Without Distraction

A desert hermit, dear to God and often in prayer, was joined by two angels as he walked, one on each side. He tried to pay them no attention. He did not want to be distracted from his conversation with Christ.

From the Desert Fathers

This is one of the great religious tragedies of our age – we do not want God so much as the proof of His existence – all of which is – in my thought – part of living in the world of a two-storey universe. We hope that there’s a God up there and we’ll grasp at any hint that it all might be true.

I’m trying to place the story of this hermit in today’s American setting and can only imagine that this would quickly become an “angel story” and not a story about God. Just as Church becomes a grocery story, or “look what she’s wearing” story or “what did he mean by that story” or “anything but God story.” And the goodness of God is that His is always, “I love you so much I gave you my only-begotten son” story. And even angels long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:12).

The very heart of Orthodox spiritual practice is Hesychia (stillness). It is not necessarily a matter of sitting or standing still (though sometimes it helps) as it is become still within our inmost selves. It is, indeed, the opposite of being distracted.

The stange thing about distractions is that they do not go away by paying them attention – but by not paying them attention. And this only happens because we are mindful of something or Someone else. Thus the remembrance of God is not only the vanquishing of a two-storey universe, it is also the quiet coming to the heart of our selves where indeed we encounter Christ.

Of course, it is hard to have such attention in our busy modern lives – but that is only an excuse we use. When I lose my keys (I do this on a fairly regular basis), I think nothing of taking the time to search for them, invoking help by prayer. I can’t go anywhere without them. If my keys are so important how much more so is God. How far will I go without that Key, and if I have not found the true heart of myself, then who is it that is running around so much anyway?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





9 responses to “Without Distraction”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for the encouragement to look for “that Key”! I also long to ask myself this question stated at the end of your post:
    “How far will I go without that Key, and if I have not found the true heart of myself, then who is it that is running around so much anyway?”

  2. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is possibly one of the most important issues a Christian today can face. We are all products of a rational and scientific age where everything must be measured, quantified, qualified, etc. In some way’s we did not choose this and this itself can be a distraction. I believe that many people want to break free from this and experience a deeper life in Christ. Sometimes it becomes tiresome to be living
    in the world that appears absurd and meaningless, because true prayer
    becomes almost impossible and at times similar to a catch 22. By this I mean that when we begin to struggle, these mysteries are not immediately revealed to us and we most continue in a sort of blind faith. And when we do nothing it often appears to yield the same fruit. I think that this is why many people want some sort of a proof. For some no proof imaginable could ever convince them of the risen Lord and His love for us but for others holding on for dear life to the robe of Christ, they may feel immobilized by their lack of faith and prayer. There is no specific question here but the whole comment is a question of sorts. Any ideas? I don’t know if I am stating these things very clearly but I know that there are many Christians struggling with the same issues, based on my conversations with others.

  3. handmaidleah Avatar

    “The strange thing about distractions is that they do not go away by paying them attention – but by not paying them attention.”

    When I was actively training dogs for competition (obedience) I constantly had to “pay attention” to what I was “paying attention” to – in this case (dog training), the attention I gave was like having two piggy banks and I had to be aware of what bank I was investing in… Kid training is a parallel example.

    But for the dog trainer, parent, whoever; it really comes down not just to positive and negative attention. But in knowing what to ignore, or let go.

    It is this aspect of attention that is incredibly powerful in my life and creates the most peace and stillness – learning to ignore and not pay attention to the unimportant things that happen which are just distractions away fro God anyway…

  4. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W


    Good point on children, although I hope that I treat my children better than my dog. At least they get to eat form the table and are not forced to eat dry food every day. It is definitely like a balancing act or a dance to decide what to ignore and when to single out a specific negative action for discipline. I suppose some things in our spiritual life need to be examined and confessed and other things need to be simply ignored.

  5. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, bless! Pray for me–this struggle with distraction is a difficult one for me right now, and I’m failing much more often than I succeed.

  6. St. Susanna the Martyr Avatar
    St. Susanna the Martyr

    Just as Church becomes a grocery story, or “look what she’s wearing” story or “what did he mean by that story” or “anything but God story.”

    I was listening this morning to Fr. Hopko relate the story of a woman who wrote a letter to Bishop Theophan inquiring how it is that people can be in the Church for years and years, coming to all the services, singing in the choir, kissing all the icons, helping with all the activities and yet be so much the worse for it, more judgmental, angry, critical, sinful. The Bishop replied that it’s simple. They don’t want to be changed. They aren’t at Church to see God and be changed. They are there just because they like to sing, or they want to see what the priests are up to, or they want to see their friends, or they want to be seen, or they want to be involved in activities, or they like the icons, or for a million other reasons but not to encounter God and be transformed. The “distractions” become Church for them, not seeing God and being in his presence. Food for thought.

  7. Moses Avatar

    Its amazing how we contemplate God one second and put him aside the next, and that’s not the amazing part, its when we do it all the time that makes it all the more dreadful. Thanks for the reminder Father. =D

  8. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    St. Susanna,
    I often think about this as well. I’m sure all the reasons your Priest gave are true. One reason I would add is that the people come to church merely because they are afraid of what others or God will think if they do not. They don’t realize that they are being invited into the Presence of the Lord of the Universe Who loves them and deeply desires to heal their wounds and fill them with Himself, not a severe Divine Judge Who will cast them off if they displease Him. Being judgmental, angry, critical, etc., I see as signs that a person does not have a pure vision of our Lord in His merciful love.

  9. Barbara Avatar

    So interesting that you mention losing your keys. I have noticed that a consistent sign that I am too busy and distracted with my life is that I lose my keys. I don’t think I will ever lose my keys again without thinking about the loss of The Key (which probably occurred long before I lost my actual keys). 🙂

    St. Nikolai’s Prayers by the Lake gave me this image that I try to use when I sense the panic rising – “Like a swan you swim across the quiet of my heart and make it fruitful.” My heart is so rarely quiet and God has to keeping calming the waters. St. Benedict said that love is the best memory of a wayward heart. The remembrance of God cannot be separated from His love for us and His invitation to participate in that love – giving ourselves sacrificially for others. That is truly when the two story universe is vanquished for me. St. Nikolai also said that “Love is the deepest prayer of all.” I’m trying to understand this mystery. Lord, have mercy.

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