Posts Tagged ‘The Week’

IMG_9353Holy Leisure — A Waste of Time?

Like so many people, I grew up nourished by the maxim that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  My parents and teachers reinforced this whenever they could, and perhaps that’s why I internalized it so well.  Anyway, by age thirty I had already compiled an impressive list of tasks accomplished.  But I also knew that this sort of attitude about life brings its special problems.  Specifically, for people like me and others I know, we can never really do enough.  It was nice that we had managed to use most of our time wisely, but ultimately what we’d done in the past mattered little compared to the challenges yet to come.  Before us stretched the years, and the potential to waste any or all of that time was something to fear at all costs.

For years I thought I had been pretty industrious in the use of my time, but then smart phones came along.  Those little machines made me painfully aware of just how many minutes and seconds I had frittered away through the years.  With a smart phone I could put my life on track, and I could wring every opportunity from every minute.  With even modest diligence I could reduce wastage to mere seconds a day.

IMG_9264In a recent essay in The Week, managing editor Carolyn O’Hara describes her own discovery of how much time she had wasted before the advent of the smart phone.  Like me she had learned early on about the inherent sinfulness of boredom and idleness, and she too discovered the exhilaration of filling every waking moment with work.  For a while, then, the smart phone transformed her life.  But then it happened.  Eventually it dawned on her that non-stop business was not the virtue she had once assumed.  In banishing quiet and empty time from her life, she had lost something very important: her creativity.

“Truly empty time is vitally important” she writes.  “When not distracted, our brains are free to wander off on creative tangents, as feelings and thoughts bubble up in the silence; there’s a reason bright ideas and breakthroughs tend to come in the shower or on long walks.”  (16 October, 2015, p. 3.)

IMG_9285It’s amazing how easy it has been for the smart phone to upend our lives.  In fact, most of us have surrendered without much of a fight, on the assumption that this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  You see examples of this surrender in restaurants and on the streets, where people prefer to talk with a disembodied voice rather than with the flesh and blood human being in front of them.  And I’ve seen a variant of this in many first-time visitors to the abbey.  On arrival they are struck by the silence, both in the guesthouse and also in the abbey church.  Many of them find the silence intimidating, because they’ve never really experienced silence in their lives.  For them the big test comes especially during the recitation of the psalms at morning and evening prayer.  We monks are accustomed to one full minute of silence between each psalm, but visitors find that one minute to be a novel experience.  For a few it’s almost too much to bear.  Those interludes seem to give new appreciation for the line from the psalm that reads “one day within your courts is like a thousand elsewhere.”  In our choir many discover how infinitely long one minute of silence can seem, and for a few it is just too much.  But if they keep it up, in time they discover how exhilarating it is when time seems to stand still.

IMG_9316Long ago we monks got used to these meditative pauses, and now I assume all of us savor the chance to sit, to be silent, and to indulge in what the world considers to be an idle waste of time.  But idleness it is not.  Nor is it a waste.  With smart phones silenced and the absence of chatter, and with nothing else to do but sit there waiting for the next psalm, we experience the chance to listen to what God has to say.  That’s when we experience the Spirit stirring within us.

When the movie Into the Great Silence made its debut, its portrait of life in a Carthusian monastery drew mixed responses.  I fondly recall one reviewer from The Minneapolis StarTribune, who took umbrage at the absence of a sound track that could have carried the film through the slow parts.  He didn’t go so far as to recommend an orchestral overture to introduce the movie, but he was moving in that direction.  Obviously, however, he missed the point of the movie entirely.  Granted, there was no musical background; and there was indeed a scarcity of words,  But there was more than enough to listen to, because in their silence the monks heard things that most of us miss completely in our day-to-day craziness.  .

IMG_9367The silence and holy leisure that allow us to listen is the point of monastic life, and of Christian life as well.  Jesus often commented on how people had ears to hear but never seemed to hear anything.  Echoing this, Saint Benedict urged his monks to listen, and in fact those are the first words in his Rule.  Clearly he did not intend to banish sound from the monastery; rather, he preferred quality over the the quantity of sound.

Sadly, what makes listening so difficult these days is not the quality of the sound, but the quantity.  Our world is inundated with noise, and smart phones compete furiously for whatever attention they can get.  Not surprisingly, then, despite having ears to hear and more stuff to hear than ever before in human history, we generally miss out on what is truly important.  We fail to pay attention to what really matters.

It’s never too late to make space in our day to be silent and to listen.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it may even be good to silence our smart phones once in a while, just to better hear the ordinary stuff that’s been going on around us.  Who knows what great things we’ve been missing?  And if we run the risk of not hearing as much stuff as before, we might very well have those creative insights that will make for us all he difference in the world.


+On October 14 I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access my sermon, Did Jesus Have Bad Days? through this link.

+On October 15 I attended a reception for alumni of Saint John’s University, held in Dallas, TX

+On October 16-18 I gave a retreat to the Dallas/Houston area members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.  We held the retreat at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House, in Lake Dallas, TX.  The members made for a wonderful time, and I look forward to meeting with them again someday.  In my conferences I spoke on the spirituality of the Order of Malta.

+I took the photos in today’s post last week.  At the end of the summer the prognosticators had promised an autumn filled with glorious color.  We’ve had some, but not quite as much as what we had expected.

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imageConsider the Lilies

If the thought of twenty-four hours of non-stop lambing intrigues you, then Icelandic public television has the channel for you.  I first read about this in a short snippet from The Week, and my initial reaction was amused skepticism.  Who in their right mind would sit there for an entire day watching sheep give birth to the cutest little creatures on God’s green earth?  Surely this story had to be a joke, and so I went to the internet for confirmation.  To my surprise, there it was, not only on the BBC News, but on other respected sites as well.  Sure enough, it was true; except that the bit about the sheep-birthing marathon was only the tip of the iceberg.

imageFirst of all, it turned out that this program was not an isolated one-off.  Apparently it’s only the latest example of a phenomenon called slow TV that has gained popularity in northern Europe, and Norwegian public television seems to be in the vanguard of the movement.  There stations have tested the limits of the modern attention span, with shows that have featured twelve hours of wood-burning and four hours of knitting.  There’s also the program that showed eighteen hours of salmon swimming upstream, sixty hours of Psalm-singing, and one hundred hours of non-stop chess.  And for those left pining for an even greater challenge, there were one hundred-thirty hours of a cruise ship sailing up and down the fjords of Norway.  It all leaves me wondering what’s next.  What are the limits of human endurance?

It would be so easy to make light of all this and conclude that there’s really nothing else going on in Scandinavia anyway.  We could even pity them because they don’t have enough shootings or scandals or political hot air to sustain even one decent cable news channel, much less the dozen or more that we enjoy.  No wonder they are reduced to filling the airwaves with such tedium, we might conclude.  But we’d be wrong to do so.

imageIn point of fact, slow TV is a critique of the sometimes shallow character of our information age.  For all the data that we have at our fingertips, it’s tough not to be overwhelmed.  Worse still, it’s often difficult to sort out fact from fiction in the avalanche of information that besieges us every day and hour and minute.  Ironically, the newscasters may tell us that we know more than any generation that has gone before, but in point of fact we are likely less-informed about life than any of our forebears.

I’ve not viewed a single example of slow TV, but it strikes me that it is a variation of the warning to stop and smell the roses.  It’s perhaps a reminder that we should never let events and the currents of the world drive us like lemmings over the cliff.  It may also be a caution about letting others dictate to us the standards by which we live our lives.  In blunt terms, it may very well be an invitation to get a grip on ourselves and figure out what we’re doing to ourselves — or allowing others to do to us.

imageThere’s resonance for all of this in the scriptures, and at the root of it is the invitation to be thoughtful and proactive in shaping the course of our lives.   When Jesus invited people to consider the lilies of the field, he certainly didn’t just mean for us to do so from an aesthetic point of view.  The array of lilies, so beautiful and yet seemingly unimportant, is a reminder of the care of God for each and every person.  Each lily has meaning, just as does each person.  And yet it’s so easy to forget about all that in the rush of activity and the flood of words that threaten to engulf us all.

There’s lots more to say about all this, but for the moment I’m struck by the invitation that Jesus puts to us to behold the sparrows, and to survey the plants of the field.  Given that perspective, Jesus is just the sort of guy who would ask us to consider watching a bit of slow TV as well.  And with that in mind, if I had to choose between ten hours of sheep-sheering and ten hours of mayhem on our freeways, I now realize that this is no choice at all.  I’d have to be crazy to choose the mayhem.


+On June 29th alumnus Brandon Dorsey spoke to the monks about his experience as a Benedictine Volunteer during the past year at Benedictine abbeys in India and Sri Lanka.  Brandon grew up in Pasadena, CA, and he graduated in 2014.

+On the 4th of July the monks gathered for festivities and a cook-out in the monastic garden.

+The gardens around the campus at Saint John’s continue to flourish, as the photos in today’s post attest.  Given all the work that the crew puts into the flowers and trees and shrubs, the least we can do is to stop and enjoy them for a moment — or even longer.

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