The Desert and the City

The important conversation I have been having with a reader about finding Orthodox community in the modern world continues, and his most recent response is again so important that I thought that I should repost it from the comments section and reply to it here:

Father, bless! Thank you for your responses. You’re right that I was referring in a glancing way to Dreher’s Benedict Option, and I appreciate your perspective and counsel.

Participating more in the life of the church through the divine services is something that almost anyone can do regardless of their circumstances and, as you say, is absolutely essential. But I do have a concern that I hope you would address, as your time permits, about whether there is more that some of us as Orthodox Christians can or should do.

The life of the church as we know it today developed for most of its history in the context of a traditional, mostly rural society where the bonds of family and community reinforced the faith. To be sure, the faith in turn also purified and strengthened those bonds. But today, when the parish church is cut off from our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods, it is marginalized, loses meaning, and often ceases to function as a community in human terms.

Put another way, we are all living in a desert. The philosopher Zygmunt Bauman – although not a Christian – described the desert where hermits and holy men worked out their salvation as a place of “raw, bare, primal and bottom-line freedom that is but the absence of bounds”. Bauman observed that with the advent of modernity and the expansion of concepts of negative freedom, the desert invaded our cities and towns, our countryside, and even our very homes. If the desert is, as I think some of the fathers of the Church may have said, a place filled with demons where only advanced spiritual athletes should dare to tread, how difficult it must be for us who are spiritually enfeebled to survive there.

The question I’m getting at is this: are there times when there is a spiritual imperative for us to change the worldly circumstances of our lives – as we are able, and as God allows – to flee from evil and pursue good? Surely God will have mercy on the parent who for financial reasons has no choice but to send their children to public schools, but what about those of us who had other options and spurned them? Wouldn’t we be tempting God?

I’m not under the illusion that I can be saved simply by changing my worldly circumstances to be more conducive to the spiritual life. There will always be temptations, but it seems foolish to me not to run from them whenever possible.

I will begin by saying that we can gain invaluable insight into this question from the words of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov in his classic manual of the spiritual life, The Arena:

At the present time in our country [19th-century Russia] solitude in an uninhabited desert or wilderness may be regarded as quite impossible. Even reclusion is very difficult, and is more dangerous and impracticable than ever before. In this we must see the will of God and submit to it. If you want to be a hermit pleasing to God, love silence and train yourself for it with all the strength you can muster. Do not allow yourself to utter an idle word either in church, or in the refectory, or in your cell. Do not allow yourself to go out of the monastery except in the case of extreme need and for the shortest time. Do not allow yourself any acquaintanceship, especially any close acquaintanceship, either outside or inside the monastery. Do not allow yourself to be familiar with anyone and avoid all pernicious distractions. Behave like a pilgrim and stranger both in the monastery and in your life on earth in general. In this way you will become a hesychast, a recluse, a hermit, an anchorite, a solitary. If God sees that you are capable of living in a desert or in reclusion, then He Himself by His unutterable judgments will provide you with a desert and a silent life as He provided Blessed Seraphim of Sarov, or He will make provision for reclusion as He did in the case of Blessed George, recluse of the Zadonsky Monastery.”

I think that this principle is the best and safest one to adopt for us Christians living in the modern world. Yes, it is true that we have lost much that was once good, beautiful, and wholesome in the world and in traditional modes of life. I feel the ache of this loss deeply in my own heart. Yet even in this “we must see the will of God and submit to it.” And like the aspiring hermit in St. Ignatius’ example, we who aspire to live as true Christians must begin to do so in whatever circumstances of life in which we find ourselves, trusting in God to Himself open a path if He desires us to serve Him elsewhere. It is as St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Corinthians: “Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.”

If the opportunity arises to change our outward circumstances for new ones more conducive to the life of faith, then by all means we should take that opportunity. If we can find jobs that allow us to attend the divine services more frequently while still supporting our families, then we should certainly choose such jobs over others, even if it means a life with less comfort or less fun. If we can join together with a few like-minded parents and found an Orthodox parish school, then we absolutely must do so, teaching our children Truth rather than sending them to be inundated with meaningless and disjointed masses of mere information. If we can cut out Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix, instead making a little more time for prayer and spiritual reading (or even good literature, or actual face-to-face conversation), then without any doubt we ought to do it — and we will find our lives far richer for the loss.

And there are countless other things that we can do together as parishes. At the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, D.C., I have seen hundreds of parishioners, both Russians and Americans, share a common meal together after the Divine Liturgy — and then stay at the church for hours and hours, talking, laughing, debating, the children running outside and playing, a few men over in the corner playing chess, into the late hours of the afternoon. It’s a beautiful thing to see — they really are a family. And in our own parish in the middle of rural West Virginia, the local Orthodox of all jurisdictions join together on Wednesdays to run a food pantry for the impoverished people of the surrounding countryside. Here at our monastery, we often host men’s groups and youth groups from parishes across the country, coming here together on pilgrimage to take refuge from the world, to deepen their faith and experience for a few days the fullness of the monastic way of life. These are only a few examples of how we can build our communities on the foundation of our liturgical worship and faith in Christ.

But I do not think that we should spend our time and energy trying to recreate a way of life that has passed away, perhaps forever beyond our reach. And above all, we should be extremely wary of lightly and needlessly tearing up the roots which we have already planted in whatever place we are now. There are many virtues which the modern world has lost, but perhaps none has been so thoroughly forgotten as the virtue of stability.

The reader rightly points out the chief problem facing us in Orthodoxy today: that all too frequently parish life “is marginalized, loses meaning, and often ceases to function as a community in human terms.” But I do not think that this has happened principally because of the conditions of modern life. I think that it happened because of our own choices, our own values, and our own complacency. In the earliest days of Christianity, the churches (which were almost always in the cities!) had no connection whatsoever to workplaces, schools and neighborhoods. All that the churches had were men and women filled with the love of Jesus Christ, a love that eclipsed all other loves, all other cares, and all other thoughts. They prayed together in the Liturgy every day: “Let grace come, and let this world pass away.”

If we gather in our parishes before the face of God, and we pray thus together from the bottom of our hearts, then there is nothing in this world, modern or ancient, in the desert or in the city, that can keep that grace from transfiguring every thought of our hearts and every corner of our lives.

The foundation of all Christian life in this world is the Communion of the Holy Body and the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ. And any place where this Communion is shared together among Christians is already a place more beautiful than Paradise. We need look nowhere else to find our home.


  1. Thanks Fr. Gabriel for your response. There’s a lot to digest here.

    I would start by pushing back a little on your characterization that the life circumstances of the early Christians with regard to work, school, and family were as disconnected and fragmented as ours today. Even the largest cities of ancient times would have been considered oversized towns by our standards, and without modern modes of transportation they would have been more compact and cohesive. Christians who attended the liturgy together every day must have lived in close proximity to one another, probably as neighbors. Children were apprenticed to their parents or others in the community, instead of being sent to education “factories” to be brainwashed by ideologues. The situation we are in today really is unique in history. I don’t think that undermines your basic point, which is that since the beginning Christians have been living in non-ideal situations, but modern life does have a way of constricting our options such that making better choices seems harder and lonelier than before. I mean that simply as an observation, not a complaint. (On the other hand, we’re not yet facing persecution and martyrdom, so there’s that!)

    I’m married and in my late 20s, and most of my anxiety on this topic arose when I began contemplating having kids. What kind of childhood can they expect, when most of their peers have unlimited access to smartphones and are likely to be evangelists for video game addiction, social media-induced narcissism, pornography, and other social ills yet to be invented? Will they understand the Gospel story when the culture around them no longer understands what a story is? I know that they will ultimately make their own choices, but it seems like it will take a miracle to preserve them from all the bad influences around them. Maybe that’s precisely what I should be looking for: a miracle.

    For now, I’m trying to incrementally work towards changing my circumstances for the better, including perhaps relocating out of the large Northeastern city where I live to a more rural area with a healthy Orthodox community that I’ve been visiting regularly and where I’ve built some friendships. I’m trying to do that without disengaging from the here and now: my fear is that I will fall into the trap of constantly searching for some worldly situation that is better and more ideal, always looking outward for the source of my problems, never putting down roots and never being content with what God has given me in the present moment. But on the other hand, to stand idly by and ignore the opportunities I might be given to make my life circumstances more conducive to the spiritual life, seems negligent.

    1. Forgive me, I didn’t at all mean to come across as saying that the secular world in the times of early Christianity was anything nearly as bad as the secular world is today. You are right that I overstated my point: the neighborly bonds amongst the early Christians likely did far exceed the ones that exist among us today. Above all, I certainly didn’t mean in any way to downplay the colossal barriers erected by modernity between us and the authentic Orthodox way of life, barriers which Christians have never before been called upon to surmount.

      But I don’t think that there’s anywhere left on earth that remains untrammeled by those barriers. We can’t run away from modernity. Yes, in some places the disease has advanced further than in others. But I know monks who’ve been to the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea, and the kids there still watch porn on their cell phones and leave empty condom wrappers in the bushes outside the village. I live in a rural area which was, until recently, a bastion of traditional values, agrarian living, strong family bonds, and deep dedication to the Christian faith. It now has literally the worst drug problem per capita in the entire United States. The reality is that the only safe haven from modernity that remains in this world exists physically within the walls of the Church.

      As I’ve stressed before, the battle against modernity must be fought first of all, and above all, within one’s own heart, within one’s own family, and within one’s own parish. In many ways it doesn’t really matter if you go to a “good” parish or a “bad” parish; the grace of God is always there, the Holy Mysteries are always there, the Divine Liturgy is always there. And we can’t forget that parishes only become good parishes because they are painstakingly built up by good Christian men and women, who sacrifice themselves every day for their brothers and their sisters, for their families and their children, and for the God whom they love.

      The Holy Fathers always tell monks not to leave their monastery for another monastery, even if the spiritual life in their monastery is objectively really bad, and the spiritual life in the other monastery is objectively really good. The path to their salvation leads within their own hearts, not on to other better circumstances.

      With that said, all those monks the Holy Fathers were talking to had decided, at some point, to leave their homes and join a monastery in the first place. Sometimes decisions do need to be made, and sometimes an old home does need to be left. If Abraham had stayed in Ur, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. So I’m not trying to discourage you from taking a profitable opportunity if the Lord is offering you one. I’m just saying to consider it well and carefully, and with heartfelt prayer, keeping in mind what you stand to lose as well as what you hope to gain. But I would advise you, once you’ve made your decision, to stick with it unless and until the Lord clearly calls you elsewhere.

      More than this I don’t feel it my place to say. Perhaps I have already said too much, and so again I strongly urge you to take counsel with your spiritual father. If he says anything different than what I have said thus far, then throw everything I have said out the window. There are no easy, predigested answers in the spiritual life.

      The fact that you are taking this question so seriously is hugely encouraging. I understand very deeply the fear that you feel for your children’s future. But the example that you will give them as their father will be one of the deepest and most enduring influences of their entire lives. If you work as best you can on your own repentance, if you center your family life around the Gospel commandments, if you commit yourself to a parish and build it with every ounce of strength in you, and if you can in any way manage to give your children an Orthodox education, then with the grace of God I think that they will stand as good a chance of finding salvation as any who have ever walked this earth.

      May God bless you. Christ is Risen!

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