I took holiday most of this week to prepare for and attend Holy Week services. Thursday morning, the first day that our church had a daytime service, I got distracted and missed it. Here's what happened: I got up, took the boys to school, went to meet the farmer from whom I buy eggs, then I went to work. I knew that I was on holiday, but I had a project that had been nagging me, and I wanted to put it to bed. I thought: "since I'm on vacation, I have the liberty to focus on just this one thing." About 9:00 AM I realized that I was late for a Vesperal Liturgy that had begun at 8:00 AM. I dropped what I was doing and made it to church in time to hear father give the dismissal.
St. Isaac the Syrian, the namesake of my youngest son said, "This life has been given to you for repentance. Why waste it in vain pursuits?" Certainly my livelihood isn't a vain pursuit, but when I allow it to exceed the bounds of the time I've set aside for prayer and reflection, work can become a hindrance to my spiritual growth. While I'm confessing, I ought to add that it is probably pride that motivated the desire to work on the project. If I left well-enough alone, I might realize that I am not indispensable.
Even in writing this post I've been distracted half a dozen times since I first thought to put pen to paper (so to speak) Thursday morning. I recently read (on someone's blog? on Facebook?) a very helpful practice that I've adopted and which is the reason this post exists. When an idea worth holding onto pops into my head but would distract me from something more important (usually from my prayers), I ask the Theotokos to help me remember it.
In his excellent book, Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann gives a detailed explanation of the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian.
O Lord and master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust for power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother;
For thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen
Fr. Alexander identifies in an expansive understanding of chastity an antidote to distraction:
The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselodmudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust--the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.For several years now I have been pursuing what I think of as my own "theory of everything," a satisfactory and robust explanatory framework for my subjective experience. I think part of that impulse derives from an innate desire for this "whole-mindedness" that Fr. Alexander speaks of. I am still working toward understanding what Christ said to Martha, "One thing is needful."
It is difficult in modern American society to find that kind of focus. We have built an economy in which "the dollar is sacred and power is god." Even when I try to focus on that one needful thing, I find myself wanting for my boys to have an excellent education, to make brilliant contributions to the academy, to be financially secure so that I can finally devote my attention to preparation for an encounter with the Living God in the Eucharist. Instead of the other way around.
The ever-expanding influence of technology in our lives has made these distractions even harder to ignore. I purposefully do not use headphones, and I don't listen to the radio in my car, but I walk around with an electronic leash and an entire world of (mis)information in my pocket. We have the opportunity to be completely absorbed from the time we wake till the time we sleep by flashy, interesting, titillating, and mind-numbing audio and video. It is little wonder that our lack of concentration has become pathological and we now need medication to focus, to sleep, to not be overwhelmed in despair. As I've noted before, I think Marx only called religion the opiate of the masses because he had not seen television. In Spanish, the word fun translates as divertida. That same root for diversion begs the question: from what is our attention being diverted?
I read an article from NPR this week in which Jonah Lehrer describes how technological innovation has created an instance of cascading interventions. We are certainly served very well by our technologies, but it is when we become the servants of our technology that we have a problem. It has been in thinking about this relationship this week that I've come to understand what the Fathers mean by not being ruled by the passions. In our fallen state, with the image of God disfigured in us, we have to give extra effort to have a focused vision of God. Our lack of focus gives entree to the Deceiver to suggest distractions, but we do not have to be ruled by those suggestions.
The Church, our spiritual hospital, offers remedies for us when plagued by spiritual maladies. The instruction to pray, fast, give to the poor, read the scriptures, attend worship services and otherwise prepare ourselves for communion that might, from the outside, seem like an onerous burden turns out to be the disciplines needed to have a single vision of the life that Christ wants for us. The passage in John's gospel where Christ tells us that He has come that we might have a more abundant life does not (I believe) refer to material wealth. A life that is free of distraction helps us realize our life's purpose: communion with God.
May you be richly blessed as you complete your journey to the empty tomb!
The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. - Luke 11:34