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  • Writer's pictureJ. Basil Dannebohm

'The Feast of Friendship': Embracing authentic community as a cure for the 'madness' of our time.

By J. Basil Dannebohm

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad,

they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”

-- St. Anthony the Great

Jeremy Basil Dannebohm
J. Basil Dannebohm

The aforementioned words of St. Anthony the Great have been shared far and wide. But have you ever truly stopped to contemplate them?

We might conclude that the time St. Anthony is referring to is here and now. In this present age we see very little tolerance for people who are in the 'middle of the road.' Likewise, there is not much room for 'grey areas.' Indeed, every aspect of how we think, what we do, what we say, and what we believe has been reduced by society to a very dangerous decision: 'Whose side are you on? It is us or them.'

Often a spirit of 'us versus them' eliminates the authentic love of God we are called to show our neighbor from the equation. Make no mistake, both sides will claim the gospel as their own, though neither will follow it. Rather, they will manipulate it to suit their agenda.

This division has been heightened by social media. I’ve written on both the benefits and the risks of social media many times. I think I’ve adequately made the case that there is a very fine line between what is good and what is bad about the medium.

In his book entitled, “Way of the Ascetics,” Tito Colliander notes:

“If you think you are becoming “disturbed” by people or by external circumstances, you have not understood your work aright: everything that at first glance appears disturbing is really given as an opportunity for practice in tolerance, patience and obedience. The humble man cannot be disturbed.”

Few of us can say that social media has not caused us to be disturbed, or even compromised our humility. Thus, indulge me for a moment as I present an admittedly radical thought for contemplation:

Have you ever stopped to consider how social media in many ways reflects the agenda of the Antichrist?

Don’t read too much into that statement. Social media already has plenty of conspiracy theories floating about. The question raised certainly doesn't need to be mistaken as fuel for that particular fire.

I'm speaking metaphorically and I am certainly not suggesting that one of the masterminds behind the various online platforms could be the Antichrist. Rather, I am asking you to think about the way in which many of us ‘worship’ the platforms. Reflect on how empty some of us feel when we don’t have our phones handy. Contemplate how the division being fueled on social media sparks heightened emotions of anger within your spirit.

When you reflect on the question I raised with these elements in mind, one can hopefully recognize that when the platform becomes an obsession or a god of division, it acts as a sort of metaphoric element created in the spirit of the Antichrist.

Likewise, perhaps one could radically suggest that the new obsession with artificial intelligence, especially so-called 'ChatBots' could be the equivalent of the ouji board.

Perhaps one could even go so far as to say that if this is indeed the case, smartphones and other devices could be a sort of metaphoric mark of the beast -- a mechanism of both control and distraction.

Think about it.

For many of us, our devices are almost an extension of our hand. If the majority of what we do with these devices serves as an occasion to trouble our souls … well … if the shoe fits …

I'm reminded of a profound insight by the late Father Thomas Hopko:

“People feel unhappy and don’t know why. They feel that something is wrong but can’t put their finger on what it is. They feel uneasy in the world, confused and frustrated, alienated and estranged, and can’t explain it.

They have everything and yet want more; and when they get it, they’re still left empty and dissatisfied. They want happiness and peace, and nothing seems to bring it. They want fulfillment, and it never seems to come. Everything is fine, yet everything is wrong.

In America this is almost a national disease. It is covered over by frantic activity and endless running around. It is buried in activities and events. It is drowned out by television programs [and cell phones] and games. But when the movement stops and the dial is turned off and everything is quiet...then the dread sets in, and the meaninglessness of it all, and the boredom, and the fear.

Why is this so?

Because, the Church tells us, we are really not at home. We are in exile. We are alienated and estranged from our true country. We are not with God our Father in the land of the living. We are spiritually sick. And some of us are already dead.” ("The Lenten Spring")

The spiritual sickness that Father Hopko mentions can indeed only be cured when we reach our final reward. In the meantime, however, it can be treated, and the symptoms can be soothed. This happens when we move from distraction to devotion, from the metaverse to the universe, and from computers to communities.

Appropriate community is essential. While social media can certainly connect us with like-minded people (which at times isn't exactly healthy when like-minded people equates to people who coddle our vices and divisiveness), it cannot replace the vital role ‘real life’ community plays in our mental health. For many, one of the healthiest forms of ‘real life’ community can be found within one’s faith community. As Father George Livaditis reminds us:

"In a world that often emphasizes individualism, the church reminds us of the power of community. It's a place where we can learn from each other, grow together, and create lasting connections. But in order for the church to truly be a community, we need to be united. This means setting aside our differences, coming together in love and understanding, and working towards a common goal."

Indeed, the only cure for the madness and division of our time that St. Anthony prophetically predicted is community. Without actual interaction we are as Father Hopko says, “already dead.”

To exist exclusively in the metaverse is to dwell in a spiritual desert. A desert largely of our own making. A desert like that where the father of lies tried everything within his power to tempt Our Lord. How can any of us think that we are immune to the inevitable temptations that will arise in a ‘meta’ existence of isolation?

Think about it this way: I recently stumbled upon a comic strip. The image was of a casket and an empty funeral home apart from two men. One man was saying to the other, “Strange, isn’t it? He had over 5,000 followers online.”

I recall another comic strip of a gentleman seated in a chair staring intently at his smart phone. A woman standing behind him has a thought bubble that reads, “In my day we called them imaginary friends.”

In fact, most people have sold their souls to smart phones and social media as a cure for loneliness. Sadly, the instant cure of technology has no lasting effect, and far too often it manages to dilute the authentic spiritual and mental aid that comes from actual community.

Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra once said:

"Oh, my dear friends, all the people around you, in your home and outside it as well, need you. There is a terrible curse in our life, which afflicts many people, the curse of loneliness. Many people live shut away in their loneliness, and often there is no one to show them a little love. Everyone around us, poor and rich, small and great, needs us. Let our life be characterized by loving care, tenderness, and compassion. Let us live close to others, and for others. As one of the ascetics says, 'our foundation is our neighbor', which means that the criterion of our spiritual life is found in those around us. We should love others, not out of any presumed 'goodness', but out of a sense of responsibility which we have towards them."

Take a few moments today to contemplate the impact your devices have on your life.

Have you conformed to the black and white division fueled by social media rhetoric?

Has the metaverse compromised your peace?

Has the time you’ve spent in a virtual community taken away from the time you could be spending in an actual community?

The cure social media and our devices provide for our loneliness is merely a placebo. Rather than wearing our devices as an extension of our hands, we must re-examine our lives and ultimately retrain ourselves into a habit of reaching out those once captive hands to our neighbors and our faith community as a balm for the sickness of this world. If not, we will surely go mad.

Recommended Reading:

The Feast of Friendship by Father Paul D. O'Callaghan


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