Monday, February 27, 2012

teach us to sit still

I am not a still person. I think anyone who even casually observes me can see this: my leg jiggles, or my fingers tap, or my whole body rocks (sometimes to a tune that's only inside of my head). When I'm sitting in a group, I feel sorry for the people sitting next to me, because if my leg wiggles, the entire bench or row does as well.

My mind is much the same as my body: constantly in motion. It jumps from one point to the next, one moment to the next, without much regard for what I want it to do (ADD runs in my family; I was once told that I "lean" toward ADD without actually being it). My thoughts are sort of like a roller coaster, or perhaps a leaping animal is a better analogy. It's why, I think, that writing is good for me, because it forces me to stay on track.

And it's also the reason that Lent is a hard liturgical season for me. By its nature, Lent wants us to "sit still," as Eliot puts it, to contemplate. And as much as I want to be contemplative, I'm much more inclined to want to act. I'd never be a good Benedictine.

On Ash Wednesday, when the priest puts the ashes on your forehead, he says one of two things: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return," or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel." And those both interest me, because one could argue that the first is contemplative (remember) and the other is active (turn, be faithful). And perhaps it points to the fact that both contemplation and action are necessary for faith. And while I think Lent is more contemplative, more about remembering and thinking and, well, repenting, than anything else, I also think that contemplation and action aren't really that dichotomous. We can't have Mary without Martha, after all; otherwise, we'd starve.

On a practical level, contemplation is hard. On a daily basis, I'm distracted by a number of things: work, food, friends, family, exercise, books, whether I need to do the dishes, whether I'm going to get over this damn writer's block. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. They're all important things, obviously. But sometimes, sometimes, I need to sit still. And that is hard.

I have taken, in the past years, not to praying in my own words, mainly because my thoughts are disjointed and kind of broken up. As Anne Lamott says, there are only two types of prayers: help me, help me, help me and thank you, thank you, thank you. I often pray this well-known one:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.

At Sacred Heart in Camden, during Lent, we'd sing Julian of Norwich in response to the prayers and intercessions: all shall be well, and all shall be well; all manner of thing shall be well. I repeat that often to myself, sometimes in prayer, sometimes just to remind myself that this is not the end of the world.

all shall be well.

For a more theological, and a much less disjointed, look at Lent, ya'll should head over to my friend Rebecca's blog and check out her post on Ash Wednesday.


  1. When I'm sitting in a group, I feel sorry for the people sitting next to me, because if my leg wiggles, the entire bench or row does as well.

    There's a familiar thought. Oh, the number of times I have to clamp down on myself because, while I think the feeling of the vibrations in the table is really neat, I'm making everyone else trying to take notes through an earthquake.

    In a way, I suppose it helps that I think better while moving, which can allow me to think and act at the same time. But then again, I've noticed that if I try to multitask too much, my progress actually stalls, because my brain apparently thinks that doing 10% of three things is the same as doing 100% of one thing, and it's only later that I will think back and realise that I didn't actually get far in any of what I was pursuing. So - trying to find the balancing point where contemplation and action vitalise each other instead of conflicting: that is so much the heart of the matter. I don't think I recognise the names, though - which Martha?

  2. Oh, sorry. An oversimplified version: Mary and Martha are from one of the gospels. The story is that Jesus is at their house (they're sisters), and Mary is sitting at Jesus's feet listening while Martha is running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to do things. They're often used as symbols of the contemplative life (Mary) and active life (Martha).