>Asceticism of the ordinary life

>One of the books which I always keep promising myself I will read but somehow never do is Therese of Liseaux’s Story of a Soul. I have, though, read endless commentaries and studies about her Little Way. In brief her Little Way is a surrender to God moment-by-moment. Sounds simple, and it is. In her time it was a strong critique against extra-pious medieval pietism. In our own age it is an equally strong rejoinder against our Sundays-only, 7-and-a-half-minute sermons, coffee-shop, diluted Christianism – a movement which permeates all we do.

There are now Bibles with only the words of Jesus in them. At first this is an attractive proposition: remove the “extra stuff”, and you are left with the direct wisdom of Jesus Himself. But Jesus is not Buddha or Mohammed to speak in aphorisms and wisdom-teachings. Plus the Gospels are not a collection of sagely teachings. Rather they are the very heart, soul, flesh and bones amd marrow or the Church, the Body of Christ. To remove the “extra” makes as much sense as removing your eyelids so your eyes can see unimpeded.

There are few practices which are as demanding as being a Christian minute-by-minute all blessed day long! Everyone can moderately behave for an hour or so. Everyone can muster enough attention for 15 minutes or so. Everyone can be tolerant and bask in the glow of warm friendliness towards others when safely ensconsed in a back pew for 45 minutes. But how many of us can keep up the effort throughout the day? How much energy is required to be vigilant? how much sheer endurance is called for to smile and turn the other cheek at both real and imagined insults (most especially the imagined ones).

Therese seems to consider it an act of ascetic discipline to be nice to everyone all the time. I can tell from personal experience as well as from personal inclination that being nice and curteous and gentle and meek and humble and all other virtues is well nigh impossible. The quick quip, the witty put-down, the pissy growl, the angry shout, the foreboding frown – these occur often, most especially when we are dealing with others.

I have slowly changed my own perspective on the issue of spiritual discipline. First I had this idea of heroic efforts done mostly alone. Now I am beginning to see as more of a creative ensemble work – where I keep tryign to be in tune and sync with the Main Note. As I try to respond to the Note, I am playing with others who may or may not be in tune with the same Song. But through some creative playing, what at first seems like a cacophony can become something much more concerted.

Little things are not so little, since each is like a little finger pressing a key in the piano, or a finger plucking a string of the guitar. All these little acts of kindness during the day, all these regular turnings to God in the Jesus Prayer, or the renewing of intentions to be loving and kind and patient, or simply to not respond no matter how tempting, all these things add up in volume.

One of the first thigns I learned when sitting in Benedictine choirs to chant the psalms is that this work is almost the exact opposite of what we think of singing. When you are in a normal choir the choirmaster will work very hard to get you to be as clear with your voice as possible. If you listen carefully to a good choir you can hear each voice quite clearly. Together, of course, they make a joyful sound. But chanting the psalms in monastic practice does the reverse. You try really hard not to be heard. Your voice should only be loud enough so that you can still clearly hear the voices of those next to you. It feels unnatural to sing this way. But the sheer volume of low voices can be quite well voluminous.

If I take the sum total of all these small acts during my day, driving, brushing teeth, eating, office conversations, telephone calls, trips to the supermarket. All of these small acts each whispering a song. “Anger anger” says one. “Greed greed” says another. “Glutton glutton” says a third. “Lust lust” adds a chorus. This is the diabolical choir of my life which ceaselessly intones “Me mine more”. But if through the day I begin here and there working in changing the song, so that instead of “anger anger” I make a concerted effort to sing “patience patience”. Instead of “lust lust” I try “charity charity”.

The psalmist tells us to sing a new song to Yahweh. But anyone who has tried to “change their tune” will know how nearly impossible a task this is! It requires dilligence, concerted effort and most of all a great big helping of good humor to be able to dislodge the old tunes stuck in our heads and hearts.

I still think that periods of serious practice, say 30 minutes every day in a removed place, are very beneficial. But if that is all you do it is hard to see how much progress will be made. Some, for sure, and some is better than none. But the wonderful thing about our hearts is that they are an instrument which can be practiced at all the time – everywhere. In fact I am coming to see the heart as that which only comes into existence when I deliberately practice compassion, self-emptying and justice – until I exercise those traits I do not have a living heart at all!

Sing a new song to Yahweh!

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About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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