Distractions. How many of us find ourselves distracted? From our phones? Social media? 24/7 News? Never-ending sports? Constant distractions all around us. Distractions that don’t allow time to sit in silence, reflect or meditate, or even focus in prayer.
It’s fascinating to read something that St. John of Kronstadt, an early 20th century Russian saint, wrote more than 100 years ago. He noted, “A strange illness has appeared in our days – the passion for distractions. Never before was there such a desire for distractions; people have forgotten how to lead a serious life for the good of others; they have no spiritual life and are bored. They exchange the profound content of a spiritual life for distractions! What madness! We must re-introduce into life its lost meaning and give back to the people the knowledge of the true purpose of life.”
The “passion for distraction.” Imagine what St. John would say today if he thought people were getting distracted 100 years ago! How much more are his words a serious warning and challenge for us today about distractions:
- - People have forgotten how to lead a serious life for the good of others;
- - they get bored and have no spiritual life;
- - they exchange the depth of a serious spiritual life for superficial distractions
- - they have to re-discover the meaning of life
Can we lay aside our phones and turn away from social media long enough to reflect on this? Distractions are pulling us away not only from God, but also from one another. Distractions have become obstacles to even hearing God knock on the door of our hearts, because distractions fill our minds and hearts constantly with noise. Here’s one example. How many of us can sit in silence for ten minutes, without looking at our phone, without listening to music or talking with one another, without any noise? How many of us can sit peacefully meditating or reflecting in silence? Not many adults, no less our youth who have been raised with iphones in their hands. Too quickly we get bored and find the need for some type of distraction to fill the silence. Our ability to sit in silence has been one of the biggest victims of all these distractions, and yet, it is precisely in silence that we come to know God. As the Psalmist noted, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
Well, today’s Gospel story of Zacchaeus has something to teach us about distractions. We all remember well the story of the tax-collector from Jericho. Zacchaeus was a first century Jew who worked for the dreaded Romans. He was the chief tax-collector in the wealthy region of Jericho. He obviously didn’t care much for his own people, or even his own reputation. His main distractions came from his desire for riches and power. He was distracted by worldly concerns.
Even when Zacchaeus heard that the popular, itinerant preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, was passing through Jericho and felt compelled to catch a glimpse of him, he faced other distractions. He probably never thought he would meet the man, but he simply wanted to see him. Was it the popularity of Jesus that intrigued him, or did he hear something about his teachings? Whatever it was, something pulled Zacchaeus to seek after Christ.
Yet, if Zacchaeus’ desire was superficial, it would have quickly waned because there were many factors distracting him from his main pursuit. There was a huge crowd which left little room for Zacchaeus to see Christ. Zacchaeus himself was a short man who could not see over any crowd, and this crowd would have been quite hostile to him since they despised the tax-collector.
Zacchaeus’ strong desire to see Jesus, however, overcame the distractions hindering him. Thus, this grown man decided to run ahead of the crowd and climb up into a sycamore tree just to catch a glimpse of Christ. This adult did something a little child would do. No distraction could pull Zacchaeus away from his central goal to see Jesus.
When we learn to push aside distractions, and make room for encountering God, miraculous change can happen! And this is exactly what the story reveals.
As Jesus walks by the sycamore tree, Zacchaeus gets a clear look at Jesus, but more importantly, our Lord gets a clear look at Zacchaeus. And the Lord surprises everyone, including the tax-collector, when he calls out, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down from that tree, for I am coming to your house today.”
Everyone was shocked at this unexpected event. Zacchaeus the despised, hated traitor and tax-collector who only wanted to catch a glimpse of Jesus, suddenly is welcoming him into his house. The scandalized crowd can’t believe this holy prophet would enter the house of such a terrible sinner. Yet this is the miracle that can happen when we push aside distractions and make room for encountering God!
Christ comes, and our life is never the same. Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus into his house and responds to Him as a radically new man: “Lord I’m going to give half of my goods to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it fourfold.”
When we meet Jesus, truly encounter Him in our lives, radical change will inevitably come. We cannot meet Jesus and not be changed. We cannot hear his words of eternal life and not allow them to inspire and direct our lives. We cannot encounter Christ and not discover the deepest meaning of life!
YET, the question we all have to ask ourselves is whether we have truly met Christ? Have we ever come face to face with Him, OR have we allowed the distractions of our lives keep us away, keep us at a distance from Him?
Have the constant distractions of life, from looking down at our phones constantly, to living our lives according to what social media says, to filling our lives with the nonsense and superficiality of the world kept us from even hearing Jesus knocking at the door of our heart? “I stand at the door and knock. The one who hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and him with me.” (Rev 3:20) Will we hear the voice and the knock of Christ in our lives?
Distractions! St John of Kronstadt warned us. Distractions have led people to forget how to lead a serious life for the good of others; distractions have led us to be bored with the true spiritual life, and distractions have made us lose the understanding of what the ultimate meaning of life is all about!
Beware of distractions and learn to make room in our full lives to encounter the living God!
Holy Father John the Righteous, disciple of St. Gregory of Decapolis; Euthemios the Enlightener of Karelia; Cosmas, Bishop of Calcydon; John the New Martyr of Epiros; Athanasia the Wonderworker of Aegina
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