The Holy Gift of Killing Time

lgfak01“And tell me, do you play with your children? Do you waste time with your children? The free gift of a parent’s time is so important.”
~ Pope Francis

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Same Ol’ Same Ol’ (Gethsemani II)

We started Pride and Prejudice. Again.

Priorities for our recently acquired “big screen” have been zombie-slaying and romantic comedies, but my wife and I pulled rank to start watching the six-hour BBC epic for the umpteenth time. We had plenty of other options to choose from—piles of VHS tapes from the Goodwill (30 for $1 these days), and readily available blockbusters at Redbox. Still, we opted for P&P, and we even had a couple of kids join us (voluntarily!) as we got out our well-worn boxed set.

five daughters-pride-and-prejudice-1995-6152061-1920-1080Well-worn indeed, after who knows how many viewings, yet still fresh somehow. The music and characters and dialogue are all so familiar, but with each screening you catch something you hadn’t before—a hitherto unnoticed face in the background framed by other faces in the foreground; an arched eyebrow on Lady Catherine de Bourgh that had escaped your prior attention; an obscure nod, smile, or shrug—minute details already frozen on film, but only detected (and appreciated) this go around.

Just as importantly, though, is the fact that it’s a shared encounter. Sure, Simon Langton’s brilliant re-telling of Jane Austen’s story is magic, but what’s even more magical is to come back to it time and again as a family, experiencing and exploring over the years the multilayered nuances—of both the story and the production—in each other’s company.

Among other things, it has definitely contributed to shaping our family culture, at least insofar as lines are routinely quoted (and expected to be understood) at opportune moments. For example, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without somebody plopping into a chair after dinner, and then declaring to all assembled Lydia’s memorable line, “Lord, I’m so fat!”

All this is possible because we have sat through it over and over and over, and we’ll keep doing so. It’s pleasurable, it reveals something new each time, and it binds us together—like the liturgy.

Yikes! That’s a jump, but hear me out—and think especially of monastic liturgical prayer. In addition to daily Mass, the monks gather together seven times a day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, and what St. Benedict called the “work of God” (opus Dei). There’s routine and the rhythm, the recurring cycle of readings and Psalms, the sameness of the Hours, day in, day out, year in, year out—the usual. Doesn’t it get boring? Doesn’t rote recitation (and “recitation” is a legitimate term here according to the Catechism) lead to cynicism and spiritual torpor? Doesn’t familiarity, in other words, lead to contempt?

Far from it. The Liturgy of the Hours is largely a structured way of praying through the Scriptures, and so it is an encounter with the Word Himself. That being the case, can it be reasonable to talk of too many repetitions of such encounters? The problem isn’t the repetition—the problem isn’t with God in other words. Rather, the problem is our limited capacity to benefit from the repetition. Chesterton puts it this way in Orthodoxy:

For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.

Monastic life, among other things, is oriented to cultivating that divine delight in reiteration through a life given over to prayer “without ceasing.”

So, the Divine Office (and the liturgy in general) is itself a recurrent encounter with the Word Himself, but it’s also a preparation—a conditioning that makes even deeper forms of prayer possible. Specifically referencing the Divine Office, the Catechism notes that the cycles and routine of liturgy can “reveal more deeply the meaning of the mystery being celebrated and prepare for silent prayer.” St. Benedict also hinted at this in his Rule when he urged his monks to be diligent when praying the psalter so that “our minmonks1d may be in harmony with our voice.”

While the foregoing comparison of P&P with the liturgy is admittedly oblique and strained at best, at this juncture there is no comparison at all. For liturgical prayer always has value for those partaking, even when they don’t feel prayerful or spiritual. Contrarily, we can only delve into the BBC mini-series (and enjoy it) when we’re in the right frame of mind—no such requirement attends the Divine Office, or any part of the Church’s liturgy. In fact, many saints and sages tell us the exact opposite—that we actually accrue more value from our prayer when we are not feeling especially pious or prayerful. St. John of the Cross, for instance, wrote:

Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.

The Carmelite mystic went on to write that “Love consists not in feeling great things”—an idea that can’t be emphasized enough these days, especially in reference to God.

And here, the P&P connection can be revisited. The wedding scene at the close of the series includes a rehearsal of some very traditional language regarding Christian marriage—that it is, for example, an institution “signifying unto us the mystical union that is between Christ and His church.” The priest goes on to list the three ends of marriage: First, fertility; then, fidelity; and finally, “mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”

Prosperity and adversity; richer and poorer; sickness and health; even what may seem like tedium interspersed with highs and lows of comedy and tragedy. Day in, day out, year in, year out, no matter what—the vow and the relationship holds. Feelings, in other words, have very little to do with it. The object of marriage is not happiness (a fleeting feeling), but rather holiness, wholeness, and joy, and those are only realized within the context of a promise kept through time. It is not an emotion, but an action.

As with prayer. The Church gives us the liturgy as a ready-made shell for actualizing our meager inclinations to prayer. It’s an astounding fact that our paltry attempts to seek Him out are met with His extravagant self-giving—like the father who “ran and embraced and kissed” the Prodigal Son “while he was yet at a distance.” All He requires is our tentative, even rote, step toward Him; He will do the rest.

Runway to God (Gethsemani I)

Ben and I were making a road trip to Kentucky for a weekend at the Abbey of Gethsemani. It’s always an exquisite privilege to stay there; a whole weekend there in the company of my teenaged son made it an unprecedented gift.

Ben is short for Benedict, and perhaps that’s why I took so much for granted as we prepared to go. Maybe I should’ve warned him about the silence and the absence of electronic distraction. Maybe I should’ve advised him to Facebook and text all his friends before we went off the grid.

No matter—he survived. And I suspect he internalized a lot more of the monastery than he might realize.

Take just our arrival. To get from the parking lot to the entrance of the church, visitors have to trod a long pathway—more of a plaza really. It’s expansive, and it first runs down and then up to stairs that lead even further up.silence!

Stepping onto this plaza, the quiet engulfs us—it’s almost palpable, and not just because of the signs requesting “Silence On This Walkway.” Having already passed through a small cemetery with weathered headstones, we can’t help but feel the need for quiet. It’s practically a given.

Quietly then, we walk down the plaza between two walls—on the left, the retreat house; on the right, the monastic enclosure. In bold, capital letters above the retreat house entrance, a single word: PAX, “peace” in Latin, a traditional Benedictine greeting, and certainly a core monastic value. Across from the retreat house and above a gate leading into a garden is another motto—two words this time, and in English: GOD ALONE.

With those two solemn epigraphs flanking us, our progression angles upward, and we reach the steps that lead to the doors of the church. It’s a relatively steep climb, but it’s as if the plaza’s very design had been preparing us for this final ascent. Like a runway, the Abbey’s courtyard serves as a touching off point where visitors gain velocity and liftoff before joining the monks in their flights of prayer within.

Oh, I’m sure that sounds terribly trite, and perhaps even a bit contrived. And there’s no doubt the monks would be the first to demur—that they’re hardly master pilots when it comes to the aeronautics of prayer and contemplation. Even so, the interior transformation effected by physically traversing that courtyard is indeed profound: One leaves behind cares and concerns (and smartphones anMertonDrawingMonkd tablets and noise), and is suddenly unencumbered—released, in a sense, to be swept up into the freedom and liberality of the Abbey. Tired and weary, arriving guests are prepped by the very composition of the entryway to “renew their strength,” as Isaiah wrote, and to “soar as with eagles’ wings.”

So,…did we soar? In the end, did we fly? Perhaps. A couple brief hops off the ground maybe, and possibly even a hint of more contemplative flight during one of the night vigils. I can only speak for myself, of course; I’m not sure about Ben, who was (unlike his father) reticent.

Regardless. We were there, and that’s key. “Pray to your Father in secret,” the Lord taught us, but first you have to get secret. The monastery—the physical environment itself—helps us cultivate an appreciation of prayerful isolation and acclimates us to it.  Longtime Gethsemani resident Thomas Merton said as much:

There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily. A place where your mind can be idle, forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship.

Kids who want to learn to swim have to get in the water. Similarly, the monastery is like a flight school’s airspace—not just for experts and mentors, but especially for those who want to learn to fly. False starts and tumbles are expected. It’s a controlled, safe environment for faltering attempts to rise.

Our weekend complete, Ben and I return back down those stairs, land on the plaza, and then make our way (plodding this time, no anticipation) back to the car and the road. “Once you have found such a place, be content with it,” Merton commented, “and do not be disturbed if a good reason takes you out of it. Love it, and return to it as soon as you can.”

God willing, we’ll be back.

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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