Bring on the boredom: the paradox of the path

Years ago, at a family gathering with cousins and aunts and uncles rubbing shoulders and shaking hands, I uttered words for which I was shamed and even scolded.

We were in the hills of Iowa at my uncle’s pig farm. He was the eldest uncle. His children were at least a decade older than me, if not two. The toys that lingered in the farmhouse from their youth were minimal and seemed outdated. Although I loved my cousins, they had nothing new to offer me either.

“Mom, I’m bored!!!” I whined loudly, as if my pronouncement meant that everyone ought to resolve my discomfort.

My mother said nothing. Instead, she nodded and returned her attention to the nearby adults. Likely used to my outbursts, she knew when it was appropriate to correct my behaviors, when a response was necessary.

An aunt who didn’t know me as well chimed in. She was the wife of my uncle, the pig farmer. “No one is allowed be bored here! There is always something to do!” The tone of her voice and the scowl on her face told me that I had committed a mortal sin for allowing myself to become bored, and, even worse, to complain about it.

Ever since, I have struggled to hush her judgement.

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

My calendar has been crammed with all sorts of activity lately, all of it great. Yet, the buzz of service has me feeling spent. My mind and soul feel clogged by distraction and jumbled by excessive input. Although what I am going through has cramped my contemplative and creative style, I suspect that the pace I’ve been keeping lately is much more like the one most Americans maintain. It’s an accidental act of solidarity for me–a Franciscan sister with the privilege of poverty and prayer–to enter into the frenzy of noise and commotion that defines modern life for so many.

And, in this visit to the place of a-lot-is-going-on and every-screen-and-electronic-device-is-adding-noise, I have discovered that the spirit is inviting me into the sacred space of boredom, a place that my aunt shunned and I was taught to fear in my youth.

In his essay,  James K.A. Smith, “In Praise of Boredom,” (Image Journal, Issue 99) writes. “In a world of incessant distraction, the way out might look like learning how to be bored. A little ennui could go a long way; it could be the wardrobe we need now. We need to learn how to be bored in order to wean ourselves off distraction and open ourselves to others and the Other—to make ourselves available for irruptions of grace.”

I agree. Boredom is beautiful. It’s a grace to enter into the sacred spaces where we not sure how to be with ourselves or what to do. The opportunity of being uncomfortable in the moment and of feeling lost in open space, allows a chance to listen deeper than the complications and distractions offered by our screens and devices and the repeated human habit of seeking pleasure and comfort. Instead, in the cracks and pauses, we can become open to the Spirit stirring in our hearts and minds. We can lean in to the loving presence of God. I have come to believe that boredom is actually essential to healthy spiritual living.

“Sunrise at Marywood” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

A few years ago, I packed up my high school classroom and moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Here, I’ve been on staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center and savoring the quiet and beauty of the Northwoods, while helping to offer retreats, programs, and good hospitality. Before I arrived, I heard a repeated concern that I would be “bored” in the woods, that it could be too tough for me. It’s laughable now, of course, because my life here has been anything but boring, but I can understand how city-dwellers might make such an assumption about rural life.

In a few weeks, I will be packing up again, moving back to Chicago to begin an internal FSPA ministry: living alongside our novices as a finally professed sister. And the paradox of the path of my life is that I anticipate that entering into this new phase will actually allow me to be much more bored than living and serving at Marywood. For this boredom, and the graces it could open, I say, “Bring it on!”

Entry into Advent: the pacing of discovery

Psalm 80 is often read in churches all over the world during the Advent season. Throughout this psalm of yearning we pray, “restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”  

I live in a neighborhood that shares rhythms of prayer each day. We are a community of persons with all sorts of abilities, limitations and gifts, attempting to welcome one another into the reality of God’s presence with us, here and now. We seek to proclaim this reality through our daily lives of mutual care and friendship among persons with and without developmental disabilities.  

Recently, after we read Psalm 80 as part of our morning prayer, one of our wise sisters, Amy Lynn, offered this plea:

“Jesus I want you to see me. I want to see you. I want to see your face. I want you to come close to me and hug me. I want to see you all around me. I want to see you in the people walking around; people I know and people I don’t know. I want to see you and I want you to be close to me.”

I sprinted home to jot down this longing for a holy vision of the world because I surely didn’t want to forget it. We were led by a tender prayer of yearning from one seeking to see and be seen by God: a picture of Advent.

Over the last several years, I have gradually learned  to see prayer as an encounter of discovery. In his book “Into the Silent Land,” Martin Laird offers a framework for the spiritual life by distinguishing between discovery and acquisition.

Much of my life, I have been formed to imagine basically everything as an opportunity for achievement – a chance to prove, to compete, to gain something. But in the gift of prayer, we are invited into a different way. We are invited into a discovery of what is real and true and beautiful through no merit of our own. In the gift of prayer we are invited to discover a new vision of the world; God’s vision.

God alone is the Holy One, abundant in mercy and loving-kindness. We are at union with God in Jesus, and we are the beloved of God in Jesus. This is a reality we cannot acquire on our own. It is a gift in which we participate through discovery in the Holy Spirit.

And discovery has a pacing to it. I certainly know the pacing of acquisition. There is a necessary speed inherent in reaching for self-promotion or organizing my schedule based on efficiency. This pacing is often frenetic and hasty in its certainty that there are better things to do (or, at least, other things to do right when this thing is finished). The pacing of achievement is pretty fast. This pacing, though, can be destructive; steamrolling organizations or people or ways of life that can’t keep up. The pacing of achievement can creep into the our spiritual life, bolstering the illusion that practices of prayer are meant to merit something not already there. This pacing can even diminish our capacity to rightly see and encounter Jesus coming to us in the form of the one who is vulnerable and in need of care. But the pacing of discovery is a bit different. Thank goodness I am surrounded by friends and neighbors who remind me to receive time as a gift and to release my tight grip on the idol of busyness.  

But discovery takes time.

painting-Mary
Original painting, depicting Psalm 34,  by Janice Little

In Advent, we receive the gift of time as we wait and prepare and learn to eagerly anticipate the coming of our Lord. One of the reasons I appreciate celebrating Advent each year is that it is a season of discovery. In Advent, we wait anew for the coming of Jesus – the same coming we celebrated last year and the year before. Yet each year, we are invited to enter Advent with an openness to being changed by new beauty.

In Advent we unearth our own little obstacles to the transformation of the coming of our Lord who reigns over all the earth. In Advent we excavate our true identities as participants in the very life of God through the birth of this little one – baby Jesus. And yet, Advent isn’t Christmas … so we wait and we sit and we still ourselves and we receive time for silence in order to receive and respond to the one true word of God, Jesus Christ.

Amen, there is a pacing at the heart of Advent. In this, the first season of the church calendar, we are reminded to slow down. This slowing down allows us to remember Christ’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem, Christ’s final and ultimate coming in all glory in the redemption of the world, and Christ’s coming in each moment of our lives here and now through the Holy Spirit. In Advent, we are beckoned to hesitate in front of God in prayer and in front of one another in our relationships. Hesitation makes room for us to wonder at the presence of God in the other and to anticipate in openness the coming of our Lord in unexpected ways. How often does our quick pace cultivate patterns of enclosing ourselves in inattention to God’s presence around us? How often does our haste enclose us in predetermined formulas for God’s activity in our life?

When Psalm 80 framed Amy’s prayer, it was laced with longing. This Advent, may we cultivate a longing for God’s coming. May we gain a vision to see all the tiny ways God comes to us each day.

May the Holy Spirit lead us into a humble openness to discovering and participating in the Word made flesh – Emmanuel … God is with us. May we receive the time to hesitate in front of one another and to kindle desire for God as we echo the prayer of our dear friend, Amy Lynn … Jesus, we want to see you, we want to see your face, we want you to come close and hug us. Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

woman-man-holding-babyGreg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

From stone to flesh

“Heart of Stone” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Weeks before departing for my Holy Week Camino pilgrimage in April, I am out for one of my practice walks. Bundled into layers of winter clothing, I cross through muddy, grayish-tan grass crusted partly by winter’s snow melting into the thawing ground. It is Lent: the season of awakening, of emergence, of spring. I am training my body and spirit for the discipline of pilgrimage, while the body of earth does the tough work of thawing and bursting seeds into new vulnerable life.

Between trees and highway I roam, my glance moving up and down from the soil to the sky. My pace quick, something catches my eye, but I don’t realize what it is until I am several steps ahead. I gasp, pause and slowly step backward. What is this next to my toes? There, poking out of the mud, I see a heart. A heart shaped not from melting snow but stone. Amused by the Lenten call to conversion, I grin and think of…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

The backwards blessings of being busy

A little bit after my Christmas break began a couple weeks ago, I realized something was wrong with me.

Here I was, entering into days that were meant for rest and rejuvenation, and I totally felt stressed out about all I had to do. Sure, it made sense. The end of the year and the holidays are a busy time for most of us. Maybe procrastination had gotten the best of me. I do know that during those hectic weeks between Thanksgiving and the start of my Christmas vacation, I moved several things on my to-do list into those big gaps of “free time” on my calendar around Christmas.

But even though it may have made sense that I felt stressed, it didn’t seem right. I couldn’t actually relax and just take pleasure in the things I needed and wanted to do. I even found it difficult to actually focus on the work, because my anxiety about it all felt so intense. A sudden abundance of “free time” strangely seemed to put extra pressure on me to achieve, accomplish, produce. Whew.

I couldn’t help but to wonder: Am I addicted to being busy? 

My heart was deeply pondering that uncomfortable question. My body was desiring some real rest. And, my mind was longing to actually accomplish some necessary tasks. So, I couldn’t help but to pause and immediately read this article when it came across my Twitter feed:

Why is everyone so busy? The Economist

I took a break from the anxiety about the work and delved right in. Then, I totally calmed down. It was an incredible and interesting read, not something I could skim. In fact, the article actually stirred up some good personal reflection for me. The article contained particular insights that I found to be so striking that they lingered with me during the rest of my break (especially whenever I was tempted to feel shame for not being productive.) Here’s a few quotes:

  • Nowadays professionals everywhere are twice as likely to work long hours as their less-educated peers. 
  • Lunches now tend to be efficient affairs, devoured at one’s desk, with an eye on the e-mail inbox. At some point these workers may finally leave the office, but the regular blinking or chirping of their smartphones kindly serves to remind them that their work is never done.
  • The rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.
  • The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it.
  • The struggle to “have it all” may be a fairly privileged modern challenge. 
  • The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.
  • Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier.

It wasn’t news for me to know that I am an experience junky and that I am over-ambitious. And, I know I have some bad habits. I’ve been aware for a while that more mindfulness and intentionality about how I use my time would benefit me. But the real striking and fascinating, thing I learned from the article is that part of the reason I feel such a pressure to be productive is that I am a well-educated and privileged American. There’s a backwards blessing in being busy mixed into all this.

As a Franciscan Sister, I find that my life really is an awkward dance of service and contemplation, of solitude and community. I have chosen this lifestyle/God gave me this vocation, because the life really does offer much potential for balance. With balance comes health and happiness.

As a disciple of Jesus, I continue to learn and re-learn that what matters most is not what we do after all. God doesn’t necessarily call us to be productive, but to be present. (I recently came across another brilliant piece of writing that deeply explores this dynamic of our busy lives.) The kingdom of God is build through relationships and love, not goals and accomplishments. What matters most is how we are with each other.

In the end, I did have a restful and rejuvenating Christmas break, with a good balance of leisure and work. I’ve been back to teaching for a couple days now and in the classroom with my students I feel lighter and more grounded than when my vacation began. The balance of my break has had healthy impacts. I am so thankful that I was able to fill my time with stronger doses of human connection and celebration, contemplation and rest, as all of it helped me be a better teacher and servant.

Now, the question that I felt challenged to confront at the beginning of my Christmas break lingers: Why do I allow myself to be so busy? I am not sure what the answer is. But, I don’t think I am addicted to being busy after all. My new years resolution is to remain balanced, intentional, to move slow. Then, maybe, I can enjoy the blessings of being busy.