Friday, February 29, 2008

Soup and Psalmody

Acedia might be the monk's noontime demon - the desert heat baking the life of out his prayers, the day now stretching emptily before him, moving with syrupy slowness - but in my life sloth's succubus stamps in the door in February, and is nowise as gentle. It's cold, dark and damp in the world. The end of the term is far off, and the crisp breezes of energy and hope that swept through my office in September have become a howling blizzard of committments and complications. I despair of finding my desk again, it seems pointless to grade one more paper, consult the dean yet again, review the next article. My perfectionist alter ego shuffles papers in the corner, muttering about the quality of the work, good enough isn't good enough, trying to goad me into polishing this task, to the detriment of those in the ever growing queue. I hoard time - and weep when it slides through my fingers regardless. I long for a desert hermitage, preferably occupied by someone else's demons.

Instead, on a bitter cold Lenten Friday, in the depths of February acedia, I found myself making soup. A vibrant orange melange of winter vegetables took shape on my stove, its steam easing the dryness of my kitchen, the familiar practice grounding my soul. It's a process that demanded I be fully present - or the onions would burn. Perfection had to take a back seat to completion. Each addition to the pot was prepped as the previous one cooked, a heap of roughly cut vegetables grew to its proper size on the cutting board, then was cast into the kettle. The tinny sizzling of vegetables provided a counterpoint to the bass thunk of the knife on wood. One layer followed the next, in precise order, the flavors intensifying in the confines of the pot, the aroma growing in complexity. The individual chunks finally surrendered their individuality to the blender, and what had thirty minutes previously been unscrubbed carrots buried in the vegetable crisper and onions perhaps a bit past their prime was gloriously whole and sustaining. I filled my bowl, to find I was no longer hungry. The mere act of making the soup had left me fed.

A few days after my contemplative experience with the soup, I was sitting in my parish chapel, waiting as the Augustinian community gathered for morning prayer. Breviary pages rustling, the leader for the day tossed out the order, "we're on Wednesday Week III", and our assignments, "Frank, will you do the antiphons and Lois, the reading", and slid without a breath into the opening invocation, "O Sacrament of love...". The psalms began, each side's words piling up until they slid into the silence and the other side took up its work, layering on top of the previous strophe. The intensity gradually built, even spoken our voices created a complex harmony. We followed the antiphonarian into depths of the Benedictus, suddenly whole. There we all were, like my soup, the ingredients ordinary (some of us may even be past our prime), perfection a hope not an expectation, gradually cooking down into a fragrant and complex whole. Once again, in less than half an hour I am fed not by the result of our work, but by the work itself.

In her essay, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's" Work, Kathleen Norris points out Amma Syncletica prescription for acedia's demons: psalmody. Psalm soup?

(The Norris essay is lovely...I found it via reverendmother)


  1. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your blogs. They are very calming and enjoyable and always leave me with something to think about.

  2. This is radiant, Michelle. It's hard to believe you're a scientist sometimes--the depth of your spiritual insight and the eloquence of your writing would make me guess you teach theology or English if I didn't know better.

    I do hope that all of the burdens and griefs are lifting a bit. February is not a big deal in this climate but I remember it well from my years at Notre Dame and points East. The Holy Cross priest I saw for direction my first five years in South Bend used to translate Ignatius' counsel not to change a previously solid discernment while in desolation as "Never make a major life decision in February!"

  3. michael, mother laura and wayne...


  4. What a beautiful post.

    There is something meditative about preparing a "slow food" meal.

  5. Thank you so much.

    My husband and I spent yesterday afternoon and evening making soup and then serving it to folks for Lenten dinner.

    Your post describes much of how I felt yesterday.