Living in the Real World

img_1204_2Nothing exists in general. If something is beautiful or good, it is manifest in a particular way at a particular time such that we can know it. And this is our true life. A life lived in a “generalized” manner is no life at all, but only a fantasy. However, this fantasy is increasingly the character of what most people think of or describe as the “real world.”

A monk lives in a monastery. He rises early in the morning and prays. He concentrates his mind in his heart and dwells in the presence of God. He will offer prayers for those who have requested it. He will eat and tend to the work assigned for him to do. And so he lives his day. He works. He prays.

And someone will say, “But what does he know about the real world?” But what can they possibly mean? He walks on the earth. He breathes the same air as we do. He eats as we do and sleeps as we do. How is his world any less real than that of anyone else on the planet?

A man lives in a city. He wakes in the morning, turns on the TV as he gets ready for the day. He dashes out the door (he’s running late). He gets to his car, listens to the news on the radio, takes a couple of calls on his cell phone. He gets to work and for every minute he does something that he thinks of as “work,” he spends at least another checking his email, looking quickly at Facebook, and maybe checking the news. He gets into an argument at lunch about what should be done somewhere else in the world and who should do it. Angry and distracted, he is frustrated with himself because he swore he was not going to have that same argument today. He goes back to work with the same routine. After work he drops by a bar, has a couple of drinks and decides to stay and watch some of the game. He gets home late and heads to bed.

Who is living in the real world? The man-in-the-city’s life is “real,” it actually happens. But he is distracted all day from everything at hand. He never notices himself breathing unless he’s out of breath. He swallows his food as quickly as possible. Even the beers he has at the bar are as much for the buzz as for the taste.

If the man refrained from these things his friends might taunt him, “What are you? Some kind of monk?”

What is the “real” that we should live in?

Increasingly, the modern world lives in distraction. But on account of the dominance of shared media experience, that “distraction” is treated as somehow “real.” The daily, sometimes non-stop, attention to this distracted “reality,” creates a habit of the heart. It is a common experience for someone “cut off” from this shared media experience to feel isolated and alone. Of course, three days of no media changes nothing. My attention to the distraction is not at all the same thing as attention to the world itself. For whatever reality might be, it is decidedly not the distorted snapshots presented in our newsfeed.

The experience of “reality” that is media-generated has the character of “things in general.” The habits that form within us as we give attention to this abstraction are themselves vague and ill-defined. We “care” about something, but we have nothing in particular that we can do about it. We are angry over extended periods about things that are greatly removed from our lives. Our attention itself becomes a passive response rather than a directed movement of the soul. Our lives largely become an experience of manipulation – only it is we ourselves who are being manipulated.

Against this is the life of Christian virtue. It is little wonder that frustration accompanies our efforts towards acquiring the virtues. The soul whose habits are formed in the distracted world of modernity cannot suddenly flip a switch and practice prayer of the heart. We sit still and attempt to pray and our attention wanders. It is little wonder that our attention wanders. It has been trained to be passive and follow a media stream. In the stillness of the soul, there is no media stream and our attention feels lost and empty.

This is the reason for the life of the monk. He lives as he does in order to be attentive to reality – to see and hear, taste and touch what is true and at hand. It is not so different than most human lives 200 years ago, before the rise of mass culture. And it is real. Deeply real. It is also the basis of the sacramental life. God gives us Himself, His life-creating grace, in very concrete and particular ways. The reason is simple – we were created to live in a concrete and particular way. The life of abstraction is alien to the life of grace. There is no sacrament of the abstract, vague or general. The only Presence is a real presence.

If we want to pray, then we will have to live as though we are praying. We cannot live in the abstract and suddenly attend to the real. We cannot “care” and then turn to love. “To live” is an active verb. The passions of mass experience are something else.

Live. Love. Eat. Breathe. Pray.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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33 responses to “Living in the Real World”

  1. Kevin Avatar

    Thank you for a wonderful article. It really resonates.

  2. Joe Avatar

    I really like these thoughts. I struggle with prayer, and I feel like this holds some weight with me as to why. Living in “reality” may be the necessary ingredient I am missing. It’s a lost art to put down the distractions and things in “general” and live in the reality of life. I think this ties into the Western religion’s subconscious belief that the spiritual is more real than the physical. So, we disconnect the real from the physical rather than allowing body, soul, and mind to live in the present reality. It seems to me, Christianity affirms the reality of the present in the sense that God is reconciling all things to himself in Christ, which is the heart of the gospel.

  3. Alan Avatar

    Father, I must say that I’m quite angry and upset that you followed me around without telling me, and then wrote about me in this post (4th paragraph).

  4. Byron Avatar

    It occurs to me that this is a big reason why people so enjoy working out. It requires focus of both the mind and body–one cannot watch one’s phone while doing a timed exercise. It is *focused work* that is healthy for us, not just pushing weights and/or running. Just my thoughts.

    And, Joe, I struggle in my prayers as well. But not so much after I have read a good book or focused my mind on a singular activity. I need to meditate more on this rather obvious observation.

    Many thanks, Father!

  5. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H

    Excellent follow up Father, thank you. I think I’m understanding you more clearly.

    Obviously your examples are extreme for illustrative purposes. But as I look at those examples and consider which one I am MORE like in the context of my own life and relationships, it’s the latter. That stings. I’m more distracted than not. I find myself not being present.

    One of the most impactful things that I pulled off of this blog was a quote from the Brothers K in which a lady is confessing to Zosima:

    “…The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular…”

    Leaving aside the language of “caring” for a moment, perhaps that’s what you’re getting at?

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very apt quote from the Brothers K and very much what I’m trying to get at (or help others get at). When I write, I purposely try to word things in a manner that will draw attention – not sensationalism – but attention. One of the most common things I do is to turn a phrase or a word upside-down. Everybody knows that we should “care.” But, since there’s a wrong kind of caring (in general), it is also possible to say, “You shouldn’t care so much,” and it still be true. And if a priest tells you, “You shouldn’t care so much,” then you’re likely to read it to find out what the heck he means and learn something in the process.

    To say something the way it is always said is a good way to say nothing at all.

  7. Chris Avatar

    Okay, I get it…I am living too much in the abstract…..your description of the modern man hit too close to home. But, if I shut down all my distractions like social media I am worried I will miss one of your postings Father. 🙂 This one and the last two you made are so good that I am printing them out so I have a hard copies for reference.

  8. Corey Avatar

    Father, something I’ve often been confused about: the relation of sensible objects to the Christian life. Running throughout monastic literature is the theme of turning away from sensible objects. Indeed, I believe that St. Maximo the Confessor characterized the fall precisely as man turning his sense perceptions toward sensible objects. And yet Orthodoxy seems to indicate the fundamental goodness of this world, and the physicality of it. Aren’t these two themes contradictory?

  9. Christopher Avatar

    Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to Thee o God!

    So I am working on a gas water heater this morning, and after a series of mistakes (that should have been obvious) it blows up. Besides a bit of what will no doubt be permanent hearing loss, not a scratch on me. Fact is, my mind was elsewhere. The distracted life is not only dangerous to the soul, it can be quite perilous to the body also. For whatever reason, He did not hand me this particular suffering. I will be attempting to give thanks undistracted for this and everything for a bit – maybe I can even make it a habit, and a state of the soul beyond that!

  10. Jimbo Avatar

    Thanks to the monks for what they do…and few of us will ever realize it…sometimes I think God and the monks’ prayers are all that’s holding things together…

  11. Emmie Avatar

    I have enjoyed what you are writing so much. Orthodoxy provides the healthiest notion of detachment that I have encountered. Because it is based on the actual rather than pretending that things don’t exist as in other eastern religions. The idea of detachment always depressed me before bc it seemed so empty until I became Orthodox. I love the concrete aspect of our faith.

  12. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    An excellent article and a very true but sad description of life in the “real” world. Thank you Father.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that what St. Maximus means is the “desire” for sensible objects, rather than the desire for God. The sin in the Garden was not only breaking the commandment, but eating the only thing in the Garden for which they could not give thanks, since it had not been given to them. Thus, they ate with no regard for God, but only for the sensible object.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    And undistractedly call a plumber…

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    But the joyful thing is that even though we turn away from what is at hand, it still remains there, ready for our proper attention. What a mercy.

  16. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    God’s creative hand “made” me attend to the real yesterday afternoon. It was a simply gorgeous autumn day, temp. at 75°. I was driving home through a rural part of Calif. Recent rains had capped the Sierra with snow; the hills were greening from recent rains; the sky was a radiant clear blue. At a certain point I had to stop the car and simply drink in God’s creation. How blessed I felt! My eyes wetted with tears. I didn’t want to leave. But I eventually moved on needing to arrive at home. Who couldn’t love attending to such an exhibition of beauty? And Emmie, I too am still captivated by the physicality of Orthodox worship. It is what I observed in Isaiah, Hebrews and Revelation long before coming to Orthodoxy. It makes Christ’s incarnation and blessing of the material world so much more tangible. I need my faith fleshed out, as it were. God can indeed be worshipped in body and soul.

  17. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for this Fr. Stephen! Glory to God for All Things!!! (And Thanksgiving Day blessings prayed for you and yours. You are a great encouragement to Give Thanks in All Circumstances and I thank God for that!)

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I give thanks for all of you and asked your prayers for my stepdaughter, Julina, who is going through a deconstruction of her entire life: personal, financial and health wise.

    Being my wife’s daughter she has an indomitable spirit but is not a believer.

    Please pray for us all.

  19. Byron Avatar

    Prayers for blessing on all of your family, Michael, your daughter especially.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    May God give her, and all of you, grace!

  21. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this, Michael! Prayers for Julina and all of you!

  22. Theodosia Avatar

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

    I have been reading your blog since many years, always receiving a notification by email. This changed since this past spring. I am checking the website every week to see if you posted some new article, since no notification is sent by email anymore. Any reason for this?

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t know but I’ll check on it. Try subscribing again on the sidebar.

  24. Theodosia Avatar

    I did, twice. Not receiving anything since June.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks, Theodosia. I’ll check with our support crew.

  26. Ross Avatar

    This is an excellent article. While you gave an example of a materialistic, distracted life and an example of a monastic life, I would love to read an example of a “monastic” life lived out in the non-monastic world (i.e., wife, kids, job, bills, etc.) That would give me something for which to aim.
    Thank you

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good suggestion, I’ll see what I can offer.

  28. Dino Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I also agree with Ross and find this to be a commonplace request from people who want to live the true life, yet find themselves in very challenging contexts. How do those who are overburdened for instance, (like the Israelites were by the wicked Pharaoh with more and more work against their will, in order to not have time to even think of the Lord) deal with it in this world today?

  29. Agata Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I would also like to second and third that request from Ross and Dino, for more concrete guidance on how to live monastic life in a worldly setting (with demands from exhausting jobs, never-ending bills, “mid-life crisis” spouses, aging parents, children with raging hormones and influenced by this evil culture…). And that is only family life. In parish or work setting, we have lack of care and concern for others or the good of the community… You once listed somewhere the “public virtues” of a Christian: kindness, hospitality, mercy and sharing…. How little of that we experience these days….

    Thank you for this blog and creating such a wonderful community for those who want to “walk as children of light”, “redeeming the time, because the days are evil”, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns” (as today’s Epistle read). Thank you Father and thank you all for your comments here.

  30. drewster2000 Avatar

    Me too, Fr. Stephen! In case you didn’t feel enough pressure yet… (grin)

  31. Patricia Avatar

    Wow! This is so good! Thank you!

  32. Jim Avatar

    Thank you father.

  33. Caio Avatar

    Thanks, Father.

    Your blog and this post in particular gave courage to start my own blog today!

    16 posts in a row!

    But more important than that… getting back to actually hear the Voice claiming my soul.
    Be attentive. Be present. Just be there, like He’s always there fo you.

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