The mother of stillness is the wilderness of the desert.
—Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou. Hesychasm.
How blissful the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
—Matthew 5:5. David Bentley Hart Translation.
I. Wild Christianity and Technological Civilization.
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;— Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! --William Wordsworth.
The tool enables man to conquer. But, man, dost thou not know there is no more victory which is thy victory? The victory of our days belongs to the tool.
―Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society.
In 2018—in what we might now only half-jokingly refer to as the before time—I took a road trip up to Lander, WY from Boulder. There were a few reasons for this, not least of which was a simple desire to get away. Wyoming is a surpassingly beautiful state and only sparsely populated. A good portion of the trip took me―and my trusty little Honda Civic―on a lonely two-lane highway. One that traversed a land that was not all that dissimilar to the surface of the moon. My tiny carwas a mere insectoid speck crawling its way across this immense alien environment. With only the narrow strip of pavement passing beneath me to visibly tether me to any known human endeavor. I found it exhilarating in ways difficult to describe.
But the real reason I wanted to take this trip was to see if Lander could be a place of refuge. The life of the modern West—which had once seemed reasonably solid, if undesirable—was now unmistakably coming undone. This was nothing altogether new. Even so, a pace of disintegration that was throughout my life more of a leisurely trot, had gone as of late, into more of a frantic gallop. This desire to get out was pretty much simultaneous with my full adult entrance into it as a younger man. But my sense of urgency had now altered somewhat. Something was in the air. Something was on its way. It was now a very good time, I told myself, to try to find an exit strategy.
Lander is surprisingly isolated as American towns go, and is situated on the edge of the beautiful Wind River Range. It seemed to me to be the perfect spot to weather any incoming civilizational storm, at least on paper. What with the protecting desert on the one side and the mountains on the other, certainly no zombie hordes were likely to descend upon it in the event of societal collapse. I drove up there thinking: Sign me up!
Unfortunately, I didn’t know how I could make a move to Lander work. Surprisingly, the rents weren’t all that much cheaper than in Boulder, and the job opportunities were noticeably slimmer. So, I never made the move. I just hoped some bright idea of finding a way out might somehow miraculously occur to me. As we are all painfully aware, by early 2020, we were greeted by a whole new level of draconian social control, cultural disintegration, and the disturbing sense of irrevocably negative change. My sense was that what I had long feared now had begun in earnest.
Getting out is now not only a good idea but an essential one. Though what that might mean and how it might be done remains less clear.
So it was with great interest that I read Paul Kingsnorth’s article about Wild Christianity in First Things magazine. Paul has written about this idea before, at least in passing, but this is the first sustained attempt to present the idea more fully—at least to my knowledge.And let’s face it, a truly simple life lived mostly outside the Megasystem is not really for the faint of heart. Simplicity is rarely easy. So rather than literally heading for the hills, one could still choose to flee distraction, mindless consumption, personal ambition, and so on. But will that be enough?
What is refreshing about Paul’s idea is that this same impulse is stated in a radical, uncompromising, and highly resonant form. Whatever each of us may ultimately decide to do with the notion of Wild Christianity, it is far better to start with it in its most pristine formulation. We live in extreme times, and that's putting it mildly. Therefore any true and sane response to our situation will need to be at least as radical as the forces pushing against us.That said, at this initial stage there are many questions on what it would mean to embrace it, and how to start putting it into practice.
With all this in mind, I would like to begin here a conversation on what it is we might mean by Wild Christianity. My hope is to go deeply into this idea. But the goal of this conversation is largely a practical one. Time is of the essence. For everything continues to buckle and groan under the strain of what is bearing down on us. As interesting as the intellectual aspects certainly are, it is not the time to develop an intricately wrought theory. It is time to learn what we need to know to start taking action. The deeply articulated theory, should it ever be needed, will likely follow from that.
With all this in mind, let us begin.
II. A Positive Asceticism
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments?
Living in a hyper-consumerist society hardly inclines one to a life of asceticism. It is a world fueled entirely by the strong temptation to indulge.What we often pursue the most diligently is exactly what won’t make us happy. The unhappier we become the more zealously we pursue it. On some level, we all know this. But knowing this doesn’t prevent us from getting caught up in it. The very way our lives our structured makes temptation impossible to avoid. We become disordered. It is a way of being human that is ripe for cultivating addictions of all kinds—the exact opposite of human flourishing. Even when we do get what we want we frequently find ourselves no happier than before. Maybe even less so. Everything we see and do, everywhere we go, and everything we are is oriented toward this pattern.
Paradoxically, we are the most enlivened when we are challenged to go beyond ourselves. Indulgence as a habit will only weaken us.We might like indulging ourselves, at least initially, but we don’t like the effects of having indulged. It dulls our natural capacities—because, after the initial rush of pleasure, we subsequently become sluggish. A simple example is how we feel after overeating. It not only slows us down but will often reduce our motivation to zero. In this state, we aren't going to seek to go beyond ourselves.
Asceticism is simply a way of disciplining our appetites. This is so we can better give our lives and attention more fully to what is truly most important. But it is only where we need to begin. Without asceticism, there is little chance that we will be strong enough, focused enough, or resilient enough to withstand the constant temptation to indulge ourselves. We will remain trapped in and by our own desires. Which can only lead to misery and despair.
III. The Contemplative Life
[The Practice of Contemplation] means the victory of man over his passions, when the Spirit reposes in the bride chamber of his heart. It is an ascetic labour twofold in nature: on the one hand, it involves laying aside, putting off and denying; and on the other, assuming, putting on and receiving fullness. No one could enter the calm haven of [stillness] without first ‘continuing with Christ in His temptations’, ascending onto the cross together with the Lord, becoming entirely dead to the world in order to be resurrected together with Christ and become a partaker of the fullness of His life.
—Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou. Hesychasm.
Contemplation is our natural state. It can lead us back to our original nature. At first, it might feel like it is doing the exact opposite. The problem with contemplative practice is that it actually works. In silence, stillness, and solitude we inevitably meet ourselves, often for the first time, and we might not like what we see there. What arises in us, seemingly from nowhere, is disordered and painful. The alternative is inevitably far worse. Seeing ourselves for who we truly are, however unpleasant, allows us to let go of our disordered passions and attachments. It is to begin to discern the forces which drive us in ways that we otherwise find perpetually opaque and baffling.
Contemplative practice is a practice of letting go. Of all our ego defenses, brokenness, and all unworkable schemes for happiness. It typically takes a very long time to dismantle delusional conceptions that we unconsciously hold (or hold us) about ourselves and the world. This speaks to how deeply enmeshed in unreality we actually are. We don't see things truly. It should be noted that the current digital age only makes this immersion in delusion commonplace, if not mandatory.
But contemplative practice is far more than a psychological excavation. But more importantly, we move towards that which utterly exceeds us, and yet is most intimate. The Kingdom of Heaven is within. To go deeper into the heart of ourselves,is at the same time to go deeper into the nature of spiritual reality itself. If we don't normally see this, it is because our personal and psychological attachments form a barrier that prevents us from immersion into these depths. Yet, in even getting small glimpses of this deeper reality everything begins to subtly change—most notably ourselves.
As this continues fewer things are outside the boundaries of loving concern, including even ourselves. This does not happen overnight or in a straight line. We are definitely not in control of how it all unfolds. The path is utterly surprising. What at first appears chaotic and noisy in us is often resolved in ways that not only feel orchestrated, at least in retrospect, but that are deeply satisfying in ways that exceed our normal explanations. It is the path back to sanity.
IV. The Sacramental Cosmos and the Natural World.
Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
—Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
But we are speaking here of a Wild Christianity. The question then arises as to why one would need to go out to the wilderness at all. Can’t all of this be done within the confines of life in the city and town? For many, this may be the best and only option. Yet throughout human history, when one wanted to seek the ultimate truth in a truly dedicated way, one sought the silences and solitude of the wilderness. Why is that?
For one, worldly life is full of anxieties and an overriding concern for the mundane. This is unavoidable. These have always been largely all-encompassing and the more we engage the needs of the world, by necessity, the less time and energy we have for matters of the soul and spirit.
In general, prayer requires great peace and stillness. The mother of stillness is the wilderness of the desert. Moreover, stillness cannot be acquired without faith, without commending all things with trust to the mighty hands of God. The laying aside of all earthly care required by stillness is neither despondency nor proud self-suffiency, but evangelical trust in God’s care. The Lord Himself taught stillness by withdrawing into the wilderness in order to pray.
—Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou. Hesychasm.
But it is more than that. We live in a time of terrifying advances in technology into every aspect of our lives. This includes, but is hardly limited to, technologies of surveillance and control. It goes even beyond the end of privacy and basic human freedom. We are facing the distinct probability of the end of humanity—in one form or another. If somehow we don’t end up being destroyed by the inexorable drive for geopolitical dominance unfolding before our eyes,then genetic manipulations, cybernetics, and AI seek to transform us into something completely unrecognizable. As Henry David Thoreau had it, in wildness is the preservation of the world. He is far more correct in more ways than he possibly could have imagined.
Make no mistake, however, but that the wilderness is itself also a place of danger and of struggle—there are untamed creatures that roam the night—for the desert of the wilderness is not, even now, ruled entirely by man. This is its saving grace. In the deeper wild there is an unsettling sense that one is prey to forces largely outside of one’s control. Something wakes up in the back of the mind that remembers this; and knows that here be monsters. In facing this we can make friends with it, and thereby with all things. It is a place where the most powerful forces are at play and where we are likely to be strenuously tested across the fullness of our being. In the wilderness, we come into direct contact with the Way of things.
The wilderness is the place where demons take refuge, but it also the place where God reveals himself and saves. The wilderness is the place of temptation, but also the place where God’s victory is manifested most brightly. The wilderness is the symbol of death, but also the place where Christ bestowed life.
—Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou. Hesychasm.
V. Heading for the Exit and towards the Wild.
Hesychasm [Stillness] is the place of contemplation. However, contemplation requires the mind to be freed from imagination and prayer to permeate the whole being of man. Thus a hesychast [practitioner of stillness] is he who has become all prayer.
—Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou. Hesychasm.
We have forgotten who we are. The cause and also the result of this forgetfulness is the technological civilization which is at once both furiously expanding and tottering on the edges of ruin all around us. In this forgetfulness, we have lost the central purpose of our lives. Which is not to maximize our consumer preference satisfaction or to increase our will to power toward infinity. Do this long enough and one learns just how exciting and yet how profoundly empty unto despair such a life is. The biggest trick we often play on ourselves is to believe that if we just would try a little harder then this time it will work out right. But it won’t.
With every passing day, the technological leash around our necks grows ever more fascinating but also a little bit tauter. We were told that slipping on the collar of the virtual world would lead to our liberation and enlargement. Not instead to bring us to heel so obediently as it has. Yet, there is still a road out of the wasteland of techtopia and into the desert wilderness of the real. What will it take for us to enter its winding path? Hard to say, because here I am still leashed up and dutifully at heel.
But we don’t have to align with the forces of spiritual amnesia and domestication. The road out to the wilderness of the desert yet remains open. In remembering who we are we see that the purpose of our lives is to be filled with the energies of the Divine, with the Holy Spirit, and not with limitless material abundance. Not I, but the Wild Christ who lives in me. Regardless of how little progress I ever actually make in this direction that is still a very inspiring path to travel. In fact, it is the only path to travel. The only one that doesn’t lead us to a dead end.
To be on this road is to align with a greater purpose by far than anything dreamt of by man, or that ever could be. In seeking the road out of the technological wasteland I can seek the stillness of the desert where I might find life inexhaustible and beyond all conception. Finding there a profound harmony within ourselves, with each other, nature, and ultimately with God. In so finding—and as the next Rome completes the inevitable cycle of its Fall—we will, together, one day watch the eternally wild desert begin its equally inevitable bloom.
CHAPTER ELEVEN What was this Course that all things followed? No thing existed for itself. Each thing humbly, patiently fulfilled its designation without thinking, Without possessing, or rebelling, or complaining, or laying blame, or taking credit, or seeking honor. In this way, the roaring ocean and mighty wind were as meek as the still pond. One thing dies, without thinking, that others may live. A seed falls to the ground and dies, And from it comes a tree bearing fruit and more seeds beyond counting. If the seed is preserved whole, nothing will come from it. Only if it dies will it give life. This is the Way, the Pattern that all things follow. --Hieromonk Damascene. Christ the Eternal Tao.
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At this point, near the end of its useful life, the Honda was burning oil at a furious rate. I had to pour in a quart or so of oil every time I stopped for gas. This, I admit, added an extra bit of excitement to the journey. If I had broken down out there in the vast wastes I would be out of luck. There was zero cell phone signal out there. Only the benevolence of a fellow traveler would have saved me.
I fully admit that am hardly immune to the joys of being out among the vast spaces of the open road of the American West.
Around the same time, a good friend of mine generously offered me a job working for her back in the suburbs of New York City. This is the area where I grew up and the prospect of returning held a kind of nostalgic appeal for me. What is unpoetically called the New York Metropolitan area (NYMA) is the largest such area in the world and one of the most densely populated. The NYMA has a population density of 5,318/sq mile, and New York City boasts a density of 26,403/sq mile. By way of comparison, the state of Wyoming has one of 6/sq mile. The NYMA is 886 times denser on average. Sadly, I turned the offer down.
His idea is entirely congruent with what I have been calling the Arsenios Option, i.e., fleeing the world, being silent in silence, and dwelling in stillness. Though to be honest I have tended to soften the idea by taking the notion of ‘fleeing the world’ less literally, at least potentially. I did this for no other reason than the simple fact that not everyone is able to actually get out of where they may be stuck. I try to cast a broad net if I am able.
This is, ironically, probably why we tend to make things complicated—it’s just easier that way.
Radical—as in getting down to the root of the matter—but never extreme.
As always, however, we must make haste slowly.
This is where the information age can be our ally. There are many
This is, of course, my initial take on the idea. My intention is that this will be altered as the conversation continues. For another take on this idea, see here for Mark Kutolowski from the Metanoia in Vermont substack. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a series on forming a lay contemplative community.
This is the central message of advertising, i.e., “indulge yourself”, “you deserve it”, “you only live once”. Which is, needless to say, an effective strategy. Unfortunately, it has the drawback of being utterly false. It is altogether impossible to grow an economy such as ours without also continually growing the list of things people think that they need, but don’t. To be always desiring and never satisfied is good for GDP.
And will eventually make us sick.
Food is obviously a necessity, so it is impossible to do without it. But it is a model nonetheless of how we find it difficult to keep things within limits, and how that negatively impacts us.
I know I haven’t.
I have to wonder if in engaging in the virtual world I am not shoveling in more cognitive garbage than can possibly be shoveled out.
Or consciousness, awareness, soul, etc.
This is already far beyond the conceptual limits of the de facto materialism of our age.
In sum, the practice of contemplation is the movement away from self-centeredness of any kind. If practiced long enough, even tenacious compulsions begin to fall away, and the personal ambitions and fixations by which we have defined our lives suddenly can pop like a soap bubble. Beauty, goodness, and truth begin to inform our dealings with the world and even shine through in places that had previously seemed flat and lifeless. In so doing we begin to see reality as far larger and far more beautiful than previously thought.
There are, of course, inevitable setbacks and a not-infrequent return of what we once thought settled. It is a path that in which radical surrender is the cost for entering, and yet one that doesn’t have an end.
The only way to win a game of chicken is to keep driving straight into the oncoming car. All drives know this. Considering what all parties believe to be at stake—their national prestige, for one—who among the major players is going to swerve? As always I recommend A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller as a novel that has great insight into the unavoidability of global self-destruction.
As usual, I lean on the insights of Christ the Eternal Tao. But also on the book Hesychasm by Archimandrite Zacharou, which I have leaned on particularly heavily in this post. As well as countless others people who have offered me their insights. I thank Paul Kingsnorth whose idea it is. I hope, at least, that I have been true to the spirit of it.
I worry since Paul Kingsnorth has given a name to this version of Christianity, intentional or not, that it will be swallowed by the great marketing machine. Maybe that's the cynical American in me. I grew up in the shadow of Lifeway Christian Resources. I can see the products on the shelves in suburban America right now. And I really really don't want Martin Shaw to be seen as a new John Eldredge. I know the Wild Christianity being discussed today is not remotely the same as the Wild at Heart world but once filtered down through the marketing machine I wonder how it will be fed to the masses.
Jack, I greatly appreciate your practical steps to fostering a renewed vision of the world and ourselves. I believe its part of what is essential in breaking the spell we are living under.
Good to see you reading “Hesychasm,” Jack. It’s been one of the most consequential books of my life, and not for the faint of heart.
The wilderness of old was not an escape from, a road away, so much as it was road within, towards the center of the heart where Christ could be found. It was a dying to this world so that a tiny piece of eternal life in this world could be found and cleaved to so that eternity in the next world might come by the grace of God. Is that possible in the un-wild? Yes, but infinitely more difficult. The world builds us up with its distractions and materialism, the wild breaks us down as we begin seeing ourselves as quite small and we begin looking outside our pride for mercy.
The wild, such as I live in it, is not an easy life and certainly not “romantic” in the way city folk imagine it. Yesterday we had a blizzard. Keeping the road open required all my effort and was mostly a losing battle. Today, absolute exhaustion, and more snow and wind drifting it closed again. Tonight 30 below forecast and -8 for a high this afternoon. The propulsion on my small tractor froze shut and I had to jump off just before going through the garage door. Luckily that triggered a safety option when the seat popped up and stalled out the tractor.
This is life in the (somewhat) wild of rural Montana if you don’t have much money and take care of things yourself. But you know what? In the exhaustion and defeat often comes the most beautiful and connected prayer. The Fathers tell us this, of course, though it is hard to believe until you live it. The turning over of one’s life to the God that materialism rips from our heart and chews up.
Is this the way forward for ascetically or hesychastically minded folks? It is, in my opinion, if eternity in heaven is the goal of life.
Another substack writer that has explored a Wild Christianity is Martin Shaw. If you haven’t come across him his “Seeking a Liturgy of the Wild” series is quite good. He’s another recent Orthodox convert: https://martinshaw.substack.com/?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=substack_profile