Living Large – And Long

Modernity is in love with time – or with a certain version of time. That version goes under the heading of the “future” and is married to notions of “progress,” “change,” “advancement,” and the like. It is inherently a version of time that appeals to those who are young, in that it privileges the future with promises of dreams and possibilities. Whatever troubles the present can be fixed (we are told). The future is everything. It also has the advantage of not existing – it has no track record to defend. Whatever we may think of the past, be it blame or praise, it can make the singular claim to have actually happened. The past not only took place but cumulatively is gathered in what we experience as the present. As William Faulkner famously noted, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

Over the years, I have enjoyed hiking here in the Tennessee mountains. This part of the state has a bedrock formation of limestone. It is the reason why the state has a number of famous caves: limestone can “leech” out and leave gaping caverns. I am also aware as I walk that the limestone beneath my feet was an ancient seabed. Limestone is largely composed of calcite, which, in turn, is mostly deposited from the discarded shells of sea creatures. It takes millions of years and the pressure of tons of water for those shells to become the rock beneath my feet. Some of the rocks have, over time, been lifted and tossed about by the movement of the earth’s crust, forming the local mountains. Rivers, wind, and rain have carved all of this into the various valleys that mark the region. All of this, of course, is history that took place long before any human being lived here. Geologists “read” that past on the stone that lies around us. It is arrogant in the extreme to assume that our small life-paths across this once-upon-a-time seabed are of greater significance than the mountains and the hills that have witnessed the whole of human history as the come-but-lately that it is.

Human beings matter greatly, and I think it is right that we confess ourselves to be the crown of God’s creation. Nevertheless, we do not exist apart from creation. St. Maximus called us the “microcosm” of creation (“the whole world in miniature”). But this is also to say that we cannot be truly human without at the same time being everything else. In the Creation story, human beings are created last of all, and that seems to be true even when science is the story-teller. To be truly and fully human, it is right that we know the story of the past (or some of them), and recognize that we are utterly indebted to them and that we exist only as the current temporary bearers of their lives and sacrifices.

Though we are not called to “live in the past,” we are most surely called to understand that the past lives in us. The fullness of existence is not measured by the intensity of the single point that is our own private moment, rather it is measured by the extension of our being to encompass the world around us, both in the present and as the present gathers the past into itself.

Popular culture suggests that we should “live large,” by which a hedonistic lifestyle is touted as the most desirable way of being. There is, instead, a “largeness” that refers to the enlargement of the heart by which our life is lived, not as an end in itself, but as but one moment of vast sweep of all time. The virtues which mark such a manner of living are straightforward: love, patience, kindness, humility, and gratitude.

This manner of life can also be described as a “traditioned” existence. It is the recognition that what he have has been given to us. We are not creatures of our own invention. Everything from the “stuff” we are made of to the words we use for our thoughts and the cultural waters in which we swim are given to us. We might very well complain about various details in this inheritance, but we can only do so by using the inheritance itself.

This past-in-present manner of life is normative for Orthodoxy. There is nothing within our modern world that makes the traditioned theology of the Church obsolete. Indeed, it is often far better equipped to speak to many of our contemporary problems than the popular nostrums of our time. It requires, however, a learning that stretches back through time and even languages in order to speak in the largeness that is traditional theology.

The virtues of a “larger” life – love, patience, kindness, humility and gratitude – are, I think, consistent with a slower life. We frequently “rush” about in our world in order to meet the demands of an unforgiving market, or simply to keep pace with the madness that surrounds us. I should note that, although a larger existence is inherently more conservative (being cognizant of the past) it is also patient and kind. The present so-called “culture wars,” regardless of whether the voices are from the Left or the Right, are anxious and shrill, driven by their own inherent insecurity (and the inherent insecurity of modernity itself). Those who live a larger, deeper existence, understand that the past cannot be destroyed. It abides. That which is good within it abides, even if it is interrupted for a season of madness. It abides because that which is good in it is also that which is true. The truth wins out over time because it is true. It is its own argument. The momentary conflicts of our politicized social life cannot give us truth – only the ascendancy of a few minutes.

Slow down. Live long and deep. Drink from the wells God has dug for us.

46 comments:

  1. A question about the Christian perspective of time, raised in my mind at the funeral of a Methodist friend and answered unsatisfactorily by the minister afterward, led me to your blog.
    This was my introduction to Orthodoxy (after leaving behind the Presbyterianism of my youth). I downloaded your book and read it in one sitting.
    And now, I am Orthodox!
    I bring this up only to say thank you, and glory to God for all things!

  2. Thanks, Father! This is timely: I am currently reading John Zizioulas on man as ‘priests of creation’ and this fits.

  3. Father bless,

    Love this post, especially “Slow down. Live long and deep. Drink from the wells God has dug for us.”

    In Christ,

  4. Diana,
    I think my age shows in posts like these. I have slowed down considerably. At a certain point in life, you primarily live “in the rear-view mirror.” The young tend to look towards the windshield and see things coming at them very fast. When you look in the mirror, things recede at a much slower pace. It is interesting (to me) that interest in geneaology seems to increase with aging. There are not questions of, “Who will I be someday?” but “Who have I been and how did I get here?”

    Our nation, it seems to me, suffers greatly because of its windshield fetish. That the Orthodox faithful gather weekly to be told about ancient things and taught be those lessons is significant. So is the slow, daily pace of our monasteries. The fact that some of monasteries have been in continual existence for 1500 years (like St. Catherine’s or St. Sabbas’) is truly important.

    God give us grace!

  5. Father, as a student of history it does not take much to see the violence against God, man and the rest of Creation that the myth of Progress has propagated. William Faulkner’s work was built upon the idea that the past is always present. Good historians have always realized that.
    Modern cultural anthroplogists and environmentalists have begun to question the myth of Progress, though they largely do it through the lens of modernity which creates a internal conflict that cannot be resolved except by more destruction.
    The Way of Christ: thanksgiving, repentance, obedience, worship and service is not touched upon.

    I sometimes think that the Myth of Progress is founded upon the ancient myth of Prometheus that we have to steal fire from the gods.

    Jesus used my life experience to lead me ever closer to Himself. That is an eternal reality and is true for each and every human being. He draws all things to Himself. Most of the time I spent resisting His lead. He still persists in giving His Life. His mercy endures forever and is present throughout all and in each of us. Especially when we need it most. Closer than hands and feet.

    Glory to Him.

  6. The older you get, the more you slow down, yet ironically the more childlike you are as you drink deep of the grace of God. Thank you for a refreshing post, Father!

  7. Michael,
    The modern myth of progress is demonstrably derived from a perversion of Christian theology – as such, it can be described as a “heresy.” It was invented by Christians (as was the notion of the “secular”).

  8. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/173934640/catherine-wasa-bigby
    I believe she prays for me, and I pray for her. She is my 5th great grandmother and the mother of Jennie Taylor who was one of the very first students at Candy’s Creek Mission School, and wife of Andrew Taylor who just had a city park dedicated to him last November in Cleveland, Tennessee. With money won from a lawsuit against the US government and disappeared never to be seen again. You also learn to bear ” a little shame” when you study geneology. I’ve certainly got some relatives who are notorious for their deeds both good and evil. Actually studying geneology has helped me to see that I am the worst of all sinners,
    You have 64 sets of 5th great grandparents , 32 sets of 4th great grandparents, and 16 sets of 3rd great grandparents and most of these people were all living within a few hundred miles of Tellico Plains on September 7, 1938, as all 4 of my grandparents were descendants of pre-revolutionary Americans. I can’t wait to see Catherine and James.

  9. The reason the past is so important is this

    He loved you first

    Created you to love Him

    But first to know Him

    To then discover who you are.

    His creation and if baptized, His child

    Rest then in your loving Father’s arms

  10. Father, are you familiar with the writings of Paul Kingsnorth, especially on his blog, The Abbey of Misrule? He was recently received into the Church and describes himself as a “recovering environmentalist” coming out of the Green movement. I have found few writers as critical of both the Right and Left as you both are, especially while at the same time calling us back to the Classical Christian way of seeing reality and interacting with the wrold. He did a great interview with Jonathan Pageau this last spring, which you can find here and read some of his thoughts on: https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/intermission-the-empty-throne

    His writings focus more on “how we got here” which I think is appropriate as that’s more of his field of study. For me, reading your blog is more like reading how to live faithfully with where we are. Your blogs complement one another very well.

  11. Father, yes indeed. It was invented by Christians who for the most part were ready in heresy or apostate but the spirit of rebellion is as old as Adam.

    I love Henry Adams take on it in his essay “The Law of Phase as Applied to History.” Intriguingly he calls the time before “progress” was invented as The Age of Mary. He also predicted that without artificial limits to technology, we would destroy ourselves. But even in that he ignores the true source of our nature and the real cure. He was still too influenced by Protestant teleology and anthropology even as he saw them as inadequate.
    Actually, I have hope that the repentance required to heal will occur. 2 Chronicles 7:14 makes that hope Biblical.

  12. Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this post. I encountered the following at the conclusion: “Those who live a larger, deeper existence, understand that the past cannot be destroyed. It abides. That which is good within it abides, even if it is interrupted for a season of madness. It abides because that which is good in it is also that which is true. The truth wins out over time because it is true. It is its own argument. The momentary conflicts of our politicized social life cannot give us truth – only the ascendancy of a few minutes.”

    In the words “It is its own argument” – I read “truth is its own witness/testimony”. Do I have this correct?

    Thank you again!

  13. Father would you comment on the difference between progress and the transformation wrought by God in a life dedicated to Him. It seems to me they are often confused but are not the same at all.

  14. Michael, I’m not attempting to answer your last question, but one thought that popped into my head that may suggest a way to distinguish between progress and transformation are the words of the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

  15. Athanasios,
    That rings true to me. Those seeking spiritual “progress” would likely not be satisfied by that answer. At least I would not when I was seeking progress. Thank you.

  16. Michael,
    It’s always possible, if people nuance the terms sufficiently, that we could speak of “progress” in the spiritual life. I however think that it’s wrong to use the term in that modernity basically “owns” it.

    It’s also difficult to describe “progress” spiritually without imagining at the same time that we actually know enough to make such a judgment. We do not. If, for example, I compared my spiritual life now, at nearly 68 years old, to my life at 19, they are certainly different. But why should they be similar? Also, I cannot judge my 67 year old-life by what would have been “ok” at 19.

    Progress is largely a marketing term to sell us on supporting Pharoah’s various projects. It’s a myth, and mostly a lie.

    Of course, I remind people that I am not denigrating technology or science – only the myth of progress. Though, I will add that much of what is called “progress” in technology and science is nothing of the sort – but only a tweak for which more money can be charged.

  17. Much of so called progress has been driven by war. More efficient means of killing and paradoxically advances in surgery. I read once that a certain company that made land mines, also made prosthetic limbs.
    I often wonder why throughout history people have believed in the delusions of leaders and willingly go out and kill for them? Gangsters one and all. Great Britain as it was once called , was one of the biggest drug dealing gangs in the world. They called them empires in those days.

  18. Father Stephen,

    How would you suggest a still young(ish) person – mid thirties – take the slow, virtues of the enlarged heart, rear view mirror approach to pertinent questions that are flying at them from the windshield?
    Questions such as looking for marriage/family, financial and job security, dealing with various implications of childhood home trauma.

    Sometimes the practical focus on these questions seems like succumbing to the myth of ‘progress’, though I believe it doesn’t necessarily have to.

    How can you live the slow life while having to still deal with these large questions?

  19. Stamatis,
    I daresay that the answer to your question is difficult. The immediacy we feel from such pressing matters (marriage/family, finance, job security, childhood trauma, etc.) easily push other things aside. They also come with the alluring thought that if these matters were settled to our satisfaction, we would be happy, stable, etc. Few things are as frustrating and difficult as wanting marriage and family and not finding it. It easily comes with shaming messages (from all kinds of sources, including ourselves) that sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies.

    The great difficulty in the answer to the question is that it’s primarily found in our willingness to entrust our life (and our world) to God’s providence. God is working in and through all things for our good. That this is true is, I think, bound up in the mystery of the Cross. St. Maximus said that “whoever understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.”

    My personal experience with this has always pointed me back to the singular love of God. It is similar to the words sometimes spoken in romantic settings: “If I only have you, I have everything!” Somehow, we’re not shocked by such a statement in romantic movie, and even find our hearts agreeing. But this is probably only true when spoken to God. The singular purpose of our life is God Himself – He is the “good” that our heart truly seeks (when it’s not diverted by its wounds and such).

    With age, perhaps, this becomes easier because you see ever more clearly that everything you have that you have valued more than God is slowly falling away. When at last I lay down die, none of those things will matter. Then it will be only God. Or, all those things will matter and I will die in anger and fear and sadness.

    So, for the immediate present, I think it is good to pray honestly with God. If you do not love Him above all things, be honest about it, and ask for the grace that would make it possible. Pray for the grace of a good life whether or not any of those desires or dreams come to pass.

    If all of those things came to pass, let’s say, six months ago, the next hour of your life would still look as it does now. Our grief, I think, comes from looking at the picture of what we do not have (which is largely imaginary since we almost never imagine the difficulties that would accompany it).

    Lastly, to any degree possible, even the least, work at giving thanks for all things.

  20. As I find often, looking up the root of a word brings additional insite. In this case: modern seems straight forward from the Late Latin modernus meaning “of the present time”. But an earlier Latin root modo means ” acting in a certain way”.
    There is a Christian way of doing things that is contra the world. It is neither as arcane nor as difficult as is often believed. But it involves the inner person as well as the outer. It requires commitment, direction and grace to accomplish.
    All are available.
    The joy that comes is sufficient to sustain one through the initial stages but as the Fathers make clear, it is a battle. Nevertheless God is with us no matter how it seems.

  21. Stamatis,
    what ever we do in life will cost us something. We can’t have our ‘cake and eat it,’ as the world would have us believe. There is no ‘and they lived happily ever after.’
    Without getting into the details, I set out to pursue one way of life and ended up living another way of life. It came to a choice, both of which were compatible with being a disciple of Jesus Christ, but also a lot of pain in letting go of one or the other.
    It’s hard to just be patient, to pray and to trust that God has everything in hand.

  22. Indeed Michael,
    It is a battle. How often, however, I perceive the battle to be against others. This is what we are inculcated to believe, especially in this period in the US. The “other” is a contrivance made for making divisions. I believe we are taught ,as Orthodox Christians, to perceive the ‘real’ battle is within. And indeed, as you say, God is with us to help us.

    Father, sometimes I feel so embattled, I’m not looking forward or backward. I’m just “in the mix” of a storm. In such situations, it seems that to urge one’s own heart to look to God and to give glory and thanks to Him for all things is quite difficult. But when I have managed it, the clouds of my heart and mind begin to thin.

    Thank you for your ministry, dear Father.

  23. Dee, a key for me is to remember that I cannot do it. I live by the Grace of God and His mercy. A new found reality for me. I am a slow learner.

  24. Andrew,

    Really appreciate your comment.
    It’s helpful for me to consider my situation in terms of choices – any of which are compatible with being a disciple of Christ. The crux of the matter then is, what is it going to cost? Thank you!
    This was a final piece of the puzzle as I considered Father’s reply. A lot of clouds have been dispersed.

    May our Lord bless you!

  25. Thank you Stamatis. I read in Elder Paisios the Athonite; ‘some people are born to be monks, some people are born to be married and there are some people who could be either monks or get married.’
    Whatever the future holds for you, may the Lord bless you and draw you closer to Himself

  26. I know three men who illustrate, in part what you say Andrew. 1. A former parish priest whose wife reposed after a long marriage. After a time, he requested the tonsure and is now a monk. 2. A young man who was ordained and serving as a parish priest with his wife and young children. His wife died tragically. He spent a year deciding whether to continue in the priest but decided to be laicized so as to better take care of his children. He has since remarried. 3. A man in the middle whose children were grown when h8s wife died of cancer. He has chosen to remain in the priesthood as a celibate. It is a struggle for him daily in some ways.

    Modernity scorns each of them.

    My brother was born to be a priest, no doubt Even in high school he had that ‘something’ that set him apart. One son-in-law is in seminary with my equally dedicated niece. His other daughter is married and has a son. I know them the best. It is clear to me that each one is where they are supposed to be.

    Each is bearing witness to Jesus Christ in their lives. That is the key. Jesus will guide those who seek His Face. That is the choice. The rest is obedience. Struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil will always be present as Jesus in the Garden shows us. But victory through the Cross is assured too, if we are faithful.

  27. Michael, Andrew, Stamatis,
    Only when we find God to be the single great thing, the center of our life and being, will other things in our lives be truly fulfilling. When Christ is not central, then things such as marriage, jobs, children, etc., turn to dust and ashes over time. They do not satisfy (indeed, apart from Christ, they easily become centers of anxiety).

  28. Amen, my dear wife, Merry, is out of surgery rehab and home now. While she was there, she befriended the young man next door who was nearly paralyzed. She prayed with him. Although he had not heard if the Orthodox Church, he wants to attend with us when he is able. When she first said hello to him he was not sure if she was human– she was so bright. She simply says “I have been working for Him all of my life”. She makes our married life wonderful But until she met me, she had not heard of the Orthodox Church either.

  29. Michael,
    I hope your wife’s healing continues apace. The people you have illustrated in your post, has shown that circumstances can an do change and difficult choices at times have to be made and the only constant that does not change is the Lord; the same yesterday, today and forever.

  30. Fr. Stephen,
    you are so right. If God is not at the centre all else is not as it should be.

  31. Andrew, thank you. She always makes a shambles of any rehab schedule. She is determined, has a high pain thresh hold and an indomitable faith.

  32. Michael,
    a wife of deep Christian Faith is a rare and precious gift. The Lord bless you both.

  33. Father,
    What is the image of this picture you have used for this article? The room looks old and appears to reflect your thoughts on “living large and long”.

  34. Dee,
    My thoughts at the time were to pick a pick of an abandoned house…this one came up in my search. It represents, on the one hand, our tendency to abandon the past (the classical suburban sprawl often left parts of cities abandoned). It also reminded me of “things past” that we must still carry within us.

  35. Dee, my wife and I had a joyful memory of you last night. We were watching a TV show in which the main protagonist was a scientist who had devoted his life to finding and studying the Higgs boson. He, somehow, had come to think that “everything” in the universe was rationally explainable”. He wanted an experience he could not explain.
    Our thoughts went to you and how wonderful is our God. It kinda blew the whole premise of the show, but that was OK.

  36. I’m so delighted you two thought of me in the moment! I haven’t seen the show you might be referring to and hope it was interesting! Indeed our Lord is merciful regarding His lost sheep!

    Dear Father, It does seem that we abandon the past, in the same manner that we throw so many “things” away in the trash. Or we hold onto things and bury them in some sort of closet–out of mind and out of heart (or so we might think). It also reminded me of an old recurring nightmare that I used to have, where I was lost in an old abandoned house. Your response @ September 2, 2021 at 12:22 pm, to Michael, Andrew and Stamatis, is quite true, and is the antidote to such feelings of anxiety.

    I probably sound like an old “broken record” (I hear vinyl is coming back into vogue), but once again I must thank God for your ministry.

  37. Thanks, this is beautiful. I responded recently to a friend’s blog where she asked people to give their own definition of “resilience.” I kind of wrote myself into a response because I realized that I have never exactly defined in words what I think resilience is, though I feel it’s presence or absence. But the place I got to is similar to what you describe here, I think: while we always perceive “good” and “bad” in every situation, the good outlasts the bad and has more power over time. But it operates in its own way, maybe not exactly as we would predict or expect. And then resilience is not something we do alone: that is not a realistic expectation of anybody. I was thinking of the people around us in the moment as part of resilience, but of course the past matters too; the past is part of community. Maybe I will come back to this thought and do some more writing on it.

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