ‘healthy step’ & strong impetus towards that, is our contemplation of the ultimate futility of everything that is not God. It’s a “negative” that can direct us towards the ultimate “positive”.
    Just some thoughts on your comment. Thank you.

  18. I’m reluctant to chime in just to say, “you gotta read this” but there’s a recent Russian novel, Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, that takes as its mission to depict a medieval holy fool who strives “to see and hear, taste and touch what is true and at hand” from the standpoint of an Orthodox Christian believer. As with other Russian novels, the point is not so much to present a realistic literary vision (thankfully) but to open the reader’s horizons. I think it presents an worthy vision to go along with Fr Stephen’s insightful posting — many thanks!

  19. Thank you, Dino. I agree with what you wrote. It is indeed possible – with the help of God. But I have to want His help and consistently ask for it. Herein lies the problem. Do I really want 100% of my being undistractedly directed toward God?

    I might say that I do but, unfortunately, there exists considerable evidence to the contrary. Yet He is patient with me. He allows me to bump into that futility over and over, wiping my tears and drawing me close to Him each time. All glory to Him.

  20. Kenneth – My priest recommended that book to me a few years ago and I read it. It’s certainly masterful and thought-provoking. I will now pondering it in light of Fr. Stephen ‘s article. Thanks for the insight.

  21. Mary Benton,

    I have the same struggle. My life is structured so that I am very engaged in reality, with few distractions. But I find that I still want to check out, take a break, and not be before the face of God all the time. Lord have mercy.

  22. I am just back from a four day trip to DFW to visit a friend and attend a convention (non-work). Getting away from work was a blessing but I found that I became even more distracted as I left my routine. My prayers were less focused, I bought a LOT of items at the convention, I was both busy and never seemed to have anything of importance to do.

    Interestingly, the highlight of the trip was sitting a restaurant with my friend, belly-laughing over stories of our youth (I pitied the poor people at table next to us who seemed to stop trying to talk to each other, probably due to our noise). It was a moment of communion and deep friendship that had actual impact and joy in it. I will treasure that communion far more than anything else from this trip.

    I think our routine(s) are so important; the practices of the Church shape us to seek and live in God’s will. But the experiences of our communion, with God and others, are truly life lived.

  23. Byron thank you for sharing your friendship communion experience with us. I needed the smile your story elicited. Again thank you!

  24. Thank you Father!

    The new Life in Christ truly starts with death and is lived out by Faith.

    Reading James chapter 2 i often feel distracted by the “works” and miss out on the life of Faith….I prefer Paul’s take though, “Faith works by Love”. This gives me hope and is the evidence of the things not seen – which is our reality now seated with Christ hidden in God.

    My life truly feels like a constant repentance, and though there is always a little shame i fight against the temptation to be overcome by the shame of this world system that stares me in the face daily.

    Thank you for this beautiful piece – it is like golden apples.

    Please pray for me.

    Love
    JP

    .

  25. Great story, Byron!
    Communication always seems to be the highlight of experience!

    I wholly agree with you and have found especially as I age, that routine is important. Ritual, very important. I have gleaned this from Fr Stephen De Young’s The Whole Counsel blog. He mentions the practice of ritual, rites, in his writings and I knew he was trying to say something important about those acts. Wanting to know more (why ritual? why do we do this?) I came across a book ‘Rituals and Ritual Theory in Ancient Israel’. I asked Fr De Young if this book is “safe”. His response was that he used it for a part of his dissertation! A very encouraging response! The book was quite enlightening.

    Glad for you, Byron that you had such a redeeming moment! They are a blessing.
    God is good!

  26. Byron,

    Thanks for sharing that. I find that one of the things I hate about taking a vacation (and I don’t take elaborate vacations) is that almost from the first day, I feel very distant from God. Of course, it’s worth noting that people taking vacations (even weekends away) is a very recent thing for the average person (recent in terms of human history).
    I appreciate you mentioning the communion with your friend. I guess as I think back on my vacations and long weekends, the ones that are purely driven by seeking entertainment / relaxation are the ones that end of leaving me feeling the worst. If we go out of town to visit family, friends, Church, Monastery, etc, I end up feeling encouraged and alive. Seems like there’s a simple lesson there that I need to learn and apply. Thanks again Byron!

  27. It never ceases to amaze me how God brings me the same message in multiple ways in close succession to one another. I have had “The Spiritual Life” on my bookshelf for some time, but only felt compelled to open it today. The message in the first few pages speaks precisely to this subject of living a truly meaningful, worthwhile, and real life. Please forgive the length of the text, but I was concerned it would not make sense if I left too much out. For those who are not familiar with the book, it is Saint Theophan’s letters to a young woman seeking his guidance for her life. She has recently moved from a small rural village to the large metropolis of Moscow.

    +++

    You write that you are “dazzled.” You say, “For about two days, I have been making the usual social rounds here. First I went to the theater, then I went merry-making, then I went to a party. What kind of crowd is this, with the kinds of things they talk about, the kinds of abstruse opinions they have about everything, the kinds of manners they have? All this is barbarous to me, and I will never be able to collect my thoughts in this mob.”

    This is the first time you have been exposed to this; you will get used to it. The impression you have received, after you quiet and simple family life in the village, is entirely in the order of things… It is also possible that, while on the surface there seems to be disapproval of such things, deeper down there is sympathy for them and a desire to repeat them.

    The life of which you have seen a small part has stupefying characteristics. Those who participate in it also see that everything is not what it seems, but all the same they are drawn to it, like an opium addict, who knows what is in store for him: He is like a madman, who, in spite of everything, takes his drug, or perhaps for that very reason he takes it. (Letter 2)

    How happy your reply made me! [You say], “I am not at all attracted to such a life; on the contrary, I am repelled by it. Less than a day afterward, I felt shattered, my soul was languishing and melancholy, and I could not stand myself. It was only with great difficulty that I felt relief.” …

    God grant that such a feeling – rejecting worldly life and amusements – always be within you. But it is also possible to fall in love with such things. It is obvious that you should not come into contact with such a life. The second time around, it will not seem so destructive and disturbing; the third time, even less so, and then it will not even seem bad at all… Watch that nothing like this happens to disturb your peace! …

    You say, “I do not think that I will ever reconcile myself to such a life. I look closely and I find that it is not life. I cannot explain it, but I am firmly convinced in my mind that it is not life. There is a lot of motion, but no life. My sewing machine makes a great deal of hustle and bustle, but what kind of life is there in it?”

    Your bright little mind has given birth to an excellent idea. Now I am able to consider your situation to be more hopeful. The feeling is tentative, however; it could change. But when some fundamental idea comes to the aid of this feeling, then it is strengthened, and in its turn, it strengthens the idea. Together, they resemble a fortress.

    In order for this fortress to be fortified, you must understand just why there is no life in such a life. If we continue our discussions, then in time this will be explained in detail, but for now I will just say this: The reason there is no life in such a life is that it does not occupy and nourish all the aspects of human life, but only a small portion of it. And this small portion stands in last place, not even touching the center of human life.

    Human life is complex and multi-faceted. It has physical, mental, and spiritual aspects. Each aspect has its powers, needs and modes, and the exercise and satisfaction of them. Only when all of our powers are in motion and all our needs are satisfied does a man live. But when only one small portion of his powers is in motion, and only a small number of his needs are satisfied, this life is not life.

    Everything works together as a unit, just as the necessary motion in your sewing machine comes about only when all of its parts are running. Stop the operation of a single part, and the machine stands still; it does not live. Man also does not live as a human being when everything inside him is not in motion.

    With a machine, the cessation of its life, its motion, is readily apparent; with a man – if only a single aspect of his life is being exercised and a few of his needs are being satisfied – the inactivity of his life overall is invisible, although such a life is just like the machine with its motionlessness. Such is the law of human life!

    Let’s apply this law to the situation we have been discussing. Which powers are in use there, and what kinds of needs are being satisfied? In use are the hands, legs, tongue, eyes, ears, sense of smell, sense of touch, memory, imagination, fantasy and wit, the sum total of which represents the lowest human aspect, which man holds in common with the animals… In addition to these powers, there are another two or three layers in man, and they also have a main center.

    Judge for yourself now: Can such a life really be life? Your feeling told you that there is no life in such a life. I will show you the main reason why there is not. Maybe the operation of this reason is not clear for you at present, but the overall concept should be. For I propose that everything that is worthwhile comes out of the structure of man’s nature. It is necessary for us to live as God created us, and when someone does not live this way, I may confidently state that he does not live at all. (Letter 3)

    +Saint Theophan the Recluse, The Spiritual Life And How to Be Attuned to It, p. 19-22.

  28. Alan,
    I love your comment about traveling “for a purpose”.
    In recent years, I have been blessed by such change in the quality of my vacations, when most of them have that ‘pilgrimage’ character (for example going some place the hear Fr. Stephen talk, or going to a monastery for a retreat they offer, or simply going to visit friends or family in their city on a Sunday so that we can attend the Liturgy together and then go out to lunch or spend the afternoon together). These are better vacations than any all-inclusives, they are spiritually nourishing and refreshing. I heard the advice to try such trips (especially monastery visits) from Matthew Gallatin years ago and implementing it brought amazing blessings into my life – both in terms of places I ended up visiting and people I meet. It was harder to convince my sons to join me, but I think they are starting to see the difference, having been both on a typical beach vacation in Mexico once, and then on a pilgrimage to the sites of Celtic Saints (with Fr. Serafim Aldea). They never remember the beach, but they remember the pilgrimage vividly.

  29. Fr Stephen,
    I’ve been searching your blog for a reference to Michael Polanyi. You have been very helpful in making recommendations for reading. I currently have his “Tacit Dimension”. I remember reading in this blog that you’ve read his works. Have you read this one? If so, would you recommend it for Orthodox readership? I have found Brad Gregory’s book helpful regarding the historical relationship between science and religion and now starting to read Polanyi. Do you have thoughts about his writings that you are willing to share here?

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