Bored while praying? The monks were too.
Let me know if you've experienced this. It's Sunday night. You had a long work week and you're already sick of the kids by the weekend. You just want to zone out, heat up some Trader Joe’s food, and watch Orange Is The New Black or something. We just want to be off. And we justify it too; we say, “I never get to do this,” “I’m so busy and so stressed all of the time.” We are on so much during the week (at least externally), that we resent having to be on in our spiritual lives too.
Living is hard, relating is hard (to others and to God). We give up the faith because it costs too much. And prayer? Well, that’s the biggest cause of our desperate boredom. We don’t pray because it is hard to learn and to do.
You might think of these scenarios, which we’ve all experienced, I think, as a contemporary problem. The era of immediate gratification with YouTube and smartphones, TV shows, and text messaging—all of that has contributed to how easy it is to become bored and restless. But it’s more ancient than that. And it’s deeper than that too. Soon enough it bleeds into our deep interior life and the idea of praying just seems impossible.
But the monks, and early Desert Fathers, called it “acedia.” Here’s one definition: state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one's position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one's duties in life.
Sometimes they called it the “noonday demon.” Monks were some of the first people to describe it that way.
In her book Acedia & Me Kathleen Norris talks about acedia and depression. She describes it this way: “restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that we struggle with today are the ancient demon of aecidia in modern dress.”
Today, we don’t use that word much: we’ve even pathologized it. It’s now depression and the solution is to take a pill and get therapy. But we might not get to the heart of the problem.
We might just chalk it off as being bored and we just entertain ourselves in new ways, trying out new things all the time. We start having casual sex—Tinder is good for that. We start smoking cigarettes to pass the time, or we can’t seem to sit still without a drink in hand, or we start doing drugs that we never thought we would. And that haziness that comes from the hangover or the day-after feeling after smoking marijuana, just contributes to our lethargy.
We might think of it as ADHD or the result of not eating enough—so we solve that with medicine and food. Perhaps, we think it’s an ethical problem—we’re lazy, we don’t have a good work ethic—and then we just lambaste ourselves even more.
If we are bored in prayer, like I've been talking about so far, we might not really get what prayer is all about. Central to prayer is doing the work of appreciating being alive. Alive in Christ in the moment. We get to breathe again today, we get to relate again, we get to have a full life. We are gladdened by the warmth of the fall sun again. Not stuck in ourselves because we tried to smoke or drink away our boredom—and we’re stuck in bed because of it.
Boredom, then, is the fear of running out of stuff to do. The painfully acute awareness of time passing with it being filled.
What if you want to do something about this? What if you want to overcome your boredom, and do something more than that. How do we go about fighting the mysterious feeling and its secretive nature, and do something more with our interior lives? Here are six suggestions I got from the Jesuits, just try one or two out this week.
Try to be prepared. There won’t be time to pray, you might consume it all with nothingness. Try to pray at the same time each day. I like to pray in the morning, in the shower, over tea, and at noon in the day. Those times work for me.
Find a regular place to do it. I like my sofa. But sometimes a wooden chair is better. Some people have a whole room in the house dedicated to prayer. Come to this space and try it out if you need to. Go to the creek and find a path you like to take there. I have the Jesus prayer right in front of my desk and sometimes I utter it throughout the day. Mark your space by something sacred too. A cross, or a candle, or an image or painting, are good.
Sometimes I need to play ambient or meditative music to help me focus. Incense can be good too.
Tell the truth. If you’re prayer isn’t real, if it’s not connected to reality, then you’re going to have trouble. It will be boring. Try to tell God really what’s going on with you. If you’re bored, talk about that. If you feel guilty about your boredom, do that. Get through the nothingness of it and try to talk to God about what’s really going on.
Let loose. Don’t control your prayer. Don’t work too hard. If you are getting a headache or straining yourself too much, try to loosen yourself up. Be OK if your mind wanders, just focus it back on what you are praying about.
Try something new. Read a new book about prayer. Write yours out. Do it on a run or a walk. Pray while your do the dishes or are stuck in traffic. Call your friend and ask them to pray with you. Tell God about something fun you did. Use our Daily Prayer. Pray for someone you wouldn’t normally pray for: John Boehner, Michael Vick, Miley Cyrus. Pray for your future. Read the scripture prayerfully.
Let go of God. Get rid of your old ideas about God and allow his newness and fullness to engage you in meaningful ways today.
Let go of your expectations. If you expect prayer to be ecstasy each time, it won’t work. If you expect it to be passionate and intense each time, it’ll be trouble when it’s not. You can’t have an orgasm every ten minutes, right, no matter how bored you are? It’s the same idea here. Let it be ordinary.
Turn your loneliness into solitude. If you are feeling alone, believe that God is with you, even if he is not as intense or entertaining as you want Him to be. Be still. You are alive today.
Pray this G.K. Chesterton saying right now as you read this:
“Here ends another day, during which I have had eyes, ears, hands and the great world around me. Tomorrow begins another day. Why am I allowed two?”
Rod White has been very influential in this series of posts on prayer. Love him.