Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | September 28, 2012

Passion and Asceticism in a Virtual World

The veil unwittingly dropped when President George W suggested after 9-11 that Americans simply needed to pick themselves up and go shopping remains in so many ways one of the watersheds of our time. The same people who went shopping are the same people who have allowed both their citizenship and personhood to be concatenated into the lives of others as “consumers” rather than communicants. And I’d even stretch this at some risk to suggest that in some ways… minor measures uncomfortable perhaps in their implications… but nevertheless true at least in part… that as communicants in the Orthodox Church we may even be deficient because we see ourselves as no more than consumers of the body and blood of Christ… rather than in the whole of His life and how that plays out for all of us. Transformation is not just one way… the way that we like and pretend, but is both ways and a constant stream between one pole and another… or so I tell myself.

Truth is harder: I’ve no doubt that we’re like sailboats (there’s that sailing metaphor again!) set off towards our intended course and happily making good time with the wind and all, only as we set out at our standard 5 or 6 knots… which is really moving for some sailboats, we’re overwhelmed and pushed back by an incoming tide running against the bow at roughly 7 or 8 knots. On the Chesapeake, this isn’t all that unusual, and at least two generations of champion sailors I’ve known have won many races with the clear vision to drop anchor on these occasions and wait out the tide. Know simply that these champions aren’t exercising rocket science… dropping and setting an anchor is one of the skills of very basic seamanship, but the myopia to continue without the broader vision, to lift one’s focus for a moment from the decision to sail rather than anchor… is so difficult that literally only one in a fleet of a hundred or so boats may exercise the option. Happens time and again. Sailors have all these great distinctions in their digital electronic displays that help them distinguish things like “course” versus “course made good”, “wind” versus “apparent wind”, and we can even chart our precise location and measure our progress with super accurate triangulating GPS… but do we do it, understand the implications, and can we exercise the courage to act on the information? Apparently for the most part the answer is no. For once we have seized on a decision, begun an action, and taken steps… our nature tends to “lock ‘n load”, and we’re fixed.

As I muddle through my fifties here, my partner has made noises – at last – about upping his ownership from 10% through 50% and eventually buying me out completely. Of course, in my usual way, this means I’m faced with becoming a street person in no time, so I kid you not, the fear of no ownership and no salary… selling everything you have ever had in 25 years to make a living – lock, stock and barrel – and signing a non-compete agreement can become a real impediment that you have to somehow have the trust, confidence and time to patiently put back in the box. Can you literally take your hand off the tiller and out of the till sufficiently to work a deal that lives and breathes, or like so many, will you try to maximize “your share” to the detriment of clients and the surviving managers? Can you work an agreement where you can still work and enjoy the pleasures of service, or is it off to becoming a bag man at nearby Crate & Barrel? I’ve talked a good game on this for years as many in my position do, but when it comes to cutting the mustard… I’ve seen these disasters and temptations destroy a lifetime of work in short order … over and over again. This is where possessive becomes real. How do I define myself? What am I holding on to? And what am I really afraid of? Money is surely part of the equation… for as Clarence was rebuffed by George in “It’s a Wonderful Life” in words ever etched in one’s brain, “I don’t know about heaven, but the stuff sure comes in handy around here,” but there is a lot more. Life doesn’t end with all these transitions… it merely begins in a new way… if I, if “we”… can see it.

And so we come to the puzzle of modern asceticism: How can we practice a brake on our passions when everything we see or imagine is satisfied in an instant – or nearly so, and how can we free ourselves sufficiently to lift our gaze and ponder that there might be more than we can imagine, that there might be limits to the created and seen world… there might even be an invisible God somewhere behind it all that stores up untold, unimaginable beauties and wonders… when the magic of the modern, technological age is… well… it’s magical. Have our icons not become 4G phones and iPads? Have not our wonders been subsumed by Googling this and that? Have we not allowed within ourselves at our deepest level of being a transformation fed by an intoxication with what is here and now or able to be brought and bought into the here and now at a moment’s notice and delivered to our doorstep – tomorrow if not this very afternoon? And are we all not in some way in danger of the same curse of Pinocchio and the boys on the island… concatenated from living boys into wooden puppets ensared on the end of someone’s string until made to dance?

Believe it or not, my partner and I do talk about these things and their implications on a day-to-day basis. We’re caught in the struggle of trying to figure out where the whirlwind of this world is taking us over the long-term in a storm that seems to still be moving us along at quite a pace. The limit of our asceticism so far is to admit the futility of these discussions… we simply don’t and can’t know where this is going. For my part, I’d thought the intoxication with our mobile devices and high-tech touch would have ebbed by now. Surely it will in time, but the suppliers knowing this as well seem intent on feeding our addiction.. and  like so many dealers, know the answer to familiarity, to the waning thrill of the current “fix”… is to be found in concocting a newer, more intense cocktail. And so we move from desktop to mobile in ways not unlike a junkie who has “matured” from being injected by others to injecting himself.

No, I don’t know where it will lead. What I do know is that this modern incarnation of an age old infatuation with the world and all its passions is more encompassing, less escapable, and more widely transformative than we have imagined. Understand that I do not blame the technology, nor do I even suggest Satan is behind any of this – we do this to ourselves quite fine without him. But as it seems to have begun from a level of transformation we were only vaguely aware of, the intensification of this mirage is only more spellbinding. I think the answer lies in incarnate communion and an intensification of our physical, real contacts with each other. But the truth is … I don’t really know. I’d have thought coffee houses, churches, civic centers and the like where people come to meet and actually talk things through would blossom… but the fact that they haven’t is telling. Even the waning of bloggerdom is a sign that maybe the truth is we’re talking ourselves out. And perhaps it is a communion of silence that will recover the world. Okay… so the Quakers will inherit the earth rather than the Orthodox Christians?

That’s all I have time for this morning… actually it’s more than I have time for and I haven’t in truth done the topic justice. But it is a beginning and a wonder, and I leave it there perhaps to stoke your own.


  1. Dear JtTH, this is a most profound article. Thank you for writing it. The 4th paragraph really resonated with me especially. As I’ve meandered into the same age range as you, I have found my communion less ‘real’ and more ‘virtual’. I yearn for the former but have found it difficult to satisfy that yearning because others are caught up in the latter. As a matter of fact, my FIL and I were just talking about a similar thing with his not attending church anymore for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is poor worship experiences (he is Am. Bapt).

    I dunno. You have given much to stoke the fire. I wish I knew what to do to change it all.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate your thoughts.

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