Tyranny of Distractions
Three brothers aspired to serve God. The first wanted to be a peacemaker, the second, to feed the poor, and the third, to go to the desert to pray. The peacemaker networked with all the important people in society, the entrepreneurs, law makers, and politicians. He worked day and night. Yet, despite his dedication, war and fighting kept on happening. He gave up and went to find the second brother. He had built a soup kitchen and fed the poor day after day. Yet, no matter how much money he raised or food he gathered, there were always more hungry people. Both brothers lost their faith in humanity, and went out to find their third brother.
They met together out in the desert. The first two poured out their disappointments to their third brother. He listened and pondered quietly. There was an empty bucket on the floor where they sat. The hermit told them to take the bucket down to the stream and bring back water. They did so. Then their brother picked up a stick, stirred up the water, and asked them what they saw. They could not see anything because the water was agitated, so the brother said to be still and wait. The water calmed down and they looked again. “We see ourselves,” they said. The third brother replied, “And that is what happened to you in the world. You went into the world and you were caught up in the chaos and disorder and agitation of the world and you lost yourself.”
Today, we read the Parable of the Sower. Jesus spoke to the crowd: “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’ As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’” (Lk. 8:4-6).
Faith is a colossal challenge in our time.
I do not mean superficial faith. Shallow and exterior faith is easy to come by. It is the spirit of the times, a sort of thin and soupy faith in something, we are not always sure what. It is the faith of a vague, moralistic, therapeutic, deism, rather than the faith of Christianity. An authentic faith is deep. It is a faith in which God is not an idea outside of oneself. He is an internal, dynamic presence. The Athonite monk and teacher, Fr. Maximos Constas, says:
“The problem is that if we live in our head and thoughts, God will always be a reality that is external to us. For many people God is an idea or concept or something to be argued about. God remains external and our thoughts swarm around us like so many flies, and they distract us from ever knowing God. But if we undergo that shift from the outer to inner and from mind to heart then God ceases being simply an idea but becomes a living and powerful reality.”
True faith is impossible when we are buried in noise, chaos, and restlessness. So where do we begin?
“A sower went out to sow his seed.”
We have to start with what God has given: Himself. God is the good seed planted in our hearts.
St. Paul writes: “God has sent forth His Spirit into our hearts” (Galatians 4:6).
Do we realize this? These are the sacraments. Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, and the Eucharist, are the seeds of God’s Spirit planted into our soul. We dream of heaven and paradise, as though it is somewhere far away. All along, we carry the fullness of heaven in our hearts, but we ignore it.
To the saint, the Scriptures say: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn” (Hb. 12:22-23). Where is this Mount Zion? It is inside us, but it is buried deep within.
There is an altar in our church. There is also an altar in our heart, a place for communing with God, a place of rest with God. Before the fall, it is said that Adam walked with God (Gen. 3:8). This is referring to a state of being, a state of constantly existing and worshipping in God’s presence. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says that we are meant to be “like the angels and archangels who have no rest day or night from the divine love which stimulates them and are therefore incessantly and insatiably satisfied with glorifying God.” This is what it means to be fully alive.
“The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Lk. 8:11-15).
We get choked up by the world. I suspect that we fail to grasp the realness of this passage. When you hear the same scriptures, again and again, you easily lose their gravity. They become part of the religious noise in our heads. We think, “Oh, yes, I know this one,” and we go on with our normal lives. But to what is Jesus Christ referring? Where are the thorns and thistles in our 21st century American life? What is choking our ability to walk with God?
In 1931, Aldous Huxley wrote a book called A Brave New World. Many authors were writing about dystopias in his time. George Orwell and others imagined totalitarian states — Big Brother watching and ruling with an iron first. Aldous Huxley had a different idea about how the West could devolve. He imagined a world oppressed not by dictators but by entertainment, drugs, and glamor. In his lecture, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a contemporary author, Neil Postman, comments:
“Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy…He believed that it is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled” (Postman xix, 111).
Big Brother will not be required, he says. We will “come to love [our] oppression”, and come to “adore the technologies that undo [our] capacities to think.” We will be destroyed by our “infinite appetite for distractions.”
This comment was made in 1985. Where do we stand in 2021? Where are the distractions in our lives? How are we swamped and drugged in too much entertainment? Are we dancing and dreaming ourselves into oblivion? There is more noise now than ever. Television, video games, pornography, drugs…add to that the news of noise of politics, debates over face masks, and accusations and fear from every angle. Will we get so caught up in it all that we lose God?
“Some fell on the path and was trampled on…some fell on the rock…some fell among thorns…[and] some fell into good soil…As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’” (Lk. 8:4-6).
This is the purpose of Lent, to detach and quiet down. Fasting, asceticism, and confession are not optional. They are prerequisites for a life of peace. May our Lord and Savior clear our heads and hearts in this season of Lent, that we might find rest in Him.
* This sermon was inspired by Fr. Maximos Constas’ lecture, “The Buried Seed, Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction, Part 4.