When Belief Is Complicated

“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…

 

39 comments:

  1. There is “belief” suddenly and/or slowly, based on experience. “Faith”, to me, is when belief is sustained.

  2. My cousin (once removed) and her husband began hiking the Appalachian Trail at the beginning of this month, posting almost daily short videos of the long walk. So many of the decisions you recommend here are made for you, after you make that first one, to actually do it.

  3. Thanks for this Father Stephen. Can it be that, in the light of the social media “bubble”, we can add to “Whose Justice, Which Rationality?” the statement that puts an end to any respectful dialogue, “Whose Facts”?

  4. “The truth of the modern inner-world is that it is generally pulled in many directions.”

    True, real prayer for me is very difficult as a result of this. I find myself constantly struggling to be attentive in prayer. And sometimes I end up frustrated if I fail or exhausted if I manage in my struggle to remain in God’s presence.

    May God help us.

  5. Dee,
    Father has come to the nub of the whole thing here, in my no doubt shaky understanding – and that is simplicity and quiet.

    It seems to me that it’s not about what we do or how we struggle – we are obviously in God’s presence (like it or not!), but we need to simplify and simmer down if we are to realize it. We don’t need to manage it or engineer it (indeed, we can’t), we need to allow it. “If the surface is disturbed, the objects disappear. The objects do not go away – but we can no longer perceive them.” This is a beautiful way of expressing the (what seems to me) obvious fact. All of us need to find more quiet and calm. But the excuses are many and ready to hand…

  6. In the agitation that often marks our inner life, stillness is hard to come by – and – as a result, we spend time not “with ourself” but with our anxiety, thoughts, worries, theories, desires, etc. Too often we are strangers to ourselves.

    Fr. Thomas Hopko suggested that we spend at least a half-hour a day just being quiet.

    I remember some years back when I was having a heart attack. I was in the hospital, lying on a table while they performed a heart cath and put a stint in place. They asked me if I wanted anything to sort of “chill out.” I told them know – that I had work to do. By that, I meant I wanted to be quiet and pray with a clear mind. I’ve known of people “coding” during the procedure and I thought my time was best spent in prayer.

    I recall it all quite vividly because all anxiety had disappeared. Many things that seemed important just a couple of hours before seemed of no consequence. It was clarifying. I recall the experience from time to time to remind myself what’s important – because that moment will come again (in some version). And, in fact, it is every moment. “If you die before you die, then you won’t have to die when you die,” they say on the Holy Mountain.

  7. Thank you so much Father. I’m Canadian and our country has been in turmoil. Now the war in Ukraine. Life seems so complicated and anxious.
    I needed this list and can’t believe it’s there to read tonight. Thank you.

  8. Dear Fr, this is SO needed in our world, Lord Have Mercy. Right before Great Lent too! Thank you.

  9. Oh my this whole blog is so thought provoking; I feel like I could write a page about every paragraph!

    For the purpose of a brief comment I’ll stick to this quote:
    “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.”

    Over the past year or so I’ve been coming to understand anxiety (in part, at least) as a misdirection of will. It’s like I have a habit of desperately trying to control certain realities with my thoughts, even though that is crazy and impossible.

    I don’t ride the real bus much anymore but I remain grateful I got off the virtual bus at this blog, however it happened!

  10. I saw a T shirt with the answer to the disturbances of the world. It claimed to be the beginning of the road of inner stillness. It had a phrase to live by: “Not my Problem.” This ability to discern does indeed lead to a quieter heart and mind..

  11. I was recently listening to Neil Postman’s book Technopoly, and one thing he said struck me forcefully, especially as I was already planning how I might cut out unnecessary “stuff” in my life, such as books I “need” to read. He was talking about how in this technological age, an overwhelming amount of information comes at us in many forms and from all directions, and is basically garbage.

    Garbage is the word that shocked me, but resonated with how I have been feeling, as I prepare for Lent. I realized that if it’s something I have no use for, if it’s more than I need, if it’s “bad” for me, or something I don’t want because it is ugly or rotten — all of those things might make me classify a thing as garbage and put it far from me. As you wrote, “… more information is not a solution. Less noise and a quiet mind are more to the point.” And if God thinks I need certain information, He can get it to me somehow.

    Thank you, Father! This message is getting through by various means. May Lent help us to walk in that singleness of heart and mind.

  12. Mr. Griswold, forgive me, but I do not really understand how “Not my problem” leads to inner stillness. When I have tried to adopt that stance in my life, the noise seemed to grow exponentially louder.
    The Cross suggests the opposite to me. Our human interconnectedness with God, each other and the whole of creation is such that it is my problem because sin is my problem. When Adam and Eve fell, all of Creation fell.
    Now , I can only repent of my own sins including how I respond to others , but I am not disconnected.

  13. God grant me the serenity
    To accept the things I cannot change;
    Courage to change the things I can;
    And wisdom to know the difference.
    Living one day at a time;
    Enjoying one moment at a time;
    Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
    Taking, as He did, this sinful world
    As it is, not as I would have it;
    Trusting that He will make things right
    If I surrender to His Will;
    So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
    And supremely happy with Him
    Forever and ever in the next.
    Amen.

    Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr

  14. Father,
    I must say that you certainly have a knack for choosing good and iconic pictures with your blog posts.
    In a previous post of this article was a picture in mainly dark sepia-grey tones, with a very red bus in London. It depicts the singular-unexpected event that C.S. Lewis experienced, in a rather mundane even sorrowful or depressing context.

    This time the picture is in a grey (black and white photo) tone and in the midst is a very red umbrella. It reminds me so much of our prayers to the Theotokos, to protect us under her veil. So often she is seen in her icons to hold the infant Jesus in her arms, her red veil creating a shelter for both.

    Thank you for your article, Father, and for this picture for contemplation.

    Most Holy Theotokos, Save us.

  15. So very very true, Fr. Stephen, thank you for once again putting into words a truth I know but have a hard time articulating. The worse my health has gotten, the less important everything happening in this world seems. Even this current conflict in Russia/Ukraine is not something I want to try to read about or understand. Not because I don’t care, but because my own understanding will not actually change anything. I feel my time is better spent reading scripture or praying. I just finished the 5-volume series on Revelation by the holy elder Athanasios Mitilinaios and that felt like a very worthwhile “read,” as it helped me to gain a deeper understanding of what it truly means to be an Orthodox Christian. I also find myself being more and more attracted to just picking up the Book of Psalms and reading from wherever I left off. It’s like a continually flowing river that I can step into at any moment to be cleansed and refreshed, while also feeling like an old “friend,” or an old familiar “story” that brings comfort amidst all the chaos. It’s hard to explain.

  16. I may be quite wrong, but I find at least three levels of the approach to inner simplification: 1. Sullen withdrawal and silent acquiescence to “the world”. Of course this is not faith at all but can be mistaken for it at times; 2. A quietness that is hopeful of something else but dare not hope too much; and 3. An inward recognition and acceptance of the reality of the Risen Christ and His profound mercy regardless of the outward appearance or the machinations of my own body/brain pain and confusion.

  17. Well, I’m Romanian. I met Ukrainians on my way to church on Sunday. There is war happening about a hundred km away from the nearest Romanian town. Stillness of heart is not about saying “not my problem”. It makes me see once again what I’ve always known to be true. Tragedy is real only when it happens to you or when you can see it, touch it and smell it. The story the Internet has been telling us that it is an instrument to connect the world are just stories. People read about it or watch videos, but it’s just fiction if it happens elsewhere.
    I think stillness of heart is not about saying it is not my problem, it is about saying it is all my problem, I am the problem, about helping when you can and praying for those who suffer when it’s the only thing we can do. Praying is real help. It’s also about praying for those who suffer and those who cause suffering with an undivided heart. It should be easier than ever for us to do so.
    În the words of St Isaac:
    “Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others. Be crucified, but do not crucify others. Be slandered, but do not slander others. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity. Suffer with the sick. Be afflicted with sinners. Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly. Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them. And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.”

    Such is the sign of a still heart.

  18. THE chirps of a bird, the rustling of leaves in the breeze, these make up the silence of nature, well known to hermits and hesychasts as the ambience in which the unblemished Glory and unadulterated Truth of God is found.

  19. “Once in a while, you get shown the light
    In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
    ~Scarlet Begonias by the Grateful Dead

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