St. Paisios on Progress

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)

Elissa Bjeletich

About Elissa Bjeletich

Elissa Bjeletich hosts three popular Ancient Faith Radio podcasts: Raising Saints, Everyday Orthodox, and together with Kristina Wenger, Tending the Garden of Our Hearts. She is the co-author of Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home and author of Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent, and In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. She serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Elissa lives near Austin, Texas, with her husband, Marko, and their five daughters. You'll find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com

8 comments:

  1. Dear Mrs. Bjeletich,

    I have listened to your podcast from the begining and have always loved it. You have a very reasonable way of approaching the issues we face. This article was shared with me through the facebook group: Orthodox Christian Agrarian Communities, and very appropriately so. These quotes ring dreadfully true and are quite frightening. I’m afraid I find your conclusion quite casual and careless, if you’ll forgive me. Is it really enough merely to be mindful and make our children aware? Wouldn’t we be better off to make sacrifices to turn back the progress clock some? I’ve done a little of this in my life. I could explain more about it if you’re interested. I have known of ecovillages where people have recognized this very truth you share with us and in their own way try to live as if that truth matters, by dispensing with refrigerators, cell phones etc. But all with out the fullness of the light of Orthodoxy. Here we are with access to such lights as St. Paisios and we continue in our affluence as if we’ll be OK in spite of it. Where is the call for Orthodox villages? After reading something like this I look upon the way we live with disgust. These machines are killing us spiritually, what are we doing with them? Shouldn’t we be driving them out of our lives, fleeing for our lives? Or rather, running to some organizing of like minded folks who can sacrifice all this for living real again in a community, working with animals, sharing our food, and so on? I realize it is not as simple as that. But I was disapointed with your conclusion and felt I had to speak up. Please forgive me for intruding.

    1. Hi, Justin!

      Thanks for writing. I agree that St. Paisios’ words are scary and that I don’t offer a strong vision for rolling back progress.

      In the context of my work here on Ancient Faith Radio, where I am offering brief meditations on conversations that parents and youth ministry workers might consider having with the children in their care, I bring up St. Paisios’ words to suggest that we all we consider whether the ‘progress’ our culture is celebrating is, in fact, problematic. You’re right — it’s a gentle suggestion, and not a call to action.

      Of course, as you mentioned, you saw the link in the Orthodox Christian agrarian communities group. I’m grateful to hear that my article would be passed around, and I imagine that these words are very pertinent to the mission and ethos of that group. If I were to prepare an article specifically for that audience, I might go into the question of finding new communities and exploring new lifestyles, which I do find to be an exciting idea.

      The Raising Saints community, however, is more about contemplating youth ministry — not necessarily about redefining American life, but about reaching our youth who are already enmeshed in it. I’m not a visionary leader, calling everyone to a radical new way of life, but a Sunday school teacher thinking about how to help kids navigate this world as we find it. While I applaud the idea of an agrarian Orthodox culture, I’m not an activist working toward that end.

      I think it is certainly true that St. Paisios is indicating that it is spiritually healthier to live in a traditional Orthodox agrarian society, but I also think that we can mediate the harmful effects in some ways by becoming aware of them and by struggling against them. I am convinced that Christ comes to us where we are, including in this very backwards world, and saves us in our context and in our communities. There are spiritual dangers in all societies; the devil came after us when we were shepherds in the old world, and he comes after us today. Spiritual vigilance is always necessary, regardless of our cultural context.

      St. Porphyrios said, “A person can become a saint anywhere. He can become a saint in Omonia Square*, if he wants. At your work, whatever it may be, you can become a saint through meekness, patience, and love. Make a new start every day, with new resolution, with enthusiasm and love, prayer and silence — not with anxiety so that you get a pain in the chest.”

      Saints have come from Omonia Square, from Corinth and from the gulags, from urban settings and agrarian. This world is fallen and crazy, but God prevails.

      “What I see around me would drive me insane if I did not know that no matter what happens, God will have the last word.” – St. Paisios

      I’m certainly not against creating an agrarian Orthodox village, but that’s not my calling. So far.

    1. Igor, thank you! You are absolutely right – I got my sources mixed up here, and I appreciate the correction. I will edit the article text to reflect the correct attribution. (I can be disorganized in my record keeping, and I apologize!)

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and timely article. Even as an Orthodox clergyman, I have sometimes felt very alone in my expressions of concern about the insidious nature of our relationship with technology, and our cultural love of gadgets, machines, information “processing” and mass production of artifice. It worries me to be out here on the limb by myself, but I think it is a deep problem, a means by which we are changing what it means to be human, overwhelming the inner voice of conscience, and distancing ourselves from the testimony of nature to the goodness, generosity, and even the existence of God. We are remaking the world in our own image – for convenience, for profit, and for security – and finding the adamantine surface of our creation hard and unforgiving, and the tawdry stage past of it unbearably hollow. Beauty is an anodyne to despair, a cure for pain, and an intimation of divine love, but it is also the one thing that we do not seem to be able to generate in our technological frenzies. It is everywhere in nature, of course, and frequently to be found in the painstaking work of artisans and artists: unique, skilled, and meditatively designed. But less and less of what we see, and touch, and experience on a daily basis is either genuinely natural, or wrought with care and effort.

    Unfortunately, even amongst Orthodox clergy, this problem seems to be overlooked, and as Justin Miller has suggested, it is perhaps rather downplayed even in your own otherwise rather fine article. Most clergy, for instance, only seem to acknowledge the evangelistic possibilities of technology or, at most, if they acknowledge its dangers, only do so with respect to the flagrant abuse of it in such things as internet pornography. It seems to me, though, that the deep dangers of technophilia are more subtle than this, and are wrought upon us even in the midst of our efforts to use technology for good. As a single concrete example of this, I give you the not unfamiliar to most of us example of a new inquirer or convert who begins his quest into Orthodoxy with a spending spree on mass produced icons, followed by endless hours spent following and engaging in discussions and arguments in Orthodox internet groups. He ends up with a wall of images, no one of which means much to him, none of which call him to prayer and repentance, and the sheer number of which undermines his sense of reverence for holy things. Meanwhile his internet participation fills him with pride, anger, suspicion, and a profound experience, not of the radiant glory and mercy of God, the love of his neighbors, and repentance of sin, but rather of tribal team spirit, and of how clever he is to have found “the right team.” In six months he’ll be blogging concerning his “road to Orthodoxy” and have his own “followers.”

    Something about this is all deeply wrong, and St. Paisios words are a welcome, and refreshing acknowledgement of that, even if they do come to us mediated by technology. I’ll be honest – don’t know how to extricate myself from the Catch-22 of warning about technology while still using it, even if only minimally (I live on a farm, in an eco-cottage, and I and my wife are almost entirely off the grid, so I’ve gone further in this direction than most have, I think). I often think quite seriously about abandoning the internet altogether (for instance), but it is such a convenient mechanism for “reaching” others that I find myself drawn back in again and again. Perhaps the best one can do is carefully grab the tail end of the snake and hope that God sees one’s intent and makes a staff of it – while being self-reflectively wary enough and careful enough to put it down fast if God does not choose to do so, before the snake bites us. In any case, clearly technology is a sword with two sharp edges, and should be used carefully like a dangerous weapon, or in moderation like a dangerous drug with terrible side effects. For, as the quotations from St. Paisios and Archimandrite Aimilianos make very clear, technology is not harmless, not neutral, and not, generally at least, our friend. Those of us who know this, who feel it in our bones should be more forthcoming about the matter.

    Thanks once again for your article. I, too, wish you had not pulled so many punches – but at least you had the courage to take the issue seriously, and consider a topic far too few are willing to consider seriously. For that, I am grateful.

    1. Thank you, Father, for your thoughtful and very beautifully written response.

      I love your image about the snake and the staff; that’s very much my relationship to technology today. As a podcaster and blogger, I am trying to manipulate this tool for good ends, but I’m ever aware that it is vicious and that I am vulnerable to its venom.

      You’re absolutely right that there are those who are converting to a kind of Internet Orthodoxy, which doesn’t necessarily bring them to the Church itself but to a kind of online club. Real participation in the Church has to happen in person, through church attendance, participation in the sacraments and an active prayer life. While we may celebrate our online outreach, it is a failure if it does not lead people to a real life in the Church.

      I haven’t been able to work out a better response to technology in my own life, and that is probably why I am unable to offer a more concrete course of action in this article.

      In general, in my podcast I am always emphasizing talking — in person, face-to-face — with our kids. Somehow, I am trying to use technology to spark conversation that is not mediated by technology. This article is a starting point for conversation, but I don’t really offer an endpoint, because I have not yet formulated what that is. I’m not ready to walk away from technology myself, and I’ve begun to accept that our children are going to be living in a technology-centered culture. I tend to assume that my purpose is to make my way through the world as we find it, and to help shepherd our children through this mess. It’s true that we can move away from the cities and become farmers, but someone has to offer witness in the cities, right?

      I’ll be considering all of this, and perhaps if I can work out some good advice for the Raising Saints audience, there will be another episode in the near future with more of my own advice for how we handle these difficult questions with our youth. My writing is largely about creating conversation with the youth, and this is surely a topic worthy of much discussion. Our young people are coming up in a world where technology is a given more than an option, and our culture’s blind embrace of all ‘progress’ is dangerous to them. If you don’t mind, I may be quoting your comments here. I love the images you’ve introduced.

      As a final note, my conversation here with you is only possible because of the internet, and yet I cannot help but think how much better it would be if we were speaking in person. God did create us for real, personal interaction, and this is a pale imitation. Even so, I appreciate hearing from you!

      1. You are both in Texas, right? So you should get together. You are right that God does and we must reach out to our children where they are at and in their (and our) real life context. And I’ll just add that we should not confuse any flight from the techno-world with any hope of establishing a false paradise on earth. Still, I believe that part of our ministry to future generations is shaping the culture they will inherit. More and more, I see our “culture” as quite abandoned and up for grabs. It’s really hard to envision what it will look like. Oh and Fr. Cassian can tell you a lot more about the very real likelihood that this “technology-centered culture” we’re immersed it may be quite short-lived as far as cultures go, based on the supply of readily available energy to fuel it. So one has to be wise how we use it in the mean time – to prepare for the time when it is a thing of the past.

        Providentially, I will also be in Austin this fall. I look forward to the opportunity to meet then.

        Please forgive me for taking this post beyond the scope of your podcast. A private message would have been more appropriate. But perhaps this will stimulate good thoughts and discussion, as well as prayer and action.

        1. Justin, I so appreciate your comments and I’m glad you posted them! I do hope that you’ll come to Transfiguration when you are in Austin and introduce yourself!

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