The Best Place – The Worst Place – Orthodoxy in Location

From time to time, I read articles on the “10 Worst Cities in America,” or the State. There are similar articles on the “best.” The thoughts offered remind me of the article published earlier this year in which the Orthodox (worldwide) were described as the “least happy” people of any religious group. If you scratch the surface of these musings, you quickly discover that the scale of best and worst, happy and unhappy, are measurements based largely on modern, urban metrics. No small town anywhere could make the “best” list unless it offered a dozen coffee shops with exotic choices, four or five music venues, really great medical services, and a “feel” of somehow being “cool.” Similarly, the Orthodox happy measure was based largely on the values of consumer capitalism. The study would have been better worded, “The Orthodox are the least suited to consumer capitalist values.” Of course, the Eastern cultures of the former Communist bloc, where the largest concentration of Orthodox live, are relatively inexperienced in consumerist thought – either because it’s so new, or because their economies have yet to find their way to the trough.

All of this reflects a highly urban culture that is finely tuned towards the cutting-edge of global consumption. Aimed towards Millennials, it follows the decades-long trend of marketing youth and a sense of being “in-the-know” regarding various social trends and tastes. Cities are being reshaped in this image. My hometown, Greenville, SC, has become one of the “hottest” of such renaissance modern hotspots. Its mainstreet is awash in restaurants and trendy shops with a huge concentration of urban condominiums in the mix. An area that was once depressed and largely deserted in the former hub of the American textile industry, it now feels like an upscale backdrop for shooting an episode of Friends (that probably dates me). Not everybody can live in Seattle or San Francisco, but our medium cities can be made to look and feel as though they were. My present near-neighbor city, Knoxville, TN, wants to be Greenville (just like it wants a winning football team).

Of course, all of this is marketed. There is not a non-commercial movement towards urbanization or metropolitan global culture. Cities (and so-called “high culture”) are sold as fashion statements. Certain locations “get hot.” There are real estate market booms. Newspapers and magazines profile the “hip” culture that is now in (pick a town). But is any of this real?

Consumer happiness is the most ephemeral thing on the planet. The “desire” for something is manufactured through various forms of advertising (including “trend setters”). And the object/experience desired is met through the magic of consumer capitalism with the result of “satisfaction,” i.e. “happy people.” The same commercial forces could initiate a campaign tomorrow in which life in the city would be vilified and disparaged. In a short time, the happiness quotient would have declined when nothing has, in fact, changed. We are (sadly) as advertised.

There are, of course, very concrete factors that fuel the movement towards urbanization. Jobs. Not every small town offers work in every field. The movement of populations throughout history has been something of a constant. It is also accompanied by vast social changes. Among the most striking consequences of modern mobility has been the disappearance of the extended family (in any practical sense). The presence of aunts, uncles, cousins, and multiple generations requires a stability that is incompatible with modern mobile populations. Natural supporting structures afforded by the extended family, if they are replaced, yield to small affinity groups, cobbled together in new places. For many, such groups never happen. When all is well (read “young and healthy”), such groups can seem unimportant. It is in the inevitable settings of suffering and sickness that their lack leaves individuals isolated and abandoned.

I have written repeatedly that we cannot change the world, that we will not “make the world a better place.” I do not suggest this out of hopelessness, but out of a reasonable facing of facts. Our culture of “democracy” lures us into thinking that we not only can change things, but that we must. The result is a great deal of frustration or delusion. In both cases, attending to changing things tends to ignore the importance of actually living. In the midst of a highly urbanized culture that celebrates its own imaginary virtues (diversity, fluidity, adaptability, etc.), the real question for a Christian is how to simply live (and to live simply).

The answer is quite old: be in the world but not of the world.

The Jews of ancient Israel found themselves in very foreign territory from time to time: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome. In all such circumstances, the question was how to be a faithful Jew. The same is true for us. How do we live as faithful Orthodox Christians? For one, we avoid, where possible, making ourselves hostage to settings in which the ability to live as a faithful Orthodox Christian is hindered. For example, why would an Orthodox Christian choose to relocate to somewhere in which attendance at liturgy might be near impossible? It happens, and sometimes there are good reasons (particularly in our American context). Career, it seems to me, should be near the bottom of the list.

How we spend our money and our time are important. How we do the “little things” of the day. Living with awareness and gratitude – not as an afterthought, but as a way of life – are essential. Modernity teaches us to avoid suffering and to maximize pleasure. The Cross teaches us that there is no goodness that is not somehow marked by suffering. We rightly reject the path of least resistance and the lure of an easy life. Our path should be marked by love (laying down our life for others) as we seek to unite ourselves to Christ in all things.

Catching grief for having unpopular opinions (such as on social media) does not constitute suffering or persecution. We should not confuse them. If possible, the suffering and persecution we endure should be on account of our actions and not our sentiments. A culture in which “Christianity” dominates because it is enforced by majority rule and action is not a mark of great virtue – it is the simple rule of the jungle in which the weak are ruled by the strong. Making Christianity stronger than other things (in such a venue) does not represent a triumph of the faith. No hearts need change for such a thing.

If we follow the way of the Cross, we should be prepared to lose – a lot. Nothing could be clearer in the teachings of Christ. If there is a deep, immediate need in the life of the Church in the modern setting, it is to create the sort of community that can model and sustain a cruciform life in its members. Celebrating the rich, the famous, sports stars and such, makes the Church little different than the world. There is a reason why canonical heroes (saints) are mostly martyrs.

When I have written about and underlined the importance of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims, it is because of their consistency with the cruciform life. That life and its virtues are acquired through small and faithful practices. If you want virtue, memorize them and practice them. 

I return to where I began. What constitutes the best place to live? Anywhere you are. God is there and never elsewhere. If the will of God takes you to another place, the best place will be there as well. What is essential in being human, particularly a human among humans, does not depend on the trends of consumption. It flows from the Cross and the Cross alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

23 comments:

  1. Thank you Father, well said as usual. You had me thinking again of Proverbs 24;21 “My son, fear the Lord and the king; Do not associate with those given to change.” Not unlike Modernism’s perverted philosophy of Progress — is seems the same likely be true of a twisted indiscriminate embrace of “Change”. Of course, the Incarnation and Resurrection changed all Creation, and the Apostle chides Timothy to let his progress be obvious to all. But we too lazy to sift through the important and salient differences. Thank you for your guidance in stirring us in the right direction.

  2. Our culture of “democracy” lures us into thinking that we not only can change things, but that we must.
    This brings to mind the “Serenity Prayer” which used to be popular. When I encountered this prayer, I wondered why “changing the things I can” should be considered a virtue. I don’t wonder any more – thanks to Fr Stephen, now I know!

  3. Oh thank you Father again for making me feel ‘normal.’ I sometimes think there is something wrong with me because I don’t consume goods the way my neighbors do! Yes, this is yet another example of why I belong in the Orthodox Church.

  4. ” the real question for a Christian is how to simply live (and to live simply).”
    Simple is good. You may not agree with this Father, but to me, the message of the Gospel is simple. Christ’s commandments are not difficult to understand…He tells us plainly what He expects of us, for our salvation. You, as well, keep driving home the same points. They are the message of the Cross. These are not hard to understand.
    But they are a challenge for us to do. The link Fr Tom’s 55 Maxims recommends to post them somewhere where you can see them often. I just did.

    Over time, I think one may find that by living simply (as the maxims describe) you begin to realize the distractions are just that…distractions. You find that you begin to see people, places and things as they really are…and it changes something inside you. Instead of ‘it is me, and them’, I am the subject and everything else, object, you begin to see a common thread. Of course that common thread is Christ Himself, the Logos, filling all things.

    Nice article, Father. The ‘simple’ caught my eye. I like simple. Could be though, maybe I’m simple to a fault…I don’t know. Maybe I’m confusing simple with ignorant. But I know that that’s not what you mean.

  5. So,
    How does maxim 48, “Do nothing for people that they can and should do for themselves”, dovetail with the admonition to not judge, or to give alms without question?

  6. Matthew,
    I would add, that I have the advantage of having known Fr. Tom. Some of the maxims (that one in particular) point to things I know about him that might not translate as well as he might have intended.

  7. As someone who grew up near Knoxville and has long since abandoned affiliation with the orange tribe, you made me laugh 🙂

  8. Living simply seems to get easier with age. No need to try and impress anyone (with all the pressure advertisements place on people to do just that!). Studies have shown that as people age they do with less…excepting health concerns. Perhaps getting shed of “things” is a way we begin to fast from the pressures of society to consume, consume. Father has pointed out that as a hospice chaplain he observed those dying “fast,” eating less and less. Finally, nothing.
    As a retired couple on a fixed-income simple living is not even something you have to plan for. It just comes. And it is freeing!

  9. I was born in Greenville, SC. I am sure it has changed a great deal in the last 71 years. Thank you Father for your so very helpful postings. I look forward to each one.

  10. I will say, concerning the article, that small towns have a certain charm that larger cities cannot match. I think the “feel” of Seattle and such places is usually intended to match the simple joy of small towns–but add “all the amenities” of consumer capitalism.

    Near the Holy Archangels Monastery in Texas is a small town called Blanco, in which I spent a night once when visiting the monastery. It was an amazingly human place and I enjoyed it immensely. I expect many here have also experienced that wonderfulness when in a small town environment. The simplicity of a human life(style) can do wonders to open the heart to God. Small things make huge differences.

    Thank you, Father, for this.

  11. I think of all the different ways of “evangelizing” when I was an evangelical. One Bible phrase that caught the attention of some was, ” When the gospel is preached to all the nations (ethne) then shall the end come.” So, this group tried to do this by the year 2,000, thus forcing Christ’s return…talk about managing! Of course there is the mega-church phenomenon, the house church, on and on. Billy Graham lamented at the end of his ministry that the US had become more ungodly during his work. Schemes, revivals, etc., are usually just human attempts at forcing God’s hand…God, we do this, then you have to do that. Can God do sudden, extraordinary works? Of course. The fall of the USSR and the rise of the church and monasticism there and the great in- gathering in Guatemala come to mind. How many martyrs, prayers of the faithful, labors, tumults and hardships occurred, as part of God’s hidden work, before these happened? Only He knows. In my own life, I have only brought folks to faith in Christ through relationships, and these usually longterm. Growth comes, but almost always through living faithfully in the daily grind, taking advantage of the situations God brings our way.
    Thank you Father for your life time of ministry. It refreshes me.

  12. Fr. Tom you have been a blessing to me though I wasn’t aware of your writings until after you had passed. One blessing is the 55 that I have read and reread; sign posts on the road I now travel. Thank Fr. Tom.

  13. Fr. Stephen,

    I bring up a side conversation that leads into your point. Byron and I follow the Granola Shotgun blog. One of the author’s recurring points is that businesses keep building the next new mall or subdivision and simply abandoning the old. He says the US can’t afford to keep doing that and will need to find uses for those former buildings – and I agree.

    But it makes me stop and wonder what makes a locale continue to exist, because really some industry, housing and retail can be thrown up anywhere and draw people solely based on the fact that it’s new and shiny. But what makes it last? A natural phenomenon? Scenery? A famous historic incident?

    Our discussion here makes me realize this answer is probably closer to the truth: Anytime people pour their life and love into something, it has lasting value. This is of course a great oversimplification, but I suspect any gathering place that has been around forever owes its existence to a population (or at least a core of it) that has decided to keep loving it and living there, thus transferring value.

  14. The gross commercialization and cultural pandering occurring in modern Protestantism has this pre-Vatican II boy turned Evangelical then Reformed taking a hard look at EO the last few years. Through much reading and conferring with those within Orthodoxy I’ve come to the conclusion I’ve found what I had looked for elsewhere, His original church- refined somewhat down through the ages. Still have questions ( don’t we all, does one ever really “arrive”? – continual growth) and must say I’ve enjoyed reading several posts thus far on the blog, Father.

    To me this is “the crux of the biscuit”(now THAT dates me) from above – “What constitutes the best place to live? Anywhere you are. God is there and never elsewhere. If the will of God takes you to another place, the best place will be there as well. “Echoing in my mind is –

    “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?If I ascend into heaven, You are there;If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.”(Psalm 139:7,8)

  15. Drewster2000, good link (For whatever reason, I do not discuss things over at that blog very well)! And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: these things are traditioned through the community from generation to generation.

    I think the great enemy of this traditioning is the throw-away focus of building now. It will not last because it cannot. It’s too cheap. It’s a shallow way of living and it strikes at the very roots of our culture.

  16. Byron,

    I agree with you concerning the throw-away society’s methods, but I take much hope in Jeff Goldblum’s scientist in Jurrasic Park when he said, “Life finds a way.” God is the author of life and when He commands it to go out and multiply, it can’t help but comply. I like Johnny’s vision of the remnants of society coming in and repurposing an old mall to be living space, complete with gardens and small businesses.

    And this touches on vision. Too often we look at the dying world, shake our heads, maybe say a prayer – and then turn and walk away like everyone else. It takes eyesight given by God to look just a bit longer and see beneath it a beating heart, simply laying dormant and waiting for someone to come love it. I love the story about how Death Valley got over 6 inches of rain a few years ago, and suddenly its bed was alive with wildflowers. Death Valley isn’t really dead.

    This is true everywhere. As Fr. Stephen’s post said, many people are chasing good places to live, when in fact life & love resides in them and simply requires them to stay in one place long enough to put down roots and invest. That process is work and is not sexy. But it is the path forward that God’s given us, the path to true life.

  17. John,
    Thanks for sharing your update! It is uplifting to read. You hang on to hope and your faithfulness shows its fruits.
    I think in our journey, God sets His path before us. It’s all providential. We can’t see it, or even imagine it. All we need to do is say ‘yes’. And you did. That is faith/hope put into action.
    And yes, I agree with you that we continue growing…like a continuous arriving!

    John, if you don’t mind me asking, are you the ‘John’ who mentioned to Father Stephen a while back that you’d be in his area and would like to meet for coffee? I ask because Father said he had been inquiring about Orthodoxy as well.

  18. Hello again Paula, and thank you for the encouragement. No, unfortunately I’m not that ‘John ‘ , won’t be in his neck of the woods anytime soon. But I’ll take a raincheck on that coffee 🙂
    Orthodoxy for me has become that “pearl of great price” , pray for me. Blessings….

  19. Thanks John for taking the time to address my curiosity! Nevertheless, I am very glad for you and I sure do understand ‘the pearl’!
    You have my prayers, John. Pray for me as well.

  20. Will do Paula. As you have done to differentiate yourself from other “Paulas” by adding your (I take it) state as a suffix, I’ll do the same as “John” is common , with PA as a suffix. Have a blessed day.

Leave a Reply

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