I have been watching Ostrov (The Island) again (link is official movie site in Russian only). I’ve written about it before. It had a powerful impact on me in the beginning (last fall), and it’s impact has only grown, particularly during this past February.
That impact, put simply (and it joins nicely with the feast day of St. Elijah): the Christian life is more about what is not seen than what is seen. So the writer of the letter to the Hebrews:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. . . . By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. (Hebrews 11:1,3 NKJV)
In the movie, itself a piece of fiction, Fr Anatoli “sees” that the young woman standing before him is pregnant, though she has just found out herself and has not told him. He “sees” that the old woman’s purportedly dead husband is alive though unwell in France and wants her to come to him. He “sees” that the woman who brings her son to be healed need not go back to her job, because the company is on a three-day furlough due to busted plumbing. He “sees” the spirit inhabiting the young woman’s body, and, in a marvelously depicted scene, wages invisible battle against it as he casts it out. There is an aspect of reality that escapes most of his fellow monks, but one which, due to his dedication to God and to his own ascetical struggles, Fr. Anatoli apprehends. Even knowing ahead of time the day of his own death.
This isn’t the only, but it is, I think, a main difference between most of us Christians and the saints: the eyes of such saints see more than the empirical reality that is the sole focus of most of our days; these saints see the invisible reality that makes the visible possible. Saints like the Prophet Elijah. St. James tells us Elijah prayed and it ceased raining; and he prayed again and it started raining. The writer of the books of the Kings tells us of St. Elijah’s raising of the dead boy to life. And there are all the pyrotechnics: Mt. Carmel, the two fifty-man squadrons, the horses and chariot of fire. The Prophet Elijah saw what most of us do not see.
How did he do it? Well, by grace. But that grace came to him, as Father Patrick related in his homilies of Vespers last evening and the Divine Liturgy this morning, in that Elijah had a single-minded devotion to God. “Seek first his Kingdom,” says our Lord. Or, to say it another way, we see that for which we look.
In other contexts, this is called confirmation bias, or the believe-see-believe loop. We filter what we see, accepting what we expect to see, and failing to see (mostly unconsciously) what we do not expect (or want) to see. This loop is broken only by trauma or by careful conscious self-reflection. That is to say, either we willfully examine what we see and attempt to look beyond our expectations, or events pile up on one another, creating enough pain and dissonance that we are forced to reevaluate our paradigm, the grid by which we filter our experiences.
This is why, it seems to me, we encounter suffering and pain with such sharp feelings of disorientation. For us, what is real, what is true, is that which we can see and feel and taste and touch and hear. And so long as those things go along pleasantly enough, we are not forced to reconsider whether or not, as Christians, our attention to our reality is properly anchored. But when, either because of random human acts or natural events or because we finally realize that the consequences of our paradigms are not getting us our good but our pain, we are confronted with the shifting sand of tangible reality, then we have the opportunity to refocus our gaze and to look for things not seen, that bedrock of our daily reality.
This is a most difficult step. On the one hand, to immerse ourselves in the invisible reality of God and his saints which underlies the universe without also taking care of the visible reality, can lead us to madness and self-delusion. But on the other hand, to immerse ourselves in the visible reality of our lives and to fail to take care of the invisible, can lead us to faithlessness and despair.
One needs one’s feet firmly planted in, if I may say it this way, both realities. And this is not, we have it on the words of the saints who practice this, difficult to do, for both realities, the visible and the invisible, interpenetrate one another. We believe, after all, in the Incarnation: that the divine is one with the human and the human is one with the divine. We consume bread that is also Christ’s Body, and wine that is also his Blood. Ours is not a two-sided reality: as though one could separate the visible from the invisible. It is, rather, one reality consisting of two things, just as the Incarnation is about one Person and two natures.
So, one takes care to attend to the visible reality which is integral to our moment-by-moment living, and not to let it go. But one also takes care to attend to the invisible, also essential to us, and to seek it first. So, while there is no dualism or separatism here, there is an order, a priority. It is the invisible which founds our visible. It is the Kingdom we must seek first. And to this will be added that which is visible.
Such an orientation, such a single-minded focus will have us looking the fool to the world. But there comes a time when one has one’s fill of worldly wisdom which fails to account for the divine. This wisdom, so-called, is the language of power and leverage and compromise and winning and self-preservation. But there is another language, another wisdom, which orders and prioritizes the wisdom of the world. It goes by the name of Calvary and Golgotha. Against all human reason, that wisdom resulted in the Resurrection, the rebirth and renewal of all things.
For what it’s worth, here are some links that fill in some other details about Ostrov‘s lead actor, Pyotr Mamonov:
The Wikipedia article
An article from the Washington Post, which gives some biographical details
An article from The Moscow Times, which blends some film summary with biography