Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Utility of Vigils (Advent 2)

Indeed, while following the way of Your judgments, O LORD,
We have waited for You eagerly;
Your name, even Your memory, is the desire of our souls.
At night my soul longs for You,
Indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently
Is 26:8-9

My class on contemplation had been discussing Quaker traditions, in particular the Quaker dedication to waiting on the breath of the Spirit before speaking at Meeting. Waiting is hard, we noted, waiting quietly on God’s work, harder yet.

As we gathered our things at the end of class, I mentioned that one practice I use to learn how to wait is to let the person behind me in line at the supermarket go ahead of me. Particularly when it's really crowded. One of my students mused that just the thought made her anxious. I had to confess, “Honestly? Me, too. That's why I keep practicing.”

As the semester spins to a close and the holidays race toward me, the chances to practice waiting seem to proliferate. When only two cars managed to get through each cycle of the light on Haverford Road — as I’m trying to tuck a run into my office between dinner and fetching the boys from the high school; when I call the AAA for to come jump my mysteriously dead battery only to hear that “due to high call volume, please wait on the line,” I’m doing a lot of waiting at a time of year when I feel have little time to spare ‘just waiting.’

A friend commented on a blog post about my practice of waiting that it’s hardest to wait for something that you don’t know when, or even if, it will unfold. He turns to composer John Cage, famous for composing a piece that does nothing but wait — silently for 4’ 55”: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." Waiting itself can change us, even before what we are anticipating arrives, even if it never arrives. Perhaps there really isn’t such a thing as ‘just waiting.’

Today after work I had a mad list of errands to run. No time to wait, I thought, relieved that the lines at the grocery looked short. I pulled into a line, then realized I’d forgotten the milk. Abandoning the cart, I dashed for the dairy section, returning to find a grandmother merrily amusing her preschool grandson now in the queue behind me, and the checker just finishing the customer ahead of me. I am so efficient.

C. S. Lewis once remarked that God could be quite unscrupulous when He wants our attention, subtly bringing our focus to what we might otherwise fail to see. As I went to toss the milk onto the belt, I stopped. “Would you like to go ahead?” I asked the grandmother? She would. She did. I waited. It was hard.

On to Ardmore, where cars were circling the parking lot like sharks. I threaded my faithful Mini around a delivery truck, intent on beating the red SUV in the next row to the spot I saw opening up. But I thought of John Cage, and of a fourth century bishop who wrote to a friend “of the utility of vigils” — the practice of waiting — “It’s easier to begin a work if we keep before our eyes how useful it is,” and I waited. It was still hard.

Madeline Delbrel, who gathered a small community of contemplatives in Paris in the early 20th century, similarly used the tiny ever-present irritations of life as a contemplative practice. Bad weather. Late buses. Like John Cage, she too discovered that persistence in the practice slowly changed her view of the irritations, expanding her sense of time, until it seemed to her as an “epic film in slow motion.”

I’m slowly learning to see the utility of vigils, the shifts in perspective that come when I wait even as waiting doesn’t come easily, when the signs I am watching for are obscured by the night. As so I continue to practice, though I see little sign of progress, to diligently seek He whose day is near, whose coming is certain, He who is the desire of my soul.

My soul is waiting for the Lord,
I count on his word.
My soul in longing for the Lord
more than watchman for daybreak. — From the De Profundis


  1. Let the watchman count on daybreak,
    and Israel on the Lord.

    I am finding that the more I wait, the more time I have.

    It is the strangest manifestation of what I think of God's Quantum Physics. Because once I added prayer and meditation into my very busy life, I had that time. I really did.

    I try to sit still for 7 minute intervals a few times a day. Honestly, when I do this three or four times my day is far more leisurely paced, and I am not rushed and I do not feel like I have even more stuff on my to do list.

    This fall I added exercise. It was kind of a test, does this really work? And, sure enough, in my very busy life I actually have time for an hour walk. Every day (except when very sick in the bed and coughing).

    So... who knew that time was so stretchy. :)

  2. Hi Michelle - I landed on your page from Fran Szpylczyn's "Pastoral Postings" - I am a parishioner at Immaculate Conception in Glenville and guest post sometimes on that blog.

    This is a great post and concerns something I have tried in the past. I travel quite a bit for work and am often in the position of waiting for airplane to arrive or a mechanical issue to be fixed. Often this happens when I have a tight connection on the other end of the flight, and almost always when I am trying to get home, not on the outbound trip.

    While these delays are "imposed from the outside" rather than any choice of mine, I have learned to relax and trust God instead of anxiously watching the clock tick. They are great opportunities to practice patience and prayerful waiting.

  3. Cindy, late in the semester, my spiritual director offered a prayer for "elastic minutes" -- and I've been attentive ever since to the paradox of time gained when I slow down!

  4. Sean,

    It sounds like you are a seed of calm on those planes! What a lovely way to practice patience...

  5. Yes! Elastic minutes!

    It's so true!