The Cacaphony of Life
It is nine-fifteen in the evening, and I finally have some quiet time to reflect and write. Or maybe not. My teenaged son, an aspiring musician, has just decided to start his piano practicing for the day. Earlier there was a lull in the general commotion, so I got my spiritual reading in when I could, but the lull didn’t last long. Still, I have it easy; my youngest is already sixteen. At this point, I’ll bet my life is quieter than yours.
The Distractions Vary
It is a rare parent of young children who has any quiet time until after they’re asleep, and by that time the parent may want to be asleep himself. But it is also a rare priest in the rectory who doesn’t get a phone call just as he’s entering a stretch of free time. They say monks and nuns can be horribly annoyed by the shiftings, sniffings and snortings of the other members of their communities at prayer. Get up in the middle of the night, and you’ll hear the house creak. Trust me, it will get under your skin.
There is an old children’s story about Mr. Flibbertyjib, who moved out of the city because the constant noise was driving him crazy. But in the country he found the same thing: roosters, cows, banging gates, wind in the trees, rain on the roof. The tale gives you a great opportunity to make wonderful noises as you read it to your little ones. But Mr. Flibbertyjib also had something to teach: There is only one cure for distractions. It is the same as the cure for old age.
For the Christian there is nothing fearsome about death, as long as it is death on God’s terms, but God isn’t known for calling us home just so we don’t have to be annoyed. No, there will always be distractions, and interruptions too. The trick is to recognize two things: First, we need a place within where we can be with God even in the midst of distractions. Second, unavoidable interruptions are signs that God has something He wants us to do. The child, the parishioner, the friend, the co-worker, the total stranger: all are precious to God. At any moment, He may call us to tend to their needs. Distractions and interruptions, then, are generally graces in disguise.
Catherine of Siena’s Inner Cell
It was St. Catherine of Siena who preeminently developed the doctrine of the inner cell, the little space deep inside in which the soul communes with God. Some modern writers look deep inside for divinity as if divinity is an attribute of man. Catherine’s task was to create a little cell at the very center of her being where she could enter into intimate conversation with the transcendent God, the same God Who dwells within the soul by grace.
This concept of an inner space marked by tranquility even in times of stress was brought home to me early in my marriage, and definitely with St. Catherine’s help. When my wife became pregnant with our first daughter, we wanted to name her after this great saint. But Barbara didn’t like the nickname “Cathy”; she preferred “Kate”, and so she wanted to spell Katherine with a “K”. I was concerned that, in English, Catherine of Siena’s name is always spelled with a “C”, and I pressed this point throughout the pregnancy. Then, after the exhausting labor which a woman experiences in giving birth, Barbara looked up at me and said just one thing: “K”.
This was a deep lesson. My wife had kept a small part of herself reserved and at peace even in the midst of enormous struggle. Her “K” was not frantic and exhausted, but calm, joyful and definitive. It came from deep within, as from one who knows. At least in some measure, this was the lesson of Catherine of Siena, who knew how to remain serenely in God’s presence while being one of the most active of saints. Catherine’s secret was her habit of reserving deep within her soul a quiet place for herself and God alone, a space into which nothing else was permitted to enter.
A Saint of Interruptions?
I’m not sure who should be the saint of interruptions, but I imagine there are very few saints who have not learned to manage them reasonably well. Clearly, we owe it to both ourselves and God to avoid those interruptions which arise as a byproduct of our unnecessary or even frivolous interests, and which we may even secretly welcome as a relief from duty. This is a matter of priorities and self-discipline. But when others interrupt us despite our sincere effort to attend to earthly or heavenly responsibility, we must not dismiss them as so many distractions to be ignored. Here we need to recognize God’s call.
The essence of the spiritual life, and the essence of prayer itself, is to do God’s will. It is impossible to become holy by neglecting our responsibilities, even in the cause of prayer. Because our culture places a distorted emphasis on activism, it goes without saying that we must do our best to develop and preserve a contemplative spirit. This in turn requires a sincere effort to set time aside exclusively for prayer. When we are beginners, God generally gives us plenty of time, if we will but take it. Eventually, however, interruptions will come. All the more reason to build our little interior cells while we can.
When we are interrupted despite our best efforts, we need to recognize again that man proposes, but God disposes. In such cases, God’s willand therefore the best and highest prayeris performed by responding properly to the person or situation in question. Recognizing the same God both in our souls and in our external circumstances is a great step on the road to inner peace. We cannot shield ourselves completely from interruptions without shielding ourselves from the will of God.
A Song in My Head
As with everything else, we can find God in distractions and interruptions. Properly understood, they may sometimes even blend into a symphony of love. Of course, this insight does not arise from my own frequently petty reactions to minor annoyances. Rather, it is a small window into the wisdom of the saints and the mind of the Church. They teach that our spiritual growth depends on how we hear and respond to the cacophony of life.
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