reconciling things

“Allow it all to happen: beauty and terror…” Rilke

We live in a world where innovation is highly valued, disruptive technologies sought after, fresh ideas praised. It is as if what is current is interchangeable with what is important and the only relevant ideas are those which can be captured in a sound bite in the 24 hour news cycle.

There is always the temptation to be on to the next best thing.

This temptation draws us away from the romance of daily life, from rhythms and rituals, and practices as old as the world itself.

The world is old—at least in terms of humanity. (The world is young in terms of the eternal God who made and sustains it.) And the sun rises each day the same way. We can count on the seasons, the ebb and flow of the tides, the days of the week slipping in and out book ended with liturgies and weekend chores.

Adoration at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel

There is this sameness about the world—despite cars that drive themselves and phones that listen to my conversations in order to advertise to me things I neither need nor want. The sameness of things can either feel stifling or grounding, depending on my perspective and how much I let the monotony speak to me of things eternal.

Anyone who has ever cared for a child knows of this sameness. In the early days of a wee life the days all blend together as he is nursed, changed, rocked to sleep, and awakens only to repeat. Then there are the years of a multitude of peanut butter sandwiches and walks outside to admire every leaf, butterfly, or bug. The same story must be read in the same way every time. If a page, a word, an inflection is skipped, he will know.

Grown-ups are often too self-important or distracted or disconnected to love this monotony. We crave something new. Something to break up the days. Something to stir up the embers of our passion. A little child needs no such stirring. Life and repetition is passionate enough. GK Chesterton writes in his essay The Ethics of Elfland, “…it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.

Sunset on the ridge near my home

This is a purity of sameness that I did not know in a religious sense for many years, because I did not grow up with a Liturgical cycle. The Catholic imagination lived out in the rhythm of the days and through the prayers of the church was a foreign thing to me. (I did know it in the sense of family traditions, because my mother was very good at cultivating a family culture and celebrations.) Even something as beautifully simple and repetitive as the Rosary was a foreign concept. In fact, I was more likely to lump that together with “vain repetitions” cautioned about in Scripture. (But then again Jesus in the garden, “…prayed for the third time, saying the same words.” (Matthew 26:44))

My pastor has been hammering home this idea that God stepped into time, redeeming time itself, making every day—every fleeting moment—holy and his. In the ultimate goal of theosis it must begin for us in the most basic way—that of transforming and transfiguring our days, realizing that falling into a rhythm is not the same as getting stuck in a rut. We can embrace sameness from an act of will and not inertia. Chesterton continues, “For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven may ENCORE the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last appearance.”

If that doesn’t tear your heart, check your pulse.

I have been pondering this in the context of love. I have known love in many contexts. I am blessed in that regard. I know what it is to fall deeply in love, to have love-making become life-giving, to have my heart broken and to know the depth of that grief. I know what it is to hold unrequited love in the silence of the heart, the love that is freely spoken and the love that is held in sacred silence, the love that whispers in the dark, the love of tender friendship, and the sticky love of children and their jelly kisses.

What never feels old or tired is expressing love. No matter how many times someone says, “I love you” when it is said in truth, it feels always beautiful. Always. Whether said on the way out the door or in a love letter, to hear “I love you” is always a gift. No matter how many hugs I receive in love, the impulse is to return it with more love. It is always the same. But the same in a new way.

Prophetic graffiti on the Mt. Pisgah fire tower

Lust wants to innovate. Selfishness wants to find something different. It is hell that is never satisfied. (Proverbs 30:15-16)

While love is inventive into infinity (so says St. Vincent de Paul), it is also enduring and abiding and unchanging. The holy monotony of love—ever ancient, ever new—God, who is love saying “Do it again” to our hearts. It is only our own poverty that keeps us from seeing the beauty in the monotony of our days. Or perhaps it is the fact that we don’t spend our days in the service of love that makes them feel impoverished.

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.” (Rilke)

Holy. Monotonous. Sacred Sameness. Maybe when I grow up enough to leave aside the grown-up distractions and my self-importance and can once again find that innocent childlikeness, I will be excited each day to do it again. Do it again and again, in the service of love.

My friends’ children’s message. They love in all tenderness and purity.

One thought on “Holy Monotony

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