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The rules we live by

As we round the corner on pandemic and see a faint light at the end of our long Covid tunnel, I’ve found myself stuck—physically, due to some minor injuries and illnesses; mentally, due to months of near-isolation coupled with the long upstate New York winter; spiritually, due to an inability or unwillingness to simply sit with God or at least go through the motions of prayer and hope something sticks.

A recent New York Times story talked about “languishing” as a new phenomenon in our post-Covid world: “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield,” the author wrote.

I have to admit, that description struck a chord, or two. As I looked out my family room window on a sunny-but-freezing late April afternoon, my mind’s eye traveled back to 2017, long before I could blame pandemic for my languishing, when a hauntingly similar feeling sent me running to my favorite retreat spot: the Abbey of the Genesee, just south of Rochester. Desperate for someone or something to shake me out of my malaise, I signed up for spiritual direction and confession and was lucky enough to get a monk who was once a novice under Thomas Merton and later served as spiritual director to Henri Nouwen.

Father John Eudes Bamberger, O.S.C.O., who died last year, saw through my façade and was not content to let me off the hook with a simple diagnosis of “languishing,” or anything else for that matter. He put the ball squarely in my court: look at your choices, look at how you spend your days, and you will discover the “rule” you have chosen to live by. Although I wrote about that conversation in this space at the time, his words keep bubbling to the surface years later. I thought maybe we could all benefit from revisiting his sage advice.

If we were to break down our days into hours, our lives into seasons, what would emerge as the things we have chosen to give the most time and, therefore, the most importance in our lives? It’s not a pretty picture when I start to imagine what my “rule” would look like. There would be way too much scrolling through social media, way too much coffee, way too much mindless eating and mindless talking, way too much complaining about not having enough time even as I waste hour upon hour doing things that bring no positive benefits and most likely diminish the quality of my life and, by extension, my family’s life.

When I went to confession with Father John Eudes, he told me that, for my penance, I was to spend 30 minutes “in the presence of God” every night for six weeks. Why this seemingly harsh assignment? Because the wise old monk recognized that what I needed more than anything else was time away from all the nonsense, time to reflect on my choices, time with the only One who could pull me out of my malaise and set me back on the right course.

As I recover from an eye infection that has sidelined me for days, I can’t help but think that this brief illness has forced me to do what I was unwilling to do for myself: step away from my work, step away from the screen and simply be for a few precious, albeit somewhat painful, days.

Although it couldn’t hold a candle to a silent retreat at the abbey, the brief span of quiet at home allowed me to hear the still small voice urging me to get back to the nightly practice in the presence of God and to write a “rule” for my life that will nourish my soul rather than siphon off joy, to choose flourishing over languishing.

This column originally appeared in the May 5, 2021, issue of Catholic New York.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a beautiful post! I suppose we all share the tendency to blame external things for our hurts, big and small. The spiritual truth is that we put ourselves in a position to be hurt. And you describe the gentle way out of our self-imposed traps.
    Thank you!

    May 18, 2021
  2. Lothar #

    I remember the story about this penence from one of your little books which brought me over the long extended lent weeks last year during the first lockdown in Germany. I think the book was outdated from the year before but the readings are always the same (except Sundays) and it helped me a lot over the time when the churches were closed and I couldn‘t connect with my parish.

    And this particular story I remember so well, because I took the advice and went to one of the catholic churches where they offered the eucharist adoration (don‘t even know the correct expression in English) each night for the better part of an hour. I went there nearly every night on workdays during lent (and beyond), just sitting, praying. Sometimes I took a bible verse or a psalm with me but mostly I just sat there focussing on the presence of god and gazing at this little white point in the monstrance. And you know what? A lot of my most precious enlighments came from that daily hour I spent there. No, I better say “it started right there” and keeps comming ever since when I need it. I learned a lot about contemplative prayer and I am still drawn to it.

    Since that time my prayer life has changed a lot. Thank you, Mary.

    July 13, 2021

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