American Idle


Growing up, my mother saw to it that we went to Sunday school. We attended a small United Methodist Church and although I don’t remember the teachers’ names, some lessons stayed with me. One image that has remained in my mind is that of the big angel standing in front of the gates to the Garden of Eden, and in his hand is a big shining and flaming sword. Obviously, after Adam and Ever were cast out, no one would be allowed into the Garden. This angel wouldn’t be like the proverbial Troll. You can’t trick your way past this angel. The gates are closed and no one can get back to the Garden. It is a sad thought.

Yet, somewhere in my reading and study over the years, I picked up the idea that every since our expulsion from the Garden, we have been trying desperately to get back. Our first attempt was the Tower of Babel, which was a colossal failure. There have been many attempts since then. History is filled with examples. In our own country, many religious groups migrated to the New World in search of the Promised Land. Some religions even began here as people searched for a communal lifestyle that would somehow re-create an earthly paradise. Were any of these efforts ultimately successful?

No. The angel stands at the gate and will not let us in. Despite this fact, we continue to create space with architectural designs that express our desire to live in paradise. I remember years ago when, as a young man of 18, I walked into a brand new, high-rise and very posh Hilton hotel in Atlanta. Much to my surprise, the inside was open all the way to the top floor, and that was 30 stories up! From the balconies hung plants and vines, and I immediately thought of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It was a “paradise”, indeed.

We also try to create paradise with other things. Years ago, I used to go to big rock concerts. From the lights to the over-whelming music to the smoke machines that creates atmosphere, we shouted and longed for a new world. I’ve been to some classical music concerts that affected me the same way. We can also try to create paradise with food, drink, and sexuality. I use to live in England and learned to appreciate the social function of pubs. It was very pleasing to sit by the coal fire while talking with friends and drinking a pint of Strongbow. One day, I began to notice that the pub was a lot like a church. The windows were made from colored glass like stained-glass windows. The bar was a lot like an altar and behind it was the bartender. He was like a priest who gave out his own kind of communion and even offered an ear for “confession.”  Behind the bartender was the “high place”, usually covered with mirrors with all of the alcohol bottles on display. For many, the pub was their church. Don’t be hard on the English because we can do the same thing with our food and drink.

Many people have sacrificed their lives and well being in search of a sexual experience that would lead them into paradise and help them transcend the bonds of earthly life. (Think of the money that Americans spend on pornography each year.) Given the problem of obesity in this country, food and pleasure are intimately connected not with our need to survive, but with our need to escape boredom and be entertained.
The problem is that sex, food, drink, architecture or whatever you try-all will fail us eventually. We just grow bored and weary, or our senses dull and we want a more intense experience. Our “paradise” soon becomes a hell of physical, emotional, or psychological addiction. Perhaps, deep within our hearts, our longing for Eden serves as the foundation for all kinds of addiction. However, nothing that we try will ever recreate Eden. Eden is our home and our hearts will be restless until we return there. But we can’t get in because the angel won’t let us!

I dont mean to confuse you, but actually that isn’t true anymore. The gates have been opened and the angel has left. The Liturgy of the Church tells us that the Cross of Christ has opened the gates of Paradise and only by the Cross can we can now enter in. This means that the same relationship that Adam and Eve had with God in paradise is available to us. God will walk with us like he walked with our Parents in the Garden. If you know anything about St. Euphrosynus the cook, this isn’t just a spiritual experience, a fairytale or fantasy. Read his life to find out what I mean.

Though the gates are open, only a few enter in. Most of us are too busy to accept the invitation. The monastic Fathers warned that one of the great dangers of life is the need to be entertained. The need is so great that we make entertainment out of most anything. For example, I’ve come to the conviction that some people find being judgmental is quite entertaining, and they are loathe to give it up. After all, its fun to be into other people’s business, and it certainly keeps me from dealing with my own stuff. Almost every sin or passion that plagues us is an attempt to keep us distracted. The monastic Fathers would warn novices about the danger of boredom. Even prayer and liturgy could seem boring to them. Is it any wonder that we find ourselves easily distracted when praying?

The power of entertainment in American life makes spiritual life difficult. Media dominates our life and is almost inescapable. Now, I’m not a Luddite, and I don’t suggest that we blow up all of our TVs, computers, radios, stereos, cell phones, and Ipods. However, when you put it all together and consider the time we spend feeding the machines with our attention and treasure, we are truly the “American Idle.” Instead of walking in a living and completely satisfying fellowship with the Living God, we surrender to distraction and long to be entertained.  The funny thing is that no matter how often our entertainments fail to satisfy, we will simply not give up.

You might find it to be an odd idea, but scholars of history have pointed out that war has always been a great source of entertainment. Men would flock to a call to battle because it relieved them of the tedium of running a farm or some small home business. Of course the women were left with all of the work while the men went off to play at war. I’m old enough to remember that one of the things promised by military recruiters was the chance to “see the world.” By joining, I could “be all that I can be.”

I have to confess a certain unending love for the next gadget and I get the feeling of paradise when I sit in a dark theatre with a box of popcorn and a diet coke and the movie is about to begin. I really plan to do better about this. Soon, I promise. But after all, isn’t Ipod coming out with something new next year? And what about that new Spiderman movie?  Oh, and who will be the next American Idol?

I can hardly wait for it all! It’ll be fun! It’ll be paradise!

I really am the American Idle.

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