In honor of the canonization of Elder Paisios, we are offering a Raising Saints episode on some of the Saint’s wise words on Progress.
I stumbled across some really interesting words from Elder Paisios that I’d like to share with you. He was talking about technology, and there is, of course, a lot of interest in the problems of technology — but he has an unexpected take that I enjoyed and maybe you will too.
In a world where rapidly advancing technology is a constant fascination, you see a lot of concern from the Orthodox community that these innovations are not good for us.
You might say that Orthodoxy really stands out today in America because we have no interest in innovation. We’re not looking for new ways to embrace God – we look to the spiritual giants of our history, the Apostles, the early Church Fathers and the desert Fathers, and we try to immerse ourselves in the means that they used to commune with God.
Some people might say that Orthodoxy is fascinated with the past, instead of the future — although I think it’s far more true to say that we are witnesses to the Kingdom, which exists outside of time. At our best, we are looking to Christ, looking to the coming of the Kingdom. We’re not looking to reinvent the way we worship or the way we think.
Our Western culture, however, loves progress. We are constantly working on medical breakthroughs and better, faster, smaller technology. We embrace progress with sometimes hardly a thought about the long-term consequences of that progress. Smartphones for instance, have been eagerly adopted, but the jury’s still out on whether they’re really an improvement.
Interestingly, at some of the Oratorical Festivals I’ve been attending lately, teens responding to topics about being an Orthodox Christian in the 21st century, seem less concerned with drugs or sex or secularism, but instead they seem to agree that the most difficult and pervasive temptation they’re facing is technology. Let me say that again — when we give the kids the topic of what’s hard about being an Orthodox Christian in the 21st century, they aren’t worried about sex, drugs or rock n roll, they aren’t concerned about secularism, they’re worried about technology.
They know that there’s something insidious and addictive about those smartphones, and they’re concerned. And they should be. Because for better or worse, the digital age is here to stay, and like any tools, smartphones and social media can be used for good or for evil.
The same technology that delivers this podcast and streams live divine liturgy services also delivers internet pornography; the social media that keeps us connected and helps us share beautiful articles on the meaning of life and images of icons from around the globe, also facilitates cyber bullying and sucks lonely people into ever more isolation.
We have all seen the mass murderers whose childhood was filled with endless hours of first person shooter games, and we know that this kind of technology is training people’s brains to enjoy the rush of that power they feel when they dominate and destroy others. We don’t ask ourselves whether it makes sense to train our children’s brains like this, we just create ever more realistic and violent games.
This is nothing new. We are already very aware that this digital age offers technology that can be a tool for spreading the faith, or become distractions that suck up all of a person’s beautiful lifetime on this earth — God gives us so many years to repent and to grow, and we can spend them totally immersed in technology, completing missing out on the opportunity God has created for us.
But modern progress encompasses a lot more than just smartphones and social media — our worldview is so different than it was a few hundred years ago. We’re more familiar with telephone repairmen and grocery store employees than with farmers and shepherds.
So much of the language of our church, of our holy scriptures and indeed the words of Christ Himself uses, revolve around images that no longer resonate for us.
For instance, ‘lamb of God’.
Surely this phrase means something more to people who have raised livestock, who have watched a mother ewe give birth a sweet baby lamb, who have seen it frolic and play and who have grown fond of the dear little thing, and then when Pascha came, they saw the sweet lamb sacrificed for the feast. To raise up a lamb and then sacrifice it — this is a hard thing, but for most of us modern folk, it’s entirely theoretical.
We can teach each other about what sacrifice is and we can talk about how people must find lambs really cute, but it’s a different thing to have lived it, and to have that experience written on your soul. When people who have raised sheep all their lives hear that phrase, the surface meaning resonates with their recollections of childhood grief and sad resignation. It just means more to them.
When Christ tells us that He will separate the sheep from the goats, we understand that sheep and goats are different species. But it will take a friend like my friend Gwen, to fill us in on the inside information that in fact, sheep will listen to their shepherd and goats will not. Sheep follow, goats wander. What’s more, if your sheep are mixed in with goats, there’s going to be a problem. That’s right — there’s a reason to separate sheep and goats! Christ’s judgement is not some bizarre, arbitrary thing – it’s totally necessary and right, as sheep must be kept separate from goats. You see, the goats love to roam and they can climb right up the craggiest mountain rocks, but the sheep are followers by nature, and they will follow those goats right up that craggy rock. They’ll follow the goats anywhere, but sheep are not goats, and sheep cannot safely traverse craggy mountain rocks, so they get stuck and they fall and they are in great danger when they follow those goats. Sheep, innocent followers by nature, must be kept away from bad influences so that they won’t find themselves stranded in the rocks. And when they are, when they wander astray and follow those bad influences, they have to be rescued by their good shepherd who must come looking for them and carry them safely home across his strong shoulders. When Christ tells you that He’s the good shepherd, that means something if you know what it means to spend the night seeking your lost sheep.
When our Scriptures talk about how David began as a shepherd, how angels came to the shepherds in the fields to announce the birth of Christ, we have to remind ourselves that shepherds are poor, and they’re literally living on the margins of society — they take their flocks out to the countryside and sit alone all day watching over them. They miss out on the hustle and bustle of town, on the day’s gossip and the charms of the local girls. They’re not sophisticated or educated; they’re poor bumpkins, always out of the loop and always on the margins, because they spend their time alone with their sheep in distant pastures. Rather than being in the marketplace with all of its excitement and social interaction, they’re out in the country, shepherding.
They watch over their charges, growing to love the sweet animals that obey them and assemble peacefully. Sheep are gentle, sweet animals, and the shepherd protects them them from the wolves and the fierce predators that threaten them. The sheep know their shepherd’s voice and they trust him and love him.
When Christ Himself, the King of Kings, identifies with those shepherds, that resonates with people who know that a shepherd loves his sheep even though they aren’t his equals; he takes care of them and loves them, keeps company with them, even though they didn’t earn it. When the King of Kings identifies with the slow, dumb, poor country boy, that means something.
But we have to teach our kids that shepherds are poor and humble, that’s intellectually collected information, because it’s just not part of our life experience here. And that’s too bad — because the Scriptures resonate through personal experience, if you share that experience. They resonate a little less for us, they’re just a little bit lost in translation.
So when I stumbled across the title, “Elder Paisios on Technology”, I was ready to hear about shepherds and cell phones, but it turns out that he had something else to say — something totally different and maybe not on our radar right now, but it’s nevertheless fascinating. First, he says that:
Even Hearts Have Turned Into Steel…
Because modern conveniences have exceeded all bounds, they have become inconveniences. Machines have multiplied and so have distractions; man has been turned into a machine. All kinds of machines and inventions now rule over man. This is why human hearts too are turning into steel. All of these modern comforts make the cultivation of conscience in people difficult. In the old days, people used to work with animals and were more compassionate. If you overloaded an animal and the poor thing kneeled down from the weight, you felt bad for it. If it was hungry and looked at you sniveling, it broke your heart. I remember, when a cow of ours fell ill, we suffered with it, because we considered it a member of the family. Today people own lots of devices made of steel, but, unfortunately, even their own heart have turned into steel.
Is the equipment broke? It is welded together. Is the car not running? It is taken to the repair shop. If it cannot be fixed, they throw it away; they have no feelings for it. After all, it’s just a piece of iron. The heart does not take part in these decisions, and this is how selfishness and pride find fertile ground and take root.
We used to accomplish our work with beasts of burden who suffered.
Indeed, in the Church, we understand that when man fell, he took all of creation with him — including all of the animals, who struggle against disease and weakness and death right alongside us. The animals did not struggle until we fell — we dragged them into this misery, because we’re their stewards.
But we aren’t all relying on animals as we used to, so we aren’t having this experience of loving our tools, so that when they are pushed too far or having a rough day, we might take pity on them. If your mule is exhausted in the heat, you might show him love by letting him rest. If your iPhone overheats, do you answer that with love? If your smartphone stops working every time you’ve put in a few hours of plowing, you’ll just throw it away. Our technology doesn’t awaken love and compassion and stewardship. This whole aspect of our personality that might have been developed by stewarding the animals that accomplished our work and filled our dinner tables is now underdeveloped. And I don’t think we’re even aware of the loss.
OK, now here’s another example of progress: the refrigerator. Could there be a downside to preserving our food and protecting ourselves from rot and mildew? Well, yeah, according to Elder Paisios:
Today, we have so little consideration for our fellow human beings. In the old days, if there was any leftover food, people would find someone that needed it and would give it away before it spoiled. A spiritually advanced person would even say, “Let the poor person eat first and I will eat later.” Nowadays, people put the food in the refrigerator and don’t even think of those in need. I remember, whenever we had a good yield of vegetables or fruit, we would always share it with our neighbors. What could we do with all that produce? It would spoil anyway. Now that we have refrigerators people think to themselves, “Why, share it with others? We’ll put it in the fridge and keep it for ourselves.” And I will not even mention the tons of produce we throw away or bury in landfills, while millions of people in other parts of the world are starving to death.
What an idea — our ability to refrigerate food means that rather than offer that food to someone less fortunate lest it go bad, we can simply wrap it up and keep it for ourselves. Lord, have mercy. Generations of people shared their food with others, and now we plastic wrap our food and eat it as leftovers. No wonder we’re a mess.
Elder Paisios says that,
In secular life, excessive conveniences make life difficult for people. […] We should not seek comforts. […]
In doing our chores, we sometimes may justify the use of machines or other conveniences to do our work faster and have more time for our spiritual life. As a result our life becomes stressful and full of concerns and anxieties, and we come to resemble lay people rather monks. When some young monks joined a Monastery, the first thing they did was to buy pressure cookers in order to gain time for their spiritual activities; they ended up sitting around and talking for hours. It’s not that modern conveniences help us gain time and apply it to spiritual things. These devices do save us time, but we don’t seem to have enough time to dedicate to prayer.
That’s the truth, isn’t it? In theory, having a clothing washer and a dishwasher and some prepared food in the freezer should mean that families have more time on their hands to talk with their children and to pray — and yet, life is more and more hectic, and we are hardly ever praying.
Truth is, the more comforts and technology we have, the more crazy things we invent to fill our days.
Not only have we filled up our free time with new pastimes, we are missing out on the kind of work that lends itself to prayer — that redundant work of washing dishes or kneading bread which is now done by machines, was the kind of work that one could do while praying. We embraced progress, and now we pray less.
There are many ways in which our progress has had a high cost, in which moving forward has caused us to lose something that made us more human and closer to God.
In addition, as our kids frequently mention in their Oratorical speeches, this progress has brought us constant distraction from that which matters. In “Orthodox Spirituality and the Technological Revolution”, Archimandrite Aimilianos, the Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Simonos Petras, observes:
The most dreadful enemy created by post-industrial culture, the culture of information technology and the image, is cunning distraction. Swamped by millions of images and a host of different situations on television and in the media in general, people lose their peace of mind, their self-control, their powers of contemplation and reflection and turn outwards, becoming strangers to themselves, in a word mindless, impervious to the dictates of their intelligence.
In the industrial era, people became consumers and slaves to things produced. In post-industrial society, they are also becoming consumers and slaves to images and information, which fill their lives.
I have realized that the destruction of man lies in the abundance of material goods, because it prevents him from experiencing the presence of God and appreciating His benevolence. If you want to take someone away from God, give him plenty of material goods. He will instantly forget Him forever.
Let’s be mindful of the problems that modern comforts create, and let’s point this out to our children so that they’re aware and better able to decipher whether progress is helping us, or holding us back.
(St. Paisios quotes are from Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain)