Theologian Jan Walgrave, recently commented that our present age constitutes a virtual conspiracy against the interior life. That is a gentle way of saying that, within our culture, distraction is normal, prayer and solitude are not. There is little that is contemplative within our culture and within our lives. Why is this? We are not, by choice or ideology, a culture set against solitude, interiority and prayer. Nor are we, in my opinion, more malicious, pagan or afraid of interiority than past ages. Where we differ from the past is not so much in badness as in busyness, in hurriedness. We don’t think contemplatively because we never quite get around to it.
Perhaps the most apt metaphor to describe our hurried and distracted lives is that of a car wash. When you pull up to a car wash, you are instructed to leave your motor running, to take your hands off the steering wheel and to keep your foot off the brake. The idea is that the machine itself will suck you through. For most of us, that’s just what our typical day does to us, it sucks us through. We now have radios within our alarm clocks that go off before the alarm actually wakes us. Hence, we are already stimulated before we fully awake. Then we rise to a radio to shower and dress and ready ourselves for work, stimulated by news, music, commentary. Breakfast and the drive to work follow the same pattern. We listen to the radio, engage in conversation, plan our agenda, stimulated and preoccupied. We spend our day working, necessarily preoccupied, our minds on what we are doing. When we return home, there is TV, conversation, activities and preoccupations of all kinds. Eventually, we go to bed, where perhaps we read or watch a bit more TV. Finally, we fall asleep.
When, in all of this, did we take time to think, to be contemplative, to pray, to wonder, to appreciate, to simply enjoy, to be restful, to be grateful just for being alive, to be grateful for love, for health, for God? The day just sucked us through. I suspect that your coffee circles are similar to mine. Where I live, in the few contemplative moments that we do take, we sit around talking: “It’s a rat race. We should do something. We drive too hurriedly, we live too impatiently, we eat too fast, we work too hard, we are too preoccupied, too busy; we don’t take time to smell the flowers!” But nothing changes.
As Mark Twain once said: “It’s like the weather – everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything about it.”
Socrates once commented “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I suspect that our age would counter with “the unlived life is also not worth examining.” Lately, though, we have taken to examining our lives less and less. The effect of this is the same everywhere. We see it in the way we eat, in the way we drive, in our inability to relax, in our lack of humor and reflectiveness, and – need I say it? – in our lack of prayer. I do not want to be judgemental, but I suspect that most persons in our culture pray very little, at least in terms of private prayer. I suspect that the average person’s prayer life consist of a short hurried prayer in the morning, an even more distracted and hurried prayer before meals, and another hurried prayer before retiring at night. That’s precious little. But our inability to be contemplative doesn’t just show itself in our lack of private prayer. That is merely a symptom of something more deeply amiss. What our hurried lifestyle and our propensity for distraction is really doing is robbing us of solitude. As solitude diminishes, life seems less and less worth living.
Ironically, most of us crave solitude. As our lives grow more pressured, as we grow more tired, and as we begin to talk more about burnout, we fantasize about solitude. We imagine it as a peaceful, quiet place, us walking by a lake, watching a peaceful sunset, smoking a pipe in a rocker by the fireplace. But even here, we make solitude yet another activity, something we do. We attempt to take solitude like we take a shower. It’s understood as something we stand under, endure, get washed by… and then return to normal life. Solitude, however, is a form of awareness. It’s a way of being present and perceptive within all of life. It’s having a dimension of reflectiveness in our ordinary lives that brings with it a sense of gratitude, appreciation, peacefulness, enjoyment and prayer. It’s the sense, within ordinary life, that ordinary life is precious, sacred and enough.
How do we develop such a dimension within our lives? How do we foster solitude? How do we get a handle on life so that it doesn’t just suck us through? How do we begin to lay a foundation for prayer in our lives? How do we come to gratitude and appreciation within ordinary life?
Eric Fromm was once asked to give a simple recipe for psychic health in a culture that is as pressured as ours. “A half-hour of silence once a day, twice a day if you can afford the time. That will do marvels for your health,” he answered. Fromm’s answer wasn’t intended to be a religious one. He was no Thomas Merton. But his answer might have come from Merton. I can think of no better spiritual advice to give to a culture that conspires against interiority.
Try prayer and silence. One half-hour a day. Twice a day, if you can afford the time. It will do marvels for your health. As well, in a culture that conspires against the interior life, it will be a political act.