Endless distraction vs monastic simplicity

As you may see in the sidebar of this blog, I am on Twitter. I initially joined under my own name in 2017 as a means to have and control a public professional persona. This purpose remains, but, after starting to teach for Davenant Hall, this public persona has expanded to include some of my own personal religious views, including this blog. And, to be honest, this self-promotion is also aimed to hopefully gain a few students.

Twitter — and even a private Discord server such as we have for The Davenant Institute — can be a great way to meet people. I have expanded my army of friends, and I am happy for that. Twitter and other social media — Facebook, Instagram, etc. — can also be a great way to distract yourself. And be endlessly distracted.

Sometimes, it’s okay. I’m willing to concede that we need a bit of distraction sometimes. It’s part of relaxation and restoration, I think. Take your mind off the pressures of daily life by following, say, @red_loeb to see images from medieval manuscripts, to name just one example. There are some interesting, amusing, informative, entertaining Twitter accounts to add to your feed.

Sometimes, it’s less okay. Like, say, the vast eruptions that happened after the USA’s Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Or when you see some less-than-pleasant characters falsely characterising your own religious beliefs. Or when you watch, say, a video of a news presenter taking down a flummoxed pastor over hot-button cultural issues. You get this fire burning in you, sometimes. Or you can’t direct your energy where it should be (*glances at The Life of Saint Pachomius*), continually thinking about the assault you have levelled against your nous.

I once Tweeted that Twitter is like having your nous assaulted by all 8 Evagrian thoughts at once.

The monks of the Desert would not have appreciated something like Twitter. Tonight in my Desert Fathers course for Davenant Hall, I am teaching about Pachomius, the reputedly first abbot of a coenobium, of a monastery designed for communal living. The monks were meant to live undistracted lives. This meant that if any of them had to leave the monastery on business, they weren’t allowed to tell the brothers what they had seen or heard. If someone came to the monastery, the porter was the only person they were allowed to interact with. Tabennisi, the village where the first Pachomian monastery was founded, was an abandoned village. Even walks in the abandoned village were not allowed.

Elsewhere, of course, in the anchoritic literature, we hear of monks refusing to listen to news of the outside world. Or they ignore people from outside sometimes. They avoid talking, even if news isn’t the subject. Curiosity, even about ones family that was left behind, is considered dangerous.

The point of all this is to help cultivate a heart that is undistracted and undivided. The monk is someone who is single-minded. Monks are monomaniacs for God. They aren’t interested in the emperor’s doings. They aren’t interested in visits from the priests of the outside world. They aren’t even that interested in the inner world of their souls, except inasmuch as it can help or hinder in the raising up of the monk to God.

Now, Twitter is actually part of my livelihood, since tuition pays my salary. So I’ll stay there. But we all need to know when to logoff and unplug and sit, undistracted, pursuing God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The simplicity of the monks and their spiritual practices, I believe, can help us there.

For me, as you no doubt know, a major monastic practice has been the Jesus Prayer — listen to my and my brother’s podcast to hear some more!


Burchard of Worms on the distracted mind

From the preface of Burchard’s Decretum (ca. 1012-1023):

I was unable to proceed [with this project] for two reasons: because of various and inevitable ecclesiastical obligations, which emerge daily just as waves of the sea, and, moreover, because of responsibility for secular affairs relating to imperial commands. These greatly blunt the mind of one zealous and striving toward higher things, because the mind of anyone, while it is divided among very many things, will be weaker for each one. (Trans. Somerville & Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, p. 100)

This final clause is exactly the result of spending too much time on social media and not enough time in deep reading and personal interactions.

Makes me seriously consider taking another techno-fast, or getting off Facebook & Twitter altogether…

Extract from Burchard’s Decretum, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

What would a modern Bonfire of the Vanities look like?

In writing about Savonarola, I got to thinking about what a modern ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ would look like. What are the vanities we would come to throw into the flames and utterly destroy for all eternity?

Typically, useless luxuries are thrown into such bonfires. Who really needs fabulous works of Renaissance art, anyway? Right? But what is the traditional Christian concept that lies at the foot, that is the kindling, of bonfires of the vanities?

It is, and here I conjecture, most likely twofold. One — the things of this world are unnecessary. Thus, vain, as its Latin root vanus means. Empty. Needless. Who needs make up? Who needs hair product? Who needs to upgrade his’er iPad yesterday? Is not this stripping away of all wordly goods an abundant command in the Gospels? Luke 14:33 unsettles me on a regular basis:

In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. (NIV)

The second is related. The great good in the universe is not in the universe. The summum bonum of our lives is not of our lives. God is paradoxically closer than our very breath yet as far above us as the heavens are from the earth. The Holy One is both immanent and transcendant. And the things of this world can get in the way. Our books, our art, our new clothes, or treasured possessions, our delicacies, our gadgets — these things can distract us from the great good found in God alone through grace alone.

So the mindset of the Bonfire of the Vanities is — throw away the distractions. Then turn your attention to God.

I am imagining this not in Florence but in Edinburgh. I’m imagining the square in front of St Giles although perhaps the National Gallery would be more appropriate. And there, beside the statue of some Duke of Buccleuch or other, in front the late Gothic facade (or is it a Victorian re-do?), there are the flames, reaching to the Duke of Buccleuch’s bronze head.

In procession along the Royal Mile and George IV Bridge, through the grey, cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town come the Edinburghers. In their jeans and skirts and sweat pants (aka ‘tracky bottoms’!!) with half their rear exposed. In their kilts and suits and hoodies and skin-tight leggings. They trudge, pale-skinned to the orange glow of the flames.

And there they throw in the vanities of this age: iPads, iPods, iPhones, iEverything, Swiss watches, jewellery, make up, hair gel, books, CDs, DVDs, external hard drives full of illegally downloaded films, sound systems, flat screen TVs, your mom, theatre tickets, musical instruments (even these could go at times!), fancy shoes, and on and on.

Edinburgh is auld reekie again. And not just in terms of smoke, but Standard English reeky. The stench of burning plastic and rubber fills the air as the penitents throw their worldly sources of distraction and affection and misplaced fulfilment and false self-worth onto the towering inferno, its column rising black and malodorous into the slate-grey Midlothian sky.

But somehow I doubt there will be a black-and-white-robed Dominican from St Albert’s chaplaincy standing there urging everyone on.

So a modern Bonfire of the Vanities.

We hope such excess is not necessary. But what is necessary to reach for the Invisible God, bound as we are to the physical realities all around us. We need to make daily space for being undistracted. We need to unclutter not just our homes but our schedules. Perhaps we need to engage in a bit of a metaphorical Bonfire of the Vanities ourselves.

It is Lent. The perfect excuse for a little spiritual discipline, yes?