Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Column: Seeking a measured tempo

This column began as a post from a couple of years back. Patient Spiritual Director had told me that the desert fathers and early monastics considered "overwork" to fall under the heading of the deadly sin of sloth, which seemed to him surprising. But given sloth's roots in acedia, the draining away of prayer through inaction, I can see the connection. Prayer can vanish into the whirlwind of action, too. It's all about tempo...

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 11 February 2010.

In vain you get up earlier, and put off going to bed, sweating to make a living, since He provides for His beloved as they sleep.

— Ps. 127:2

Acedia, what the desert fathers called the noontime demon, baked the life of out of a monk’s prayers, leaving the day to stretch emptily before him, the hours passing with syrupy slowness. 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 semester seems to stretch endlessly ahead of me, and the crisp breezes of energy and hope that swept through my office in September have become a howling blizzard of commitments and complications. I despair of finding my desk again.

My perfectionist alter ego huddles in the corner, muttering dark comments about my work, trying to goad me into polishing this task or that, to the detriment of those in the ever-growing queue. It’s not the heat that shrivels my prayers; it’s the demands of the day that suck the life from my soul. I long for a desert hermitage — preferably one occupied by someone else’s demons.

Unable to escape to warmer climes or a hermit’s cell, on a bitter cold Friday, I found myself making soup. Soup demands my full attention, perfection is forced to take a back seat to completion — driving off the demons of demand.

Heaps of roughly cut vegetables grew on the cutting board, then were cast into the pot. One layer followed the next, the flavors intensifying in the confines of the pot. The individual chunks finally surrendered to the blender, and what had 30 minutes previously been unscrubbed carrots and onions buried in the vegetable crisper 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 later, I went to Morning Prayer. 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, our voices created a complex harmony. We followed the antiphonarian into the depths of the Benedictus, suddenly whole.

There we all were, like my soup; the ingredients ordinary, perfection a hope not an expectation, gradually cooking down into a fragrant and complex whole. Here again, I was fed not by the results, but by the work itself.

In neither case was the end product of prayer or stove my only recompense. As C.S. Lewis points out in “The Weight of Glory,” “The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”

The psalms are not effective only as pleas for God’s eventual grace but, like the steam of the soup that eased the winter dryness of my kitchen, are breathed in to gently renew the soul in that very moment. The mere undertaking of these prayers, as the making of soup, is healing.

I wasn’t surprised to find fifth century desert monastic Amma Syncletica’s prescription for dispelling the soul-draining demons of perfectionism: “This spirit must be cast out, mainly by prayer and psalmody.” Both soup and psalmody keep me to a rhythm, beating out a pace that is neither too slow nor too fast.

When the pace of my life tries to distort time, excruciatingly stretching it out or compressing it until I gasp for breath, the psalms bring me back to a more measured tempo.

Soup-making and psalm-singing remind me not to confuse frantic busyness with productivity. Some things only yield their full flavor when cooked slowly.

To God whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine — to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end. Amen. — St. Paul to the Ephesians


  1. Beautiful. Really beautiful. Meaningful, too. I really love coming here to your blog and getting a glimpse into the miracle of life.

  2. Thanks :) as my Jesuit friends would say: AMDG (ad majorem dei gloriam - to the greater glory of God)