like that

It says something about me, and about where I am these weeks and months, that my last two posts begin with ‘some days are like that.’ Like what? These days are full of beauty that I can’t quite appreciate, joy that I know is there but just can’t feel, and love that knocks quietly but insistently on the door of my heart as I struggle with the lock.

I had this dream several nights ago in which I was insisting to a couple of colleagues that going through the motions is important. Developing habits consistent with the hope you ought to have, even when you don’t have that hope, is not a bad thing. What do you do, I asked, when the love of your life doesn’t feel like it did at the first? You do what you would do if it did, and maybe, if you’re lucky, you find that it is still there.

What I didn’t say in the dream, of course, because it was (after all) a dream, was how difficult it is to do. It is incredibly soul-wrenching work. I write about the character of Christian identity, in my life as an ‘academic’ theologian (whatever that is); I say that John Milbank is right: the heart of our Christian practice, our being and believing and acting Christianly in the world, is receiving life, and love, and our very being from God. Apart from God, we cannot persist. (See Colossians 1: 17, or listen to Rich Mullins’ song ‘All the way to kingdom come’ if you don’t believe me.) Feeling like we are apart, but acting on the certainty that we’re not…well, you get the picture.

These days are like that. I wonder, is this accedia? Is it depression? Or is it the ordinary bumps in the road, jarring me and knocking me off balance? Does it really matter what it is? What it does is make me irritable, jumpy, tired and inconsiderate. My dad might call me ‘temperamental’, as he used to when I was a teenager, by which he mostly meant ‘grumpy.’ I find the laundry exhausting and am driven to despair by wooden train track on the floor. Everything that happens seems to upset me, and everything that might happen worries me.

So why am I sharing my misery? I hate complaining. I usually take it as a sign that disappointment has won, and stands over me, triumphantly smug. That may be. That was certainly true when I got up this morning, because yesterday I was frustrated that the activity of resting in God was not available to me in the noise and commotion and mess of my cluttered house. Janet Martin Soskice came to me this morning, though (not in person, of course, though I would dearly love to meet her someday):

Most Christian women…think that what they do around the home is worthy in God’s service–they do not think, they have not been taught to think, of it as spiritual. And here, monastic figures who, apparently, found God over the washing up or sweeping the floor will be called to mind; but these are not really to the point, since servile tasks were recommended because they left the mind free to contemplate. What we want is a monk who finds God while cooking a meal with one child clamouring for a drink, another who needs a bottom wiped, and a baby throwing up over his shoulder (The Kindness of God, pp. 22-23).

That’s my failure. I think that because receptivity is active, that the sort of activity I should seek is quiet contemplation. No, no, no! It works both ways: the activity that is typical, ordinary, and ‘mindless’ is also–or can be–a form of receptivity. This is what the prescribed movements of Benedictine prayer should teach me. It is not that I need to do something different (‘you are in the right place NOW’–thanks Sr Catherine Wybourne), but I need grace to re-frame what I am doing. I need God to reveal himself to me in the wiping of noses and bottoms, and in the picking up of toys and clothes off of the floor.

For the moment, though, I am just going through those motions. But just a little, tiny bit of hope peeks out from beneath a pile of things to be sorted. And for that I am immensely grateful.


From Thursday to Sunday, I was on retreat, in silence, at Minster Abbey. I kept a record of my time there, and reproduce an excerpt here:

I realized as I sat in the chapel for Vigils this morning that I have hardly reflected at all on the Scripture in which I have been steeped since Thursday afternoon. At first this struck me as odd, since I have long been in the habit of reflecting on the Mass readings, and for many years previous, on the Psalms. So why, when seven times a day I pray the Psalms with the community here, do I not mention the words of the Psalms? As I came up the stairs back to my little room, I thought, because that’s not really what prayer is about. My reflections, daily or thereabouts (whether I write them down or not), are a part of my spiritual formation, to be sure, and a gift that God has given me to keep me close to Jesus. But praying the Psalms does not require that sort of reflection. There is a silence about that contemplation that is inward, and the words–strange as it may seem–give voice not to thoughts or reflections, but to a deep, inner silence. Praying the Psalms is not an act of cognition or emotion primarily, though both may be involved; praying the Psalms is rather an act of obedience. Why do I attend prayers regularly when I am here? No one expects me to come faithfully to Vigils, to stay until the close of adoration following Compline. I do it because it is the Benedictine way of life; it is, in a very real sense, what I have come to do. The daily timetable is an opportunity for an act of submission that is life-giving, that allows me to draw closer to God not by my feelings or my intellect, but by willing obedience.

So as much as I am inspired, cheered, or challenged, by the words I pray and hear in the chapel, I am more deeply restored by participation, by prayer itself. To stand, to sit, to kneel, to bow–in themselves these movements of the body are not significant. But in the daily office they become part of the prayer, they are the prayer. Contemplative prayer is an act of the whole body, in which the words spoken express a deeper silence, and the movements of the body tell of a more profound stillness. Would that all my words and actions were the fruit of such silence and stillness within me.