Distracted and Restless
“If a hen stops sitting on the eggs, she will hatch no chickens. The monk or nun who goes from place to place grows cold and dead in faith” (St. Syncletica).
We must learn to be still in order to know God. Distraction is the prevailing temptation of our time. Always restless, always looking for a change, always blaming our wellbeing on people, places, and circumstances around us, we get stuck in an endless labyrinth. In modern times, we have built an entire civilization around distraction. We must rip ourselves apart from it, settle down like a chicken on an egg, and be still.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
The Feast of the Holy Trinity always follows Pentecost. It is a kind of reminder. It fixes our eyes on the Holy Grail of our aspirations. As we set off this summer with all our things-to-do, we should focus on the point of it all: to better know God.
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
What is eternal life? “Now this is eternal life: that they know you” (John 17:3). We are saved by knowing God, by encountering him, touching him, soaking him in day after day. In baptism, the body and soul get plunged into water. Nothing is left untouched. Even the pours of your skin soak in molecules of hydrogen and oxygen. In the same way, the rest of your life is one continual baptism — mind, body, soul, heart, lifestyle, culture, and even breath must plunge into the mystery of God.
But there is a problem. We are distracted. Late in his life, the mystic, St. Augustine, regretted the time he had waisted getting caught up in all the externals of life.
“Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new. Too late have I loved you! You were within me but I was outside myself, and there I sought you!” He looked for meaning in the distractions, and missed the true meaning. “In my weakness I ran after the beauty of the things you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The things you have made kept me from you - the things which would have no being unless they existed in you! You have called, you have cried, and you have pierced my deafness.” He came to know God only after detaching from the externals and becoming still. “You have radiated forth, you have shined out brightly, and you have dispelled my blindness. You have sent forth your fragrance, and I have breathed it in, and I long for you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst for you. You have touched me, and I ardently desire your peace.”
People have always been distracted, but modern life makes it harder. In the past, in a grocery line or a bus stop, you had to just wait. You might talk to the person next to you, read a book, look at a pigeon, or perhaps, (dare I say it) think. Today, what do we do? The hand slips into the pocket, there it is, like Bilbo’s ring, more satisfying than Mary Jane, more tantalizing than a brothel, the all-powerful smart phone.
God scatters a thousand quiet moments in every day for contemplation. However brief, there are enough to make us into mystics. Are we still enough to listen?
There were fewer options in the past. Through most of history, people lived and died in the same village, with the same community, the same parish and the same priest. It took a lot of effort to pick up one’s bag and go somewhere else. Today, it is as easy to uproot as flipping a dime. This has its advantages, but also many problems.
Abbot Tryphon warns about this in a sermon called, “The Grass is Not Greener on the Other Side.”
“In an age when people change addresses as often as those in past generations changed their socks, stability of place is almost unheard of…Frequently moving from one job to another, one relationship to another, one neighborhood to another, or one city to another, [one parish to another, one priest to another] is a sure way to avoid spiritual growth.”
Have you noticed it? Everything today panders to numbing distraction. Everything is zooming. Everything is racing. We are constantly mesmerized, and constantly looking towards external things. We will only heal when we learn to be still.
The same dizziness infects our spiritual life. The theologian, Fr. Thomas Hopko, spent his last years traveling from church to church reminding Orthodox Christians about one thing: Orthodoxy is not about Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not about the candles. Orthodoxy is not about the chant, nor the robes, nor the liturgical style. Orthodoxy is about God. The consumerism of American life has created a consumerism of liturgical life — preferring one style over another, the way we pick or choose in a supermarket aisle. There are many styles of worship in Orthodoxy. There is only one spirituality. We grow by planting our roots in the ground and being still.
St. Benedict famously taught: “If you cannot find God in your cell, you will not find him anywhere.” St. Syncletica said the same thing in a more relatable way: Be like the hen sitting on her eggs. Stop moving.
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!” (Psalm 37:7).
“For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’” (Isaiah 30:15).
“Be still and know God" (Psalm 46:10).
Where has God planted you? That is where you can grow. The Life in Christ is a life of baptism, day after day, here and now, bathing in the mystery of God. Be faithful. Be steady. Be still.