Friday, July 21, 2017

Column: Just Enough Distraction

I find much wisdom in Lewis' Letters to Malcolm, though I was somewhat vexed to find that Malcolm was fictional.  Much of the appeal of the book for me is in its tone, and its ability to limn questions without answering them.  I find mystery appealing.  The full quote is:

“A clergyman once said to me that a railway compartment, if one has it to oneself, is an extremely good place to pray in 'because there is just the right amount of distraction.' When I asked him to explain, he said that perfect silence and solitude left one more open to the distractions which come from within, and that a moderate amount of external distraction was easier to cope with. ” — C. S. Lewis. “Letters to Malcolm.”

This column appeared at on 20 July 2017

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you’ Mk 1:35-37

Next week, they are tearing down the wall of the building 20 feet away from my office. Last month they were using jackhammers to remove the terrace underneath my window. It’s been a bit noisy in my office, to say the least, and likely to get noisier. So, in the absence of students and classes to teach, I have fled to the hills, literally.

I’m writing this from my temporary office in the Vatican Observatory — the Specola Vaticana — now housed in the papal gardens in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. My desk is tucked up under the eaves of what was once a cloistered convent for Basilian nuns, renovated for the Specola’s quarters in 2009 when the nuns moved next door.

The quiet here is almost as deafening as the jackhammers at home. I can hear the papal roosters crowing, the burble of the fountain in the courtyard below, and the traffic brushing past the walls that separate the Holy See from Italy, but no one is knocking on my door asking if I know when they will tear out the classroom down the hall or if I’ve thought about curriculum planning for the spring yet. I can work in peace.

Working at the Specola is, to use C.S. Lewis’ image, much like praying on a train: “[T]here is just the right amount of distraction.” Not so quiet that my to-do list dances in my head, not so noisy that I can’t hear what creation and the Creator have to share this morning.

I often long for the perfect spot to pray, to go off like Jesus walking long before dawn into the hills to be with his Father in silence and solitude. But perhaps what I need more than the occasional retreat is to learn to find the spots where I can pray with “just the right amount of distraction.”

Even Jesus did not remain hidden away, but returned with Simon and his disciples to tend to the needs of others. So, too, I need to catch the moments between meetings to look toward God, to take a few minutes to sit in the piazza’s late afternoon buzz and pray.

In finding these pockets of space and time, I’m practicing tuning my ears to the murmur of God at work in all things and at all times, even when the walls are falling around me.

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