The Loneliness of Modern Man

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In the Benedictine tradition, a monk makes four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Most people are familiar with the first three but not with the fourth. In classical Benedictine practice it meant that a monk stayed put: he did not move from monastery to monastery. It was not a new idea. Before Benedict had written his rule, there was already the saying from the Desert: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

Staying put or stability doesn’t sound all that difficult; nothing at all as hard as poverty, chastity and obedience. But it may indeed be the hardest of all. The “noonday devil” which tended to afflict monks from the beginning, was especially known as the temptation at some point to leave your cell and just go visiting, where gossip and many far worse temptations could make themselves manifest. Staying put was the hardest battle of all. In its most extreme form in the the East we see the Stylites, the monks who lived on the tops of pillars (St. Simeon’s was over 300 feet tall!)

In our modern world stability is an extremely rare commodity. The average American moves once every five years. When I first came to Oak Ridge (Tennessee), I was constantly told by the old-timers, “People in Oak Ridge are from everywhere!” In 1943 when this city was founded as part of the Manhattan Project, that statement was truly unusual. Americans rarely relocated. But I had to break the sad news to my new co-citizens, “Everywhere you go, people are from everywhere!”

There was a time in my hometown in South Carolina that a trip to the store or Mall would bring a dozen casual meetings with friends and acquaintances. Now they are all strangers when I visit – or rather I am the stranger. I do not live there anymore.

All of this would just be sociologically interesting if it had not effect on our lives. But it has a profound effect.

In 1935 (to pick a date), the most common pattern in our country was for a local boy to meet and marry a local girl and to settle down and raise their children in the community in which they themselves were born, with relatives and friends forming a network of relationships that surrounded and nurtured (or harrassed) them. Divorce rates and crime rates were relatively low in most places. Stable communities tend to have stable families. The network of relationships promotes this. Human beings have lived in these relatively stable forms for most of human history.

In 2007 (to pick another date), the more common pattern is for a boy to meet a girl in college or later – he is from Virginia (say) and she is from Ohio (say). They marry, move to Oregon and begin their careers, or they met there and married. Family is the stuff you negotiate as in “whose parents do we visit at Thanksgiving this year, etc.” The network of friends is often his friends from work and her friends from work, and frequently not much more.

In 1980, living in Columbia, S.C., I attended a conference in which the lecturer asked an auditorium of about 400 to raise their hands if they new 5 people on their city block. A few hands went up. I wound up in the last group. I knew no one in the Apartment Complex where we lived. Most of us did not know a single neighbor. And that is not an unusal modern pattern.

This brings us to the loneliness of modern man. The internet has probably made us more connected, in a virtual sense, than we have been in a generation. But, of course, their is an extreme level of volunteerism in this virtual community. If I don’t want to post today there is nothing you can do about it. We are not a natural community.

I cannot touch you or hear you laugh. I share a photo so you know something of what I look like. But how do I sound? How much of my native Appalachian dialect still clings to my tongue (not much, but some).

And we only know what we choose to share. It makes for a very thin village indeed.

As modern man has lost his stability (I blame our economic structures largely for this phenomenon – moving expenses are tax-deductible, for example) so we have lost the fruit of stability. Crime, divorce, the simple consensus that makes a culture a culture disappears. The 1950’s three channel television and white-bread families were probably the last cultural manifestation of an earlier consensus that will not return. It cannot return without stability.

I have lived in Oak Ridge since 1989, in six years it will be the longest I have ever lived anywhere. I know many people in this town of 25,000 and I know my parish of 100+ souls quite well. Stability for me means I will be buried in this town. It is a goal I have, though, it is one of my long-term goals.

For all of us, some form of stability is necessary, even if it is one we must largely create ourselves.

I would point to the Orthodox Church as an example of stability. I can read from centuries of writings and recognize and understand what is said. St. Athanasius is as interesting to me on a daily basis as, say, Fr. John Behr. The “latest thing” in Orthodoxy just isn’t very late. There is a stability that comes within that part of life – a stability I cannot create but to which I can submit. I am Orthodox and I can daily seek to imbibe more fully what that means. It can create me (which is probably much to be preferred).

I cannot leave the modern world (or post-modern if you prefer). I was born in 1953 and there’s is nothing to be done about it. But there are commitments that I can make – that any of us can make. I am married. I do not take a vow of poverty, but everything I own is owned by my wife as well (no private property). If you have children, you will learn a certain form of poverty no matter what. I do not take a vow of chastity. But I only have one more woman than a monk. As far as all the other 3 billion women in the world are concerned – I am a monk. For the married, faithfulness is the natural form of chastity. I do not take a vow of obedience (nor did my wife for that matter), but I have a life of mutual submission – my will is not my own. We are not here because I alone wanted to be here. We are here because we wanted to be here (ultimately, I suppose there is obedience – to my Bishop, and to my God – but on a daily basis His Eminence does not interfere. God can also be strangely silent).

But stability is more fleeting. I think that only by becoming part of a larger community, even larger than the present and reaching into the past, do we begin to find stability. Oddly, Oak Ridge is more stable now than most towns. But none of it matches the stability of 2,000 years of living Tradition. To live my life in the neighborhood of the Kingdom of God where the saints know my name and encourage or harrass me if necessary.

God give us the grace to come to the place of stability in you. Put me some place where I can stay put.

25 Responses to “The Loneliness of Modern Man”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The picture is of my parent’s mobile home (they retired to it – I think of it as stability on wheels). The handsome lad looking back at you is my son. He has my name, another form of stability (or liability if we shame each other). For what it’s worth (as we share ourselves) I think this is the favorite thing I’ve written thus far.

  2. Catechumen Trevor Says:

    I like this one too! I started writing about my own experience, but it got so long I decided to just put up my own post and reference it here. If anyone’s interested:

    http://abuian.blogspot.com/2007/01/everyone-else-is-doing-it.html

  3. Laura Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and wisdom, Father! Similar thoughts have been poking around in my brain for quite some time and I am blessed to add your ideas to the stew!

  4. Tia Says:

    How ironic (the word of the year I’m coming to learn): we prayed very similar to this once, “Put me some place where I can stay put.”. As David said last night, “Why can’t we just stay here?” I tend to “hold all things loosely”, knowing my life can be radically twisted and turned by others, but I do hope that we can do what we’ve longed to, put down roots, and stay in one (this) area. I’m currently reading The Rule of St. Benedict, thanks to my dh, who felt I should give him a read.

  5. Alyssa Says:

    I don’t know what to say in response to this except Thank You! Thank you for sharing your insights and you heart with us.
    Alyssa

  6. Discipulus Says:

    This is a very good entry. Often I feel completely rootless. I could live almost anywhere or have nearly any profession. I do not know my neighbors. Some of them I hardly ever even see.

    I was especially struck by the monkishness of marriage which you brought to our attention. I am thankful that the Church and marriage exist as a potential counterweight to all the loneliness in the world. I hope I can somehow do a better job of appreciating and nurturing these two gifts I’ve been given. Perhaps you’d care to talk a liitle more about marriage in the future?

    This entry also reminds me of the importance for Christians to foster real fellowship among themselves. In my experience, the “spirit of the age” has often diluted fellowship in some churches. I am guilty of it for sure.

  7. rdreusebios1 Says:

    I was born and raised in a small midwestern community and lived there for 39 years prior to moving to this medium-sized (yet equally sleepy) midwestern community. I agree that there is something to be said for stability.
    Havung recently entertained our first god-children for nearly a month while they were on break from seminary, I can say that being back in community with them (we lived thusly for three years) did indeed bring about an even greater sense of stability (and to a lesser extent, chaos!) it also reminded me that there are times when God moves us with purpose. St. Paul was rarely “still” in the sense of being in one place. neither were sts. Kyrill and Methodius, nor Sts. Herman, Innocent Tikhon and most especialy Jakov. I understand your perspective Father, but it seems to me that inner stillness and stability are the key, particularly in our post-modern world.

  8. Fatherstephen Says:

    Traveling missionaries came into stable towns and villages. Stillness, inner or otherwise, according to the tradition, are not particularly promoted by lack of stability. You cannot trump the outer with the inner. We’re not angels but human beings with bodies. Stability is important. The cases you’ve cited are exceptions, not rules. What kind of preaching would St. Paul have been able to do if the cities and towns he were in were as unstable and in flux as our modern cities?

    The monastic model points towards stability. The settling of Europe was largely around the stable monasteries and persons such as St. Sergius or the Celtic monastics. If you want inner stillness, then you’ll need outer stillness as well – I can’t think of a source in the Tradition that teaches otherwise.

    But I take your point – if you mean that if in staying put we still have no inner stillness it will not have done us much good.

    I would agree with the exception that I would make a generalization that it’s simply not good for human beings to be so mobile. We need community – we’re generally created for a coenobitic life. And that when even these natural boundaries are gone, modern man who already has very little inner life, is truly bereft.

    But the greater commandment in Scripture is to love our neighbor – and you have to have a neighbor to love him. πŸ™‚

    Peace

  9. Stacy Says:

    Father… I join the others in saying that this has been on my mind lately, too. I’ve lived in this city for 6 years which is the longest I’ve live anywhere as an adult. However, in those 6 years I’ve lived in 4 different homes. And it’s not looking to end soon. I am currently in the process of taking on an international job.

    I am very grateful for the stability of the church. She is the stability that I am not able to provide myself. Just after I first converted to the Orthodox Church I went through a period of tremendous internal struggle with myself. A long-time friend of mine noted that the instability of the Protestant Church had never afforded me that which I needed to deal with certain issues. In my heart I knew I was home and felt her safety and security that allowed me to really deal with certain issues of which I hadn’t even been aware prior to conversion.

    On the flip side, being so transient has taught me to value holding onto things with loose fingers. Being a gluttonous pack-rat can wear your friend-bank thin when it comes to moving all that stuff year after year. :p

  10. Steve Says:

    How timely for today, for me at least. The Lord is teaching me to stay put. Every time I start to get crazy and want to do something different, go somewhere else, be someone else, I find in the end that He is constant, even when I don’t want to be.

  11. handmaidleah Says:

    Fr. Bless!
    Lovely post Fr. Stephen. I married a Colorado native (which means he will NEVER leave the state) and as I am not a native and would love to live anywhere there is no blustery wind, ahhh well, whither thou goest…
    which is precisely no where but where we are…
    On the other hand, we can and do travel, I just put up a new YouTube of our mission trip to Spruce Island if anyone wants to see, pop on over to Christ is in our midst!
    Our homes are our churches, too.
    For me, this piece of being Orthodox, helps me “put on Christ” everyday. When I actually do daily the acts of Love that create our Church Home, the atmosphere changes, we change living inside it.
    the handmaid,
    Leah

  12. Jack Says:

    Father,

    This is one of my favorite posts too. Instability is cornerstone of many contemporary ailments. May the good Lord who loves mankind grant us all both inner and outer stability.

    When asked about the essential problem with modernity, Simone Weil said something like “lack of roots.” Similarly, Walker Percy said something like “blessed is the man who finally discovers that not all options are open to him.”

  13. Jonathan Says:

    Where do I begin in response to this? Like several people, this has been on my mind lately, as well. Though, it doesn’t always have a name, if you know what I mean. (I’ll come back to this later.)

    Eh…I’ll try to keep it short.

    Father, your comment about how “connected” we are in the virtual sense but how we lack personal connection at an ever-increasing rate is spot on. And it’s especially evident in the youth of today. You go anywhere and, if you listen carefully enough, you’ll hear young people talk about MySpace, Facebook, Instant Messenger, etc. I even heard people talk about it at the pilgrimage to Holy Cross Monastery this past November! Yet, over the years, I’ve talked to quite a number of youth (both youth I know and don’t know) who groan under the weight of emptiness and loneliness because of a lack of real friends at school, church, the neighborhood, and so on. It’s harrowingly ironic that in spite of the “oneness” and community created by the social networking boom, we are all still very separate. More and more, we are becoming—as one songwriter puts it—a lonely nation.

    Discipulus said, “This entry also reminds me of the importance for Christians to foster real fellowship among themselves.” Indeed, and this ties into the responsibility of the Church and the individual parishes to address the problem I mentioned above. Father, if you’ll remind me when we meet this weekend to speak to you of my conversation with Fr. Atty, I will bring up something very interesting he said to me regarding this very thing. But, it’s too long to go into here.

    With regards to the “exceptions” for the need of stability…at least, with St. Paul, is he really a true exception? Did he not stay in touch as much as humanly possible with the members of the churches he helped found? Also, did he not stay within the community of the church? I mean, yes, he went hither and thither. Yet, was he as unstable as many of us are today? Wasn’t he still grounded in the community of the Church and his fellow apostles and his disciples? Just curious.

    That’s all that’s coming together right now. At least, that I’m willing to burden you with. πŸ˜‰

    This, too is my favorite post so far. Thank you, Father!

  14. Jonathan Says:

    btw….I know I left a gaping hole in my response, in that I didn’t come back to it not always having a name. I just realized this. So, if you would be so kind as to suffer me for a few more minutes….

    Without getting into what was said (again…too long and involved), Fr. Atty this weekend made a comment regarding fellowship that troubled me. Not that it was wrong…it was very true. But, it bothered me all the same.

    Until now, I could not quite pin down the nature of the internal reaction I had to what he said that bothered me so. But, thanks to this post, I now know that there was a difference in what he said and what I said, and the different lies in what has been mentioned here, both in the post and the responses.

    So…there you have it. No loose ends now. At least…not as far as I know. πŸ˜€

  15. Kirk Says:

    Father Stephen,

    ‘Bloom where you are planted’–isn’t this stability in a nutshell?

    How timely is this topic! Just last week, I was making plans to move from my small rural town (population 3,000) to a larger one (population 75,000) an hour away. The larger town would likely offer economic and cultural opportunities that my town does not presently have. It would also offer something to which I was accustomed growing up (I grew up in a city of 150,000+)–anonymity.

    When I was young, we were nobody: my parents were school teachers, we were middle class, people of little importance. We would go to the mall and might not see anyone we knew. I liked melting into a crowd; not having to be self-conscious or put on appearances to meet others’ expectations.

    I am not happy, and so I think about moving; doing something different; making a fresh start. I fear that when I arrive in a new locale I will unpack my problems with the rest of my belongings. I try to remember that happiness is where you find it, but I wonder if God would not have better things in store for me somewhere else. And I remember that I am just a pilgrim here anyway–my home is in heaven.

    By the way, your admonition toward stability would seem to militate against a life-changing conversion to Orthodoxy.

    I know how the rich young man must have felt. (Matt. 19)

    Forgive me.

  16. Steve Hayes Says:

    In my youth I had an ambition to be a Dharma bum, a wanderer from place to place. I don’t think it’s as bad an ambition as you suggest. The book The way of a pilgrim has a similar vision.

    I was inspired in this vision by a paper read at a student conference by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection.

    I never really managed to fulfil this ambition, and I find that I am now just the opposite, a fitting target for a common sneering cliche, “You don’t get out much, do you?”

    No, I don’t get out much. I find that there is a kidn of inertia. If I need to go out for anything at all, I find I puit it off.

    Does that give me stability?

    Not really. Though I don’t go out the gate much, even for a walk round the block, I get on my computer and visit blogs in cyberspace.

  17. Roland Says:

    Like Trevor, I started writing a response here and then, when it reached a certain length, I decided to move it to my own blog:

    http://2natures.blogspot.com/2007/01/stability.html

  18. Fatherstephen Says:

    Kirk,

    Stability is good, unless, to quote Fr. Thomas Hopko, you are living in the pigpen. In which case, going back to the Father’s House is a good move. Many of us converts find ourselves in just this situation which is why the phrase, “Coming Home,” so describes the journey to Orthodoxy. This is the Father’s House. This is where I was meant to be. No arguement. Just fact.

  19. The Anchoress » Orthodoxy, Benedict and Stability Says:

    […] sent this my way, and I thought it was more than worth […]

  20. AngloCathJoi Says:

    Good post!

    I grew up in a very small town in the Texas panhandle (12,000 people, give or take). It was often easier to introduce myself as “Jack W—-‘s granddaughter” or “Joe W—–‘s daughter” than as myself, since so many knew them, our family having lived there for at least two generations. We knew most of the neighbors on our block, and me and my sister would often go visiting.

    Then I moved to LA. Needless to say, a very different sort of town. Many, if not most, of my classmates from college have now moved, chaning communities and churches every few years. And while I’ve had to switch apartments several times, I’ve managed to stay at the same church, even driving 45 minutes one-way for ahile. And it’s been good, to build that kind of community again. I am practically garunteed to know the people next to me in the pew, and many of the people there have been in that community for years. My roommate and I are trying to move into another apartment so that we can be near some other friends and be able to invite people over for food and friendship.

    So it can still be done, it just takes a lot more effort now. But it is hard. I know I’m limiting myself career- and education-wise by not moving out of the area. I’m garunteed to lose touch with friends who move, and I’m a long ways away from anyone who knew my grandfather. But I guess we all do what we can!

  21. Roland Says:

    I’ve been watching an old History Channel program on the Gypsies. It occurred to me that the Gypsies preserved community and culture against the pressures of the modern world precisely by *not* practicing stability. By remaining always on the move, they forced themselves to rely on their own mobile community and to resist attachment to the modernizing world that surrounded them.

  22. Fatherstephen Says:

    Roland,

    Good example. It’s obviously possible to maintain stability while being mobile if your community is mobile, too. Kind of turtle-like stability. πŸ™‚

  23. Don Bradley Says:

    Kirk said,

    “By the way, your admonition toward stability would seem to militate against a life-changing conversion to Orthodoxy.”

    I think Fr. Stephen was aiming at something a bit more philosophical. Orthodoxy is the same if I go to St. Anne’s in Oak Ridge, or to Mt. Athos in Greece, or travel in time back to 4th century Alexandria. There is a sameness that produces stability. For example, the Orthodox do not have doctrinal disputes about soteriology and eschatology that asks you to choose sides in a debate, nor do we vex souls with a barrage of pietistic sermons designed to make you introspect on yourself about whether “you know that you know” whether you’re saved (everyone bow your head and close your eyes and raise your hand if you don’t know whether you’re going to heaven), nor do we have romantically-driven “Jesus is my boyfriend” music that is draining emotionally and leaves you wondering if you love Him enough. Everything in Orthodoxy is directed to directing you toward worshiping God the Holy Trinity, and recieving from Him in the sacraments. It is a participation in the very life of the Trinity. Orthodoxy produces stability in the people it touches because of the transcendant nature of its corporate life. It is life-changing, just not in the instantaneous slick packaging like American evangelicalism sells it.

  24. Michelle Says:

    You know in the cartoon Wall-E, when one of the bloated evolved-into-a-helpless-lump humans has a malfunction with the hologram screen thingie that usually floats in front of her keeping her virtually connected to others, and because it is not working, she notices 1. the beauty of the stars outside the ship and 2. another actual person, for possibly the first time?

    That’s what this made me think of.

    (I only saw it once so I may have mixed up the scenes a bit.)

    Also, it’s refreshing to hear someone say “God can be strangely silent.”

  25. Josh Says:

    I loved this article. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where the community was very closely tied in to a few local churches (protestant, but they were sincere in trying their best to live according to the Truth as they thought it was).

    Now, I graduated from college and have moved into the D.C. metropolitan area. I hardly know a neighbor, not because I dont want to, but because it has become socially awkward to pay an unknown neighbor a surprise visit, and also because my neighbors are always changing (as are my roommates).

    In PA, it was easier to love people, and to live a modest, chaste life. Here, in D.C., it is much more difficult. Even the Church congregations are ‘from everywhere’. It takes an hour to get accross the Potomac, yet people still cross the river to get to the Parish of their choice, and I find that many people tend to switch parishes every so many years. So I have found a profound lack of community here in the city. Along with this lack of community comes a profound sense of loneliness and even despair at having seemingly nobody to reach out to in this busy, work-centric environment.

    But here is the positive in all this. In such an environment, one is faced with 2 choices – to let his soul die alone, in Hell, or to seek community through other means. My comfort has been, all the time I have lived here, to fall down in exhaustion at my icon corner in the evenings and open my heart (nous) to God and the Saints in prayer. The Trinity, the only truly stable community, becomes the invisible stability of the friendless and lonely. When blessed with a good, faithful father/confessor and, if by God’s grace, the company of a few sincere co-strugglers in the faith, true stability is always near at hand.

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