Meditation in an Era of Distraction
In 1968, Senator Strom Thurmond was stopped by police for suspicious activity. They found him in the streets, jogging. When it first became a fad in the 1960s, jogging raised a lot of eyebrows. In fact, the New York Times ran an article that same year about all the weirdos suddenly running through the streets. Times have changed. In the past, people got their exercise by working in the farms or walking across town. With each modern convenience, it became important to find new ways to keep the body healthy. We learned to set aside specific time for physical exercise. In the same way, in today’s digital and fast-paced culture, we need to start taking seriously our need to keep our spirits healthy. We need to start setting aside time for spiritual exercise. As jogging and swimming are for the body, fasting and meditation are for the soul.
Jesus Christ enters Jerusalem in our gospel today. First, he sends his disciples to find a donkey and colt. He fulfilled that old prophecy: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’”. Next, Christ rides into the city.
“A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (Matt. 21: 1-9).
Yet, the jubilation died out quickly. As many as there were greeting him, there were equally as many or more ready to kill him. I suspect the largest majority of people were simply indifferent. Why were there only twelve apostles? Why not 20 or 200? God himself arrived, yet most people did not even notice. They were too busy. They were too self-consumed.
Would it be any different in our own lives? If God spoke to us, would we hear him underneath the noise, the blaring television, the traffic and hubbub? If God revealed himself, would we notice, with our heads buried in our cell phones and our hearts tangled up in our shopping lists and consumerism. A philosopher once suspected otherwise:
“If I were a physician,” he said, “and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence” (Søren Kierkegaard).
Christ calls blessed: “those who hear the word of God" (Lk. 11:28). Advent arrives each year to teach us to be silent and to listen.
Our gospel today talks about Christ’s coming to Jerusalem. Other advent gospels refer to his second coming at the end of the world. Advent is about more than Christmas. Or rather, Christmas is more than an opportunity to remember the past. Christmas is about the ultimate coming of God. It is a season for preparing our hearts for the day when we will stand face to face with God. No more veils, no more pretending. Our souls will be bare before divinity. How will we hold up?
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds: “The Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (I Cor. 4:5). What are the purposes of the heart? The word in Greek, Boūlás, has to do with intentions or affections. God searches for our inner devotion. Beneath all our religiosity and pretense, what do our hearts worship truly? That is all that God’s judgment means. He simply sheds light on the stuff we are made off.
This is why the fasting periods are so important. Advent is a time for examination and re-alignment. It is the time to hone down on food, noise, and distractions, and put our affections back on God. Advent is about discovering a pure heart. I want to read a few verses that give us the tone for Advent:
“Attend to thyself, and keep thy heart diligently” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
“Attend to thyself, that there be no hidden, iniquitous word in your heart” (Deuteronomy 15:9).
“Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
The whole spiritual life is summed up in this: attend yourself. Asceticism, fasting, meditation, almsgiving, confession– these are not just obligations for pious Christians. These are the basic building blocks for living a complete and good life. Advent comes to free us.
Why can we not find peace? We live in one of the most affluent societies in the world. Technology has surrounded us with comforts, and yet we are all stressed. The Church fathers call distractedness the greatest consequence of the Fall. Our thoughts are scattered in a hundred directions and we forget God. If we are honest, all the gadgets and screens in our lives today only make that worse. Fr. Maximos Constas, a teacher from Mount Athos, writes:
“Having promised us a technological utopia, our ubiquitous and intrusive cyberculture has instead precipitated a spiritual crisis … Living in a culture of organized distractions, our thoughts are isolated and disconnected, preventing us from seeing and experiencing the wholeness of life…in a realm of illusions; mesmerized by the images flitting about on our computer screens, we become “dull, predatory flies buzzing on the chamber window,” desperate to consume all the futility of the world.”
Christ offers us peace. The Church gives us the medicine. Meditation, fasting, and confession: these are practices for realigning our hearts. If we use them, we will enter God’s rest.
Christ came riding in on a donkey. He entered Jerusalem as an archetype of peace, quiet, and simplicity. That should set the tone for our next few weeks in Advent. May God help us to enter into Advent’s quiet and simplicity, and there tune our hearts to Him.