Five Keys to Peaceful Discernment

God-Lights

Life is complicated, and the course we should follow is rarely presented to us clearly.

It can be difficult to discern just how much we need to stand aside and let God act, and how much we ourselves should be making things happen. We have to balance between two extremes: on one hand, doing absolutely nothing and expecting God to put everything in our lap,  and, on the other hand, running ourselves ragged trying to do everything ourselves.

When discerning major changes in our lives, we need to have complete trust in God. Sometimes, trust in God will require action, other times it will require peacefully waiting on Him. In this post, I would like to propose five criteria for discerning whether to take a proposed course of action or not. (These criteria are based on the Five Steps to Peace series that I wrote in the spring.)

  1. Make sure the action…

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“We Create Reality”: The Power of Hollywood and A Christian Response

The other day, I was walking down Bleeker Street in southern Manhattan, when I noticed a commotion: to my right, a large number of people were taking out their cell phones and snapping pictures. The phones were pointed in my direction, but they were focused on someone behind me. I turned around to see a black gentleman wearing an orange ski cap sitting on a bike. I did not see his face at first, but when he turned towards me, I realized that it was Will Smith and that I had almost walked into the middle of his film shoot! It turns out that he was filming for Collateral Beauty, a movie coming out in December.

The film shoot of "Collateral Beauty" on Bleeker Street. (The snow was all imported for the filming."
The film shoot of “Collateral Beauty” on Bleeker Street. (The snow was all imported for the filming.)

Then, two weeks later, I came across another film shoot in a rather unlikely place: my seminary! St. Joseph’s Seminary is a beautiful, stately building from the turn of the last century, and somehow producers at CBS got word that we have wood-paneled conference rooms and a nice cloister garden, just what they needed to film scenes in a “Russian embassy” for an episode of Madame Secretary. Film crews and equipment descended upon Dunwoodie, and for a few days two very different worlds overlapped. Cassock-wearing seminarians shared the hallways with crew members and actors, and it seemed that both sides were mutually curious: we took pictures of them and they took pictures of us! (At one point, the lead actress Tea Leoni went up to a group of seminarians to ask for a photo with them.)

The main hall taken over by film crew members and equipment. (Photo credit: Anthony Marcella.)
The main hall taken over by film crew members and equipment. (Photo credit: Anthony Marcella.)

Our rector told us that in a conversation with representatives from CBS, he jokingly suggested that the Russian Orthodox seminary down the road from us might be a better suited to be a “Russian embassy.” The response that he got was, that the seminary would be just fine for them because  “we create reality.”

The conference room turned into "a Russian embassy."
The conference room turned into a Russian embassy.

Having come upon two film shoots in the course of two weeks, the film industry was already on my mind, but something about that nonchalant statement made me think about it even more. Obviously, what the person meant to say was that they create virtual reality, but virtual reality is still connected to and exerts an influence upon true reality. Hollywood and the film industry create virtual reality, but through it, they influence the way real people think and act. In this way, they do create reality.

This power to shape reality through virtual reality is nothing new; it is  as old as mankind itself. Since man has been telling stories and creating works of art, he has been shaping virtual realities that are extensions of his own experience and his own understanding of the real world. These artistic virtual realities are imbued with his own worldview, and all of the moral, religious, and philosophical assumptions contained therein.

This means that whoever has the ability to create artistic realities wields a considerable amount of power, power that is proportionate to the skill with which he exercises his art. The more realistic and entertaining the art, the more enthralled the viewer becomes, and the more likely he will be to assimilate the worldview of the artist. All art, but especially the art of storytelling, is a powerful way to communicate and teach philosophical, moral, and religious principles, be they true or false.

Actress Tea Leoni with a group of seminarians and faculty members. (Photo credit: Anthony Marcella.)
Actress Tea Leoni with a group of seminarians and faculty members. (Photo credit: Anthony Marcella.)

This is why both the rector of the seminary and the representatives of the Archdiocese of New York read the script of the episode of Madame Secretary before allowing CBS to use church property to film it. Knowing the power of television, they had to be sure that they would not be collaborating in anyway with a story that communicates ideas contrary to the truth.

I would suggest that we use the same type of discernment with the entertainment that we allow in our lives. We have to remember that when we watch TV, play video games, listen to music, read books, or view any other type of art, we are allowing ourselves to become part of a virtual reality, and we are thus giving the creator of the art the power to communicate his worldview and values to us. We need to be careful with that.

I am not saying that we need to be puritanical and reject all art that contains values contrary to our own. Rather, I am suggesting that we be discerning in the way that we approach it. In other words, we ought to be attentive to the values being suggested, take what is true, and reject what is false.

St. Basil the Great
St. Basil the Great

St. Basil offered some excellent advice in the 4th century when Christians were deciding what to do with pagan literature. Some extremists were advocating its complete rejection, but St. Basil was more level-headed in his approach. The holy man of God suggested the following in his Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature:

Now, then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest.

The next time you sit down to watch TV or watch a movie, keep in St. Basil’s timeless advice: take what is “allied to the truth” and “pass over the rest.” Do not let Hollywood indiscriminately influence the reality of your life.

The Spiritual Value of Sleep

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,/ Chief nourisher in life’s feast. – Macbeth

We all know that sleep is a physical need, but I think that few  of us realize that sleep is just as much a spiritual necessity. When we sleep, we not only allow our bodies to regenerate, but we also allow our souls to rest. Sleep has spiritual value.

Scripture confirms the fact that God often does important things during sleep. For example, in Genesis 2, God made Eve after placing Adam into a deep sleep. In Genesis 15, God make’s his covenant with Abram while he is in a deep sleep. On numerous occasions, from Jacob to St. Joseph, God spoke through dreams to people in their sleep. The greatest work of God, the salvation of mankind, took place in and through the “sleep” of Christ upon the cross and in the tomb.

El_sueño_de_Jacob,_por_José_de_Ribera
Jacob’s Dream, Jose de Ribera

Throughout Scripture and Western literature, sleep has been compared often to death, and when you stop to think about it, the similarity between the two is indeed striking. Every night, when we lie down to sleep, we become, in a way, dead to all that is around us. We lose consciousness and we give up our power to react immediately to whatever may happen. We also give up our ability to work and to make money, so perhaps this is why so many of us avoid sleep or consider it, at best, as a necessary inconvenience.

Sleep does not fit with the self-image that many of us have, especially those of us with Type-A personalities who yearn for success. We hate to be out-of-control, so we deprive ourselves  of sleep and strive to be like Tim Cook (CEO of Apple) or Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks) who apparently do just  fine with only 4 – 5 hours of sleep a night.

While there is in fact a very small portion of humanity (1 – 3% of the population) who actually can function on only four hours of sleep a night, the rest of us need to accept the reality that we need 7 – 9 hours a night, and this is not a bad thing. In fact, our need for sleep is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Here is what I mean.

When we allow ourselves the sleep that we need, we accept the fact that we cannot always be in control. This simple admission of truth is the pre-condition for a deeper spiritual act: ceding control to God and abandoning ourselves to His Divine Providence. We can turn the simple act of going to bed into a moment of trust by saying a repeating the prayer of Jesus Christ on the cross, before he entered the sleep of death: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) By doing this, we make our acceptance of the physical needs of our bodies coincide with an acceptance of our dependence upon God. The more we do this, the more we grow in trust, a virtue that is indispensable for growing in union with God.

When we trust in God, we give Him the freedom He needs to do great things in our lives. Just as He created Eve for Adam as he slept, so will He do great things for us when we accept our personal limitations and trust completely in Him. The fact is that sometimes the best way to accept your personal limitations and trust in God is simply to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.

Try it out: the next time you are exhausted but feel the need to keep working, resist the temptation to be Superman. Put everything into God’s hands, sleep on it, and try again the next day. You will be surprised out how much more effective you will be.