“DO you ever get bored?”
It is a common question posed by the young men who occasionally come to visit the priory, as part of the process they undertake to help discern their vocation in life.
My response is often simply to pass on a great piece of advice that a very wise friar once gave me.
“The great secret, not often mentioned,” he said, “is that most of life is spent standing in the checkout queue at Coles.”
Most of life is spent driving to work, or making your lunch.
Most of life is not spent riding the adrenaline-high that you might get when you first attempt heli-skiing in the alps.
Nor is it meant to be.
The reason people enjoy heli-skiing is because it provokes a sense of wonder; coursing down the crisp, untouched snow with only the slight sound of the skis to disturb the silence – in that space, people once more feel in touch with something more profound than themselves.
Unfortunately, however, if we need to go heli-skiing to experience a sense of wonder, our sensibilities have been dulled.
In the words of the philosopher Josef Pieper, “A man who needs the unusual to make him ‘wonder’ shows that he has lost the capacity to find the true wonder of being.”
After all, when you really think about it, standing in the checkout queue at Coles is remarkable.
It is astounding that you can drive to work.
Making lunch can be a striking experience, if viewed with the right frame of mind.
To perceive all that is unusual and exceptional – all that is wonderful – in the midst of ordinary things is the real beginning of religious life.
As friars in the Order of Preachers, as Dominicans, we are meant to be contemplatives.
In its truest sense, that means we are learning to perceive and to engage the profound reality that surrounds us and pervades our lives.
This applies to every aspect of our life, including making our lunch.
People sometimes tell me that they think the routine of religious life would be too difficult for them to bear.
I usually respond, with a glint in my eye, “Oh – so you have something crazy different for breakfast every morning?”
Of course not.
Most people have the same thing for breakfast most mornings.
Everybody has a routine to their life; a structure that enables them to live their lives as best they can.
Religious life is structured as it is for a similar reason – it has been crafted so as to enable us to enter into the deepest possible life of prayer and most fervent engagement with the most profound truths of our existence.
I know another friar who admits that, before he joined the Order, the thing of which he was most afraid was the prospect of being bored once he entered.
When he tells the story, it is at this point that he gives a wry smile and slowly shakes his head: “Never a dull moment.”
That is not to say that religious life is a constant whirligig of activity; there is a great deal of time for prayer, reflection and study.
That is partly the point of religious life.
But the comment does carry behind it the fact that our lives, as religious, are about developing – perhaps re-awakening – our sense of wonderment, of awe, at the simply profound nature of our ‘everyday’ reality.
In his seventieth year, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – that colossus of German literature – wrote a short poem which concluded with the line, “Zum Erstaunen bin ich da.”
“To marvel – that’s why I’m here.”
And that, in short, is the answer to the question of whether there is boredom in religious life.
If there is, it’s because only we’ve occasionally missed the point.
We are here to marvel – at everything.
The question itself reminded me of that fad for speed-reading that developed a few years ago.
Speed-reading can best be classified as symptomatic of a society that sees benefit only in what can be consumed quickly and without too much reflection.
Yet an increase in speed, of all things, is not the characteristic that ought most to be the focus when we consider literature or reading generally.
I am reminded of the oft-quoted words of Woody Allen, who once joked that he had taken such a speed-reading course:
“I read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” he said, “It concerns Russia.”
Much like reading, if we take life as an exercise to be accomplished with maximum speed, in an attempt to attain the highest possible adrenaline surge, we may miss the subtler points worked into the story-line of our lives by the author of creation.
Religious life, rather than causing boredom, should serve as the ultimate school in wonderment and interest.
That is not to say that there is no temptation towards ennui – the “noon-day devil” as the Desert Fathers would put it.
Naturally that temptation exists.
Given that the second-most popular Google search is “I am so bored”, it is a temptation that would seem to be rather common.
Yet rather than trying to fill that space with another YouTube clip, another episode on Netflix, another drink, we are supposed to view that inclination as a stage-prompt from the director of our lives; “I want you to really feel this next scene, really experience it. Now – action.”
A true contemplative, I am told, can taste every sip of water, feel every thread in his blanket.
A true contemplative would be alert to the workings of God in each moment; the encounter with Christ in each person.
If we were aware of the hand of divine providence guiding our every salad selection at lunch, we might be a bit more excited by the prospect.
Alternatively, if we are living life in such a way that we scull our drinks and are forever seeking our next adrenaline fix, we might well be missing the operative action of grace in our lives.
Boredom, after all, is really a manifestation of dissatisfaction with the situation in which we happen to find ourselves.
Yet if we believe God to be the ultimate cause behind every situation, we cannot really be dissatisfied because there must always be some purposeful meaning to be discovered within each and every moment of our lives.
And that is true whether we are standing in the checkout queue at Coles or Woolworths.
Or even Aldi.