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.



111 responses to “Living in the Real World”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My priest in his homily today reflecting on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians concerning all he had endured asked us the question, “How are we to actively suffer?” His conclusion was to give glory to God for all things.

  2. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Saying ‘yes to God’ is probably the most important idea I’ve gotten from this blog so far. Not that I had never heard it before, or that I haven’t and am not trying it presently. I had just never heard it put this way before.

    I’m not sorry for that. I’m not ashamed of praying about it.

    All of you are requested to pray for me in that area.

    Thanks to all and to George.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I apologize that “George” (not his real name) managed to get that posted. He has been blocked from the blog previously. There are sick individuals out there and I pray for them. I will confess that I am sometimes angry with them. When fake names, fake email addresses are used to post caustic comments…I do become angry. May God have mercy on such a soul.

  4. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Father, thank you.

    With all humility and thankfulness, I have a lot more to learn here. I admit I am hardheaded, and I am working on that.

    Prayers are requested.

    I really don’t see any other alternative for me but the Orthodox faith.

    I’m not a really emotional person, but now and then a spark surfaces.

    Thank you.

  5. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    You have my prayers Terry. May you have the Lord’s peace and joy.

  6. Byron Avatar


    Yes, definitely a “duh” moment! What shocked me was that I had not even considered or thought of “joy” prior to that moment. It was thrust upon me with great clarity! I stood in worship this morning trying to think only of the joy that God brings! What a change of focus that is….

  7. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thank you, Dee.

  8. Stephanie Avatar

    Dear Terry,

    If I may, I thought of one more suggestion to consider reading. It is “The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God” by Elder Aimilianos. We have been reading it in bite size morsels and it is truly deep and profound in ontological understandings.

    I was thinking more about ontology in my own thoughts, and I was remembering words of the Elder from this book (a compilation of sermons) who discussed how to “know God”. He discussed how God is known through humble prayer, acknowledging our spiritual poverty, with desire for Him. Here, He comes to us. From here, “God brings us the riches of His grace and communion into His life”. He says without God coming to us, filling us, revealing himself to us, a void is present in us. When we try to fill it with anything else, it only becomes a bigger void.

    Forgive me, I have homeschooling mommy brain, but I thought of a simplistic analogy in my mind of ontology —how matter is actually 99.9 percent empty space, a big void is there, but energy holds it together. This energy also makes it possible for atoms to be fully atoms as the energy provides the means for the electrons to move. Otherwise, it is only particles with a vast cosmic void. The energy created by God makes atoms what they were created to be….I thought of it in terms of the Divine Energies of God given by God and for us to participate in—that these energies make us fully human as we were created to be…and not just fragmented parts with a vast void. God completes his creation through His Energies….it was just a thought I had…maybe I will try to mention it to my kids as we go through their elementary chemistry book. 🙂

  9. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Thanks for the book suggestion. I will check it out.

    The example you shared was simple but profound. It makes things clearer for me.

    Thank you.

  10. NSP Avatar

    Regarding Dino’s comments here on August 24, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    I would really like to read more of Elder Aimilianos’ teachings on this topic.

    Could you please let me know the source of this quote? Is it from one of the talks in the book “The Way of the Spirit?”


  11. Dino Avatar

    I just saw this question of yours… It is from a book of the Elder that still only exists in Greek. Its title is “Festive Mystagogical Homilies” Page 174 (a homily on martyr Aimilianos)

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