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 The toys that lingered in the farmhouse from their youth were minimal and seemed outdated.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!”

Don’t blink

There is nothing everyone is so afraid of as of being told how vastly much he is capable of. You are capable of – do you want to know? – you are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of standing almost any kind of maltreatment, abuse, etc. But you do not wish to know about it, isn’t that so? You would be furious with him who told you, and only call that person your friend who bolsters you in saying: “No, this I cannot bear, this is beyond my strength, etc.” – From “The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard”

I turn to Mary when I just can’t take it anymore.

I am a person who can find myself suddenly overwhelmed. Perhaps I am looking out on the sorrow of the world. I read or hear reports of some tragedy – some dreadful violence – and my heart breaks. It’s senseless and staggering, and the grief is as deep as it is sudden. I can’t take it. So I turn away; I think about something else. I turn the page or change the channel. I look away.

Or sometimes I come across a great joy. I watch my daughter do something for the first time; discover something she’s never experienced before. I get a call from a friend finally home from the hospital – the treatment went better than expected. A long-distance friend is stopping by for a visit. I am overjoyed and overcome with gratitude, and get lost in the celebration. My heart is bursting. So I make a joke to break through the sublime, or I trivialize the moment. I look away.

Sometimes I am battered by banality. It’s not the light or the dark that assaults me, but mundane gray. Another hour of chores. Another cold and frustrating traffic-filled commute. Another busy tone while I wait on hold. Another bill, another task. Tedium seeps into my bones and I want to scream. I daydream or imagine I’m elsewhere. I look away.

And in these moments, when I can catch myself, I turn to my mother. Because Mary never looked away. Mary opened her heart to all that God had to give her. One of the most frequently repeated observations about Mary in Scripture is that she watches and listens, then reflects and ponders.

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:29)

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sisters, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. (John 19:25)

When Mary was confronted with the glad tidings of the angel, she did not look away. She did not diminish or shirk the joy. She did not, in a moment of self-effacing low self-esteem, deny the blessing and demand God find someone worthier. She embraced it, and cried out in joy thanking God for his blessings and his faithfulness.

pregnant-Mary-joy

 

She did not flee from the suffering of her son. She kept in her heart the prophecy foreseeing that same heart pierced, and she stayed at the foot of the cross through the piercing. She bore witness to it until the end.

Mary accompanied her son and his mission in all the moments in between. She watched and observed her young son faithfully, day in and day out, as he advanced in wisdom and age and favor. She stayed with his disciples after the sorrow, in those strange and fearful and breathless days in the upper room while they all waited for what would come next.

Mary rejoiced and mourned fully, tasting the sweet and the bitter and every flavor in between. She gave each part of her life her full attention and countless hours of reflection, so as to fully receive the gift God was giving her in that moment. I have heard it said that Mary, in her perfect faithfulness, can come off as inhuman – a holy statue, too placid, too “good.” This is not the scriptural Mary. Mary felt more than I have – she felt higher highs and lower lows. In this way, she is more human than I might ever be.

In this new year, I ask for Mary’s strength to be fully present. To sit in my sorrow and that of others and not run or hide from it, and to celebrate with people in their joy and not be embarrassed by it. To take even the dull moments and accept them with open hands, as moments to pause and reflect and to stay faithful.

And when everyone else around me says it’s too much, that it’s beyond my strength, that I have to find a way to shake of these unbearable burdens, I hope I will hear my mother’s voice, clearly and brightly cutting through the din: “You can bear it. You can.

“You are stronger than you feel you are now.”

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.