By Fr. Maximos (Constas)
Man is a creature of great depth, created by God, but after the Fall we are easily distracted from the depths, being enamored with mere surface appearances. What in our world today serves to distract us from the depths, and what can we do about it?
It’s hard not to hark back to the saint of the day—Isidore of Pelusium, for a very famous quote that merits repeating. Despite that he was an Alexandrian in the circle of the patriarchs who were no great friends of St. John Chrysostom, St. Isidore was a friend and supporter of St. John and actually reprimanded St. Cyril of Alexandria for his refusal to include St. John in the diptychs. In one of his letters he said, “The mouth of Christ is Paul, and the mouth of Paul is Chrysostom.” This reminds me of the tradition that St. John’s disciple Proclus, while St. John was locked in his study preparing his sermons, heard whispering from within the study. Perplexed because there wasn’t supposed to be anyone else in there, he peered in through the keyhole and saw someone leaning over and whispering into the ear of St. John. This continued for a few nights until St. Prochorus saw an icon of St. Paul and realized that he’s the one who’d been whispering into St. John’s ear. So St. Paul, in a sense, interpreted his own words through St. John.
Before we can talk about deeper things like the life of prayer we need to talk about what prevents us from a life of prayer, and one of the major obstacles in our path is the phenomenon of distractions. A few years ago I heard someone say in Greek something that was quite memorable: “Every depth has a surface, but not every surface has a depth,” and this is why we should not pay so much attention to surface appearances but rather to the depth of things. This is especially important for us as I see our culture becoming more superficial. We’ve lost the sense that there is a tremendous depth to life and to the human person, and everything has become very shallow and superficial and we’re now seduced and bewitched by surface appearances.
It’s all the more remarkable that people like us should have been seduced by surface appearances because in the history of civilization there have been no greater viewers of images than the Byzantines, the Orthodox. Of All people, the Orthodox were the most intelligent and sophisticated viewers of images. We live in a society saturated with images now and we’re not very sophisticated or critical viewers—we tend to be distracted by any passing image, and there are thousands of them everywhere. So, “every depth has a surface, but not every surface has a depth,” which is why we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become fixated on surfaces, but attend to the depths of things.
However, attending to the depths, is not easy, because we have a problem that prevents this from happening. The mind of man as we currently know it is a thing disordered, confused, and we find it hard to focus. We’re easily distracted. It becomes very difficult for us to get past the surface of things, so I think it’s within everyone’s experience that distractions take us away from our depth either by preventing us from engaging the depth altogether, or having found the depth they immediately pull us out of it, and out from the place of the heart, which is the core of our being, of our body. St. Gregory Palamas calls the heart the body within the body. Distractions pull us away from this and send us into exile. If we exist in a realm of distractions and allow ourselves to be pulled about by one sensation after another it will become increasingly difficult to get back to that body within the body, and we’ll live outside ourselves and become oblivious to the fact that we have a depth. There are people who don’t even understand that they have depth. “The original sin of the mind is distraction,” someone once said. Had Adam and Eve been able to stay focused on what they were told we wouldn’t be in the state in which we find ourselves.
How many times have you gotten up from your desk to go do something, and before you get there you’ve forgotten what it was? You arrive at some state of conviction about something and you feel strongly about it and you’re going to set the world on fire, and you walk out of the house and before you’ve gotten to the car you’ve forgotten what it was. This is the existential cognitive state we find ourselves in and it prevents us from attending to the depths. But we have to take this a step further: in addition to this general human condition or weakness, what have we done? We have built an entire culture of organized distractions, without parallel in the history of civilization. Try as you might to focus and stay on track, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to penetrate this veil of illusions that’s been dropped in front of our eyes. This isn’t really anybody’s fault in a personal way, but the fault of the culture in which we are socialized. We shouldn’t so much blame individuals for having difficulty focusing on their prayer life, for example—we need to look at the larger culture that has created this situation, which is increasingly reinforced by a range of gadgets and devices.
I was out of the country for about ten years and when I came back I almost didn’t recognize the country that I had left. When I left people had email but there were no smartphones or iPads and laptops were very rare. When I returned after a few years I was amazed at what had happened to society. Part of what a culture does is to naturalize itself and make you think this is what’s normal, and we get used to it. I was away so I wasn’t used to any of it. And it was surprising, and the degree to which we have become dependent on these technologies that for the most part just keep us distracted all the time was distressing.
Those of us who are older remember different times, but younger people find this all very natural and normal. I find it very unnatural. Even secular people are beginning to realize it’s very unhealthy. I can remember before TV’s had remote controls and you had to physically get up from the couch and walk over to the TV set, and because we’re so lazy we often watched something we didn’t want to watch. Now people have hundreds of options on the remote control and they channel surf. We bounce from one thing to another. We can’t rest even in entertainment, which should be recreative and relaxing. It’s not just that we flit restlessly from channel to channel, but what we see in the places we stop is itself highly fragmented and disorienting. On one channel there are even split-screen images, and there’s four people talking at the same time and there are two or three lines of text moving at different speeds along the bottom of the screen. We’re expected to attend to this range of very superficial chatter, and we’re told by the culture that this is multitasking and it’s a societal virtue, but I see it just as more fragmentation. I don’t think multitasking is a virtue.
This was the case when music videos first became popular, and I was astounded when I read that no single image stays on the screen for longer than three seconds. I didn’t believe it because it seems impossible, and now that style or aesthetic, if it even is one, is everywhere—movies and TV shows are like this, because our ever-diminishing attention spans demands a constant shifting of the kaleidoscope, lest we wonder from the screen for a minute. This is another thing that I find so distressing and it angers me and I wonder what it’s going to take for the Americans to rise up and say “Enough!”
It’s amazing how quickly people have adapted to this, and I find it very odd and distressing. St. Anthony, one of the great desert fathers says that there will come a time when the whole world will go crazy and there will be a few left who are not crazy and the crazy ones will look at them and say you’re crazy. If a priest were to get up in his parish and ask questions about technology his people would say he’s backwards, and medieval, and anti-technology. We’re afraid to stand up to the culture, when in fact there is no shortage of secular thinkers, not even Christians, who are raising red flags. Yet we’re not, because we’re in fear of the dominant culture, I suppose. There are thoughtful intelligent voices out there sounding the warning bells, and I think it’s in our best interest to pay heed.
~ “Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction” delivered by Fr. Maximos (Constas) on Feb. 2014 to the clergy of diocese of LA and the West of Antiochian of N. America at the invitation of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph. The audio version of this lecture first appeared on Patristic Nectar Publications, and is published here by permission.
Fr. Maximos is the presidential research scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of theology in Brookline, MA. He is an Athonite monk, one-time professor at Harvard Divinity School, accomplished author and translator and lectures internationally in both academic and parochial venues.