Living in the World

I just spent about a week and a half at St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox monastery, and it was quite lovely. While I was there I spent some time reading The Spiritual Life by St. Theophan the Recluse of Russia, which got me to thinking more about how the individual soul reacts to this modern culture, which often ranges in climate from apathetic to anti-religious.


The Spiritual Life is based upon a series of letters written by St. Theophan to a young woman who desired to learn how to follow God amongst the endemic triviality of life as a wealthy Russian living in Moscow. It begins “Once, while on the dance floor, a young woman had a glimpse of the immortality of her soul” – and so she could not just go on as if this were the only life there were, and this present happiness were all that mattered. And she went to Bishop Theophan to ask what to do about that revelation.


There is surely a place for looking at the grand scheme of things, of cultures being overwhelmed and fighting back in bitterness and resentment, or of the insensitivity of “culturally imperialist” nations, but that really isn’t anything I am wise enough to speak about. Instead, I would like to consider for a moment the individual human soul faced with all these tempting forces; that question, it seems, is of more immediate necessity in any case.


A lot of people ask about homeschooling how the children become “socialized.” Sometimes they simply want to know if homeschoolers manage to make friends and do stuff with other children who are different from themselves. That question is easily enough answered with “yes,” usually followed by “oh, OK, good.” But there’s another part to that initial question as well, one more difficult to answer. “How well are they able to deal with the modern world?” kinds of questions. If you had asked me that only a few months ago I probably would have said that, yeah, it’s a little difficult, and we’re a little more sheltered than would be ideal, but in most cases the benefits make up for the disadvantages. But I wonder now if that answer is still sidestepping the main issue a wee bit. Because what’s really being asked is how easily we can pretend to be modern, with all that term now implies. Can we interact with the world on its own terms? To which I want to know first: should we be able to interact with the modern world on its own terms? What, exactly, should it mean to be “in the world but not of the world” – for any Christian?


In the case of the young woman who wrote to St. Theophan, she had been raised in the country in a rather more wholesome atmosphere, and was initially shocked by the futility of much of the life in the capital. That was what got her to inquire for the first time after the life of the spirit. In other words, for her that brief shock was necessary for her to be able to wake up to the reality of God and true Christianity. People are worried, I think, that some of us sheltered Christian lads and lasses will be shocked by the World when we run into it in college, or the workplace, or wherever we should happen to end up after leaving out parents’ protection. We could find it alluring, and fall into the whirlpool of worldly cares, or the bog of apathy, or any number of other traps laid by the demons. That’s true, we could. But I can’t help believing that a person is more likely to know that what he’s doing is wrong if he grew up in a society that condemned it, than in one that oscillated between ignoring and congratulating worldly behavior.


Of course you can’t just go and send a young man or woman out into the world without any help at all – then they are probably going to become despondent and self-absorbed, even if they don’t fall for worldly life completely. The young woman I’ve been considering found St. Theophan; I found the Orthodox Church, and many lovely people within that Church. Other people I know have become part of Christian fellowships or discipleship programs. All this is quite necessary for most of us – left alone even a reasonably good person will soon become quite useless to others; good books (especially the Bible) help, but not enough to make guides and fellow travelers unnecessary.


And so, I would tend to add to the consideration that there are both advantages and disadvantages to a fairly strict Christian upbringing, that it matters immensely what a young person is planning on going out and doing after leaving home. Will they find a very secular job where they’re always getting invited to questionable parties, and handling sleazy materials? Do they want to become a professional academic? Then yeah, things are likely to be difficult. But is that really necessary? Is it even desirable? Christ never told us to be in the world, and have exactly the same aims and interests as those in the world, except for praying and going to church twice a week. The Church is likened to a ship amongst tempestuous seas; I suppose if one is planning on spending most of one’s life in a lifeboat just off the ship’s prow, coming in every once in a while for provisions, then it’s just as well to go on outings as a child and learn how to deal. But why not just live the whole time onboard?


This is, of course, a Christian perspective. But I am Christian, after all. I’m not sure what this crazy modern world of ours means to a muslim, for instance. Are they advised, as the young woman who wrote St. Theophan was, to go to frivolous, worldly events and places without sympathy, “as one dead?” I don’t know. Perhaps I could ask sometime. I only know that Christians have tales and councils from two thousand years of living in ever kind of secular society, from decadent Rome to atheist USSR, while still remaining Christian, with faith, hope, and love. Why are we surprised that we – and all traditional peoples – must go through that same trial in our modern times?


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