I’ve been awfully busy lately. Even on a lazy day, I’m busy busy busy, accomplishing this, working hard at avoiding that, distracting myself with this, putting a lot of effort into putting off thinking about that, praying this devotion, avoiding that one. In between activities, I was scrolling through Facebook on my distraction machine, and came across a short essay that smacked me right between the eyes: A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.
The author, Jake Braithwaite, SJ, describes how his life was jam packed with busyness. And he was busy doing good things: working, studying, spending time with friends. But, he says:
“When the rare slow moment came I would be overwhelmed by the range of emotions that might overtake me: wounds I’d let fester, exhaustion I’d ignored, difficult moments I’d refused to process.
“Where had all this been hiding? Had it been here all along?”
“When starting to discern becoming a Jesuit, I was forced to take more time outside of my routine to pray. For me, the revelation of silent prayer was that I wanted something different than the life that, on the surface, was quite satisfying. I realized that part of the reason I filled every waking moment with activity was that I didn’t want to listen to that voice that was calling me in a different direction.”
This isn’t exclusively the problem of a young man discerning his vocation. This is my problem. I know what my vocations are (mother, wife, writer), but it’s very possible to do all the right things according to your station in life, and still not feel entirely present in it, because you never stop doing what you do, and just be who you are.
I hear how clichéd that sounds. It sounds like a poster in the waiting room of someone who smells like patchouli. But the danger of always doing, without ever just being, is very real. If you don’t believe me, then think how hard it is to stop doing the things you do, and just be the person you are, even for five minutes, in front of God.
It’s hard, very hard to do. Even when we’ve turned off exterior distractions — internet, music, TV, podcasts, physical business — it’s hard to stop the mental wheel. I’ve spent entire hours literally, physically in front of Jesus at adoration, and I don’t even realize until the time is almost up that I’ve spent the whole time jabbering spiritually away, trying to phrase things right so I trap the Lord into giving me an answer or experience I can stuff in my pocket and take home with me. Or at least to fill up the time, because I feel like that’s what I’m here to do: To fill up time. To do something, rather than just to be something.
He’s not mad at me, when I do this. He’s still glad I’m there. But I think He’s also patiently waiting for me to shut up for a minute so He can do His thing. So He can be His thing. So He can just be God, and I can be who I am, in front of God.
We resist this — or at least I do — because we are afraid. I’m afraid God will tell me that I’m not good enough, or that I need to change something radically. Or maybe I’m afraid there will be nothing, which means — what? That God doesn’t have anything to say. Or maybe He does, but not to me. At very least, I’m afraid that, when I settle and be still, the things I half-know about myself will stop flittering around my head and will land.
But I’ll tell you what, I’m also afraid of living the rest of my life disjointed from myself, with my body and soul out of synch, building my day out of layer upon layer of camouflage, always scampering around like a monkey in front of God and calling that a life. It’s exhausting. I’m tired of it. I’m so tired.
Braithwaite describes spending time walking in a city alone. He says:
“With long days to walk and think, I was able to sort out the parts of my life where God was most active and the parts where it was hard to find God. As Ignatius puts it, I was able to name the consolations and the desolations.
“I noticed the parts of my life–even the challenging ones–that left me feeling energized and alive. On the other hand, I noticed the parts of my life–even the surface-level happy ones–that left me feeling empty and dry and used up.
“I didn’t solve everything in my strolling, but I started to notice some patterns. I was finally able to hear God’s voice because the noise was turned down. I couldn’t block it out with the distractions–parties and drinking and social media and to-do lists and podcasts and music and movies and shows and idle fretting about work—that were my preferred methods.
“Instead, I just had to be present to exactly what I was feeling at each moment. If I was sad, I just had to be sad for a bit. If I was excited, I just got to experience it rather than try to share it on an online profile. If I was worried, I lived through the worry instead of numbing it.”
Reading this, I thought to myself, “THAT PUNK!” Because he goes on to encourage us to take quiet walks through our own neighborhoods, to let the still, small voice of the Lord speak to us about who we are. Who has time for wandering around? Not me! I have kids! I have a job! I have dinner to a make and errands to run and emails to answer.
But. I do have time when I wake up in the morning. I have a few minutes where I’m coming into consciousness, and before looking at my calendar and checking all my various notifications, I can place myself in the presence of God.
I do have time in the car when, rather than turning on music, I can have some silence.
I have time when I’m cooking, when, rather than catching up on the news on my smart speaker, I can just do what I’m doing, make what I’m making.
I have time before bed, when I can lay down my novel and think through my day, with all its nonsense and joys and mistakes and frustrations and little triumphs, and, without even analyzing or summarizing or commenting on it, I can turn it all over to the Lord before I fall asleep.
For goodness sakes, I can go to the bathroom without bringing my phone with me. I don’t mean to alarm you, but if God can speak to Elijah on Mt. Horeb, he can speak to you on the toilet.
I don’t have aimless hours where I can wander and meditate; but I do recall that, when I seek out and lean into smaller moments throughout the day, longer spans of time do tend to open up, once I’m more open to seeing them.
“Rather than optimize your Lent with a waistline-conscious fast or a bold test of your willpower, simply take time each day to do nothing. Sit before the Lord, let God marvel at you as you marvel at God. Maybe even while you’re eating french fries.”
Well, I’ve tried everything else, and I’m fresh out of ideas. I guess maybe it’s time to do nothing for Lent, and see how that goes.
[Portions of this essay first appeared in The Catholic Weekly in February of 2020.]
Image: Rembrandt, Sick Woman, National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons