Monday, October 15, 2012

Boredom and Prayer

I have always been intrigued by the meaning of boredom.  Kathleen Norris a few years ago, in a book on acedia, seemed to connect it with mild depression.

For me, I think of the fear of running out of things to do, as experienced by many kids facing a long summer; or the fear that the present event (a dull talk) will never end. It has to do with time and so we cannot say that our pets are bored (in the way we are) since they lack an awareness of time.

Noah Millman in a recent post (Oct. 8) in the American Conservative gives his own take on the subject: boredom is "a painfully acute awareness of time passing without being filled."  He connects this with his personal reflection on the prayer experience he has had in synogogues, where the long, repetitive chant seems almost unbearable.

But it isn't really boring, he says, if it is done well; attempts to enliven the traditional prayers make the service truly boring. What he finds in the liturgically structured prayers of the synagogue is a "quasi-meditative mental state that really isn't on the boredom-excitement spectrum."  There is comfortable familiarity in the repetition, leading to a trance-like state.

Many say such ritual praying is merely mouthing words and going through the motions of prayer, with the mind elsewhere. And that, says Millman, is just what he wants--not to think about what he is saying; if he did, he would be bored out of his mind.

Whatever intellectual or emotional experience he has happens "on a level of consciousness somewhat removed from the activity of prayer."  Now and then words hit you with their meaning, but by and large, the mindless repetition allows you to float above yourself. It takes you out of the usual pattern of time. So the prayer itself is a means to an end.

This familiar pattern--so familiar it requires no mind--reminds me of what I know of Buddhist chant and, to a lesser extent, of the Catholic rosary: it takes a certain amount of boring practice to get to the point of transcendent meditation where we are no longer aware of ourselves and focus our attention on a scene from the Bible.

When I think of the monastic tradition of contemplative prayer, the use of repeated Psalms that leads sometimes to silence, I wonder: are the Catholic monks who pray this way five or more times each day, every day, paying attention to the words (as I assume they are) or have they become so accustomed to the daily practice that they are in a no-mind state that takes them beyond time and place to union with God? That would seem to be the goal, albeit seldom realized.

If so, there might be a connection between Jewish, Buddhist and Catholic chant and meditative practice; but this may be too simplistic. My liturgy friend Ned might comment on this: do we in the Chrisitian world use the repeated words of the Psalms to move beyond verbal prayer? When we pray the rosary, do we ignore the words of the repeated prayers? Or do we remain conscious, while meditating on the glorious or sorrowful mysteries, of the meaning of what we say? Are we in two places at once--here and "there"? Is that why it is so hard?

I agree with Millman that we must go through the often boring practice of repetitive prayer to move to a higher level so that the concept of boredom becomes irrelevant. And I am grateful that his brief post provoked so much reflection on prayer, the subject of an ongoing struggle on my part.

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