Paying Attention (The Transfiguration of Place, Part V)


The following is Part V of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV. There are six parts in all.

This question therefore brings us to the practical side of this anthropological question—that is, the applied theology. In Orthodoxy, all theology is necessarily applied theology, or else it is merely speculation. Fundamentally, what is needed is a change in attitude, but the part of attitude that needs the change is our attention. We are called upon again and again to “attend” in Orthodox Christian worship, to pay attention to what is before us, to collect our fragmented thoughts into the moment at hand, to become one with our place and what is happening in it. “Let us attend!” has been the call of the Orthodox deacon for so many centuries, precisely because the Fathers who developed our liturgical tradition knew all about the impulse to let our attention wander, to be every place but the place where we are.

For this reason, I believe that the applied solution to our spiritual problem of globalization is one of attention. I pay attention to every place but this place. I pay attention to everyone but the one in front of me. Why, after all, are we a nation filled with bad listeners? It is precisely because we have not learned to control our attention. Why are we a nation of gluttons and the lustful? It is because we have not learned to control our attention. You can see that attention is right near the bottom of many spiritual problems. It is no mistake that one of the cardinal virtues spoken of, especially by the ascetical fathers, is vigilance—in Greek, nepsis. Watchfulness. Where are we watching? To what are we paying our attention?

When we pay money to something, then there is a necessary change in our relationship to it. The same holds true for paying something else, our attention. And believe me, attention is very much something that is paid. And like money, we only have so much of it. So where are we spending it? And what kind of return are we getting on this spiritual investment?

It is clear that most of us are wasting our precious resource of attention on things that are not near to us. So how exactly do we pay our attention to what is local? More and more in our day, as local economies buckle under pressure, we are being encouraged to “buy local.” This is a great thing for a lot of reasons! But we should not only spend our money locally. How do we “buy local” when it comes to attention?

For one thing, spending your money locally really is one way to pay attention to your actual place. When your economy is a local one, then that means you have the possibility for relationship with your local shopkeepers. The connection of your lives become defined by more than simply the exchange of goods and services. When you pay money, you also pay attention. And when the person to whom you pay money is in front of you, then you are paying attention to him. And most especially if he produced what he is selling you, then your attention becomes multi-dimensional. Buying local is actually a spiritual act. Mind you, it is not merely a principle of address location—it doesn’t count if you buy local from someone by using the Internet and getting it shipped to your house. You’re not just trying to put money into the pockets of your neighbors, but God into your relationships. There must be a meeting of persons. And in that meeting, communion can be established.

Another practical way of paying attention to your place is to try to move your disparate places closer together. The easiest time to make these kinds of decisions is when you’re about to move—whether you’re moving your residence, your workplace, or your church. Consider getting a job closer to your home. Consider going to an Orthodox church closer to your home. Or—and here I know I’m being revolutionary—consider moving into a home closer to your church. Or even closer to your job. When you bring these places closer together, the space in between comes to be not just scenery seen from the car window but actually a space that defines you and your life. And if you can walk it, so much the better!

Indeed, consider walking almost everywhere you go. If you can’t do that yet, try to walk somewhere nearby, especially if it’s a place where you can go and do something, like shop in a store, play on a playground, walk in the woods, read at the library, or most especially worship in your church. Because when you walk around a place, your attention is getting paid to it in a far more thorough manner. You begin to care about it. They’re not just roads any more. They’re places with people. They’re trees and rocks that you begin to love. And your unceasing prayers—you do practice unceasing prayer, right?—bathe these places gradually in the love and holiness of God. You can’t love a place that you don’t know, and you can’t know a place that zips by at 45 miles per hour.

So here is a list of some suggestions for living a more local life, one defined by an unfragmented attention paid to people and places who can be loved and not merely distantly connected through a supply chain:

1. Buy local, especially local food. It tastes better, for one thing, and it’s had less time for its nutrients to drop out. But you also have the chance to meet the people who make it. Meet them, talk with them about their vegetables, their goats, or what have you. Most farmers are actually pretty cool people. But it’s not just the farmers. Someone who is selling you the work of his own hands has a different relationship with you than someone merely passing on a “product” that got shipped in from somewhere else.

2. Attend the church closest to you. Obviously, don’t attend one that’s heretical, but attend whatever’s nearest and is preaching the true faith. (Yes, that means it has to be a canonical Orthodox church.) If you have some sort of major, major problem at that church, then check out the next nearest one to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your preferred cultural flavor. Those are still God’s people, and that’s still the Eucharist there.

3. Don’t worry so much about having to “maintain” friendships with people. Just go about your business and show genuine interest in the people you encounter. Favor old people over young people, or at least try to favor people who aren’t your own age. Do all that, and you’ll probably find that “maintaining” friendships will be a joy. Our relationships were meant to be mediated by the everyday commerce of life, not by deliberately planned phone calls, text messages, emails and dinner dates.

4. Walk around your neighborhood. Walk around your town. It’s a different place when you walk it, and it’s a lot more interesting when, once again, you’re not zooming by at 45 miles per hour. (Plus, your kids will be less antsy.) It’s also a lot healthier, and you save money on gas. (This will also stand you in good stead if we ever do hit peak oil, that is, if supply can no longer meet demand, making fuel skyrocket in price.)

5. Take pictures of your town. They will help you to look for what’s beautiful in it.

6. Try to do all your shopping, banking, and other business within two miles of your home. The closer, the better.

7. Move out of the suburbs and into an area where there is a real center of the community. Or better yet, do what you can to get your suburb to turn into a semi-urban area (also called “new urbanism”), where almost everything can be walked to.

8. If you are ever involved in building something, try to make your new building be reminiscent of the oldest architecture in your area. It doesn’t have to be identical, but it should not draw attention as radically different from the surrounding landscape. Good, humane architecture is about tradition, not really about innovation.

9. If you are building or altering a house, put a front porch on it, one big enough to put chairs on. Go outside when it’s hot inside rather than cranking up the air conditioning. Likewise, make your bedrooms small and your common rooms big.

10. Learn how to garden. Use up less stuff. Reuse more stuff.

11. Think up a name for your house. (Not “Ralph,” either, but something appropriate for a place.)

12. Give up the idea that privacy is an inherent good. It’s not. You were made to commune. That doesn’t mean that everything you do has to be in public, but the public good needs to become more important to you than your private good.

13. Learn the history of your town. It’s probably really interesting.

14. Get involved in local politics. Support candidates for public office who will work to devolve power to the lowest possible civic level. When the people on whose behalf you are making decisions are your neighbors, you will govern quite differently than if you were hundreds or thousands of miles away. Less concern will be given to systems and policies and more to people and community.

15. Figure out ways for your parish community to connect with its immediate neighborhood and to be involved at local civic events. Invite your priest to give the invocation at public events, such as graduations, sporting events, club meetings, etc. Have meetings of your parish organizations at public places other than the church.

16. Give to local charities and minister to people with local problems. I think this is largely one of the biggest reasons that our charitable output, on the whole, is not very good. I get about seventy to eighty people on Sunday morning at my parish in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. I recall when it came time last year to give to earthquake relief in Haiti, we took up a collection of less than $100. But earlier this year when there was a natural gas explosion in Allentown, immediately to the north of Emmaus and just blocks away from some of our parishioners’ homes, we collected over $700 to help with the needs of those affected (and then the parish council kicked in to make it an even $1000). There are needs everywhere. People are more likely to feel connected when the need is next door.

17. Have your parish or a group of parishioners start a non-profit small business in your town, perhaps selling coffee, books and icons. Not only will its non-profit status help to keep it afloat better in difficult economic times, but it will provide a set-aside, sacred space for relationships, will provide some part-time jobs for parishioners and others, and will introduce the faith in a non-confrontational way to your town.

I’m sure you could probably think of many more practical ways to connect yourself and your parish to the local community.

On to Part VI.

5 comments:

  1. Great post, and one that provided us with more ideas about this “new” old way of life. Reminds me of one of St. Anthony’s sayings– “in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.” Maybe another practical and spiritual one– decide where you and your family will be buried and get your plots.

  2. Father, bless,
    Thoughtful articles, for sure. But how exactly does localism work for a misfit?
    I’ve lived nearly all of my life in a small community– born, schooled, worked, raising a family, chattng with the neighbors, shopping at the farmer’s market and everything– but I’ve always been an odd one out. I’ve learned to live with this (and I don’t agree that privacy is inherently “not good”–how about the hermits?) — but I don’t feel like this squares with your thesis. I guess I’m just wondering if you have an approach from this angle.

    1. I’m not sure that “misfit” qualifies as an ontological category in theology. 🙂 We’re all called to love and pay attention to the people and places we contact.

      As for the hermits, they aren’t interested in privacy, but rather in prayer. And the lives of the sainted hermits show that they love and care for everyone who comes their way.

      Anyway, I didn’t write that privacy is inherently “not good,” but that we have to forget the idea that it is inherently good! To say that privacy is inherently not good means that it is always bad (i.e., never good). But to say that it is not inherently good means that it is not always good, not that it is never good.

      1. I think you misunderstand me regarding the “misfit” issue.

        If we are going to sacralize the idea of a local community, we should probably have a philosophical response for when the community rejects one of its members– whether it be because of a cultural mis-fit (strong conflict in secular ideas– political extremists, the functional-but-not-quite-right mentally ill, alternative lifestyles like goth fashion, civil war reenactment or vaccine refusal) or because of a religious misfit (do we really want to mimic the Amish practice of shunning? and for what offenses may that be appropriate and where to draw the line?). Asking human beings to conform to a culture– even if it is a Christian one– inevitably draws near to cultural relativism. It all boils down to conforming to majority rule, which has absolutely no correlation to truth status or good-being (may I say ontological?) status. On the other hand, how inclusive do we decide to be?

        I like the idea of localized communities, too. But I’ve lived in one long enough to know that we can’t just appeal to the idea of the Shire without recognizing the Shire’s challenges. To be clear— I’m not saying your argument is wrong. I’m just suggesting that having a clear response to the challenge of community misfits might strengthen your position.

        1. Ah, it seems you were asking about how localism should word toward a “misfit.” (You originally wrote “for a misfit.”)

          It seems to me that this is really a different subject than the one I was addressing, which is about loving the place you are in and the people you’re near, in contrast to our current societal approach of not paying much attention to what is local.

          That said, though, Flannery O’Connor’s insistence that Southerners know how to appreciate a “freak” is, I think, instructive[*]. Indeed, in some sense, the freaks affirm the community by virtue of their standing apart from it. Nowadays, we’ve actually made the freak an institution—indeed, the new norm. Do your own thing, strike out on your own, etc.—these are the watchwords of our anti-communitarian culture. Everyone is encouraged to be “different.” Ironically, “different” has its own definition that requires even more conformity than simply living in community.

          But let us say one finds an actual community. How should that community behave towards those who cannot or will not love it back? Love is always the appropriate response, no matter what. Localism is really not at all about conformity or “fitting in” but rather about love and attention, about connecting incarnationally rather than electronically. There will always be people who do not want to love. Our dysfunction now is that we have sanitized that desire and put a the chic label of “globalization” on it, telling such folks that they are more connected than ever, when they’re really not.

          The approach to the misfit should not be globalization. The globalist, upon encountering the misfit, will figure he belongs in an institution and put him there (though, of course, with a TV available for him to watch). The localist will love the misfit as much as he can.

          [*]Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. —Flannery O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (1960)

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