When I was a child, our family pulled up stakes and moved to the Great Unknown that was The West – Arizona, to be specific. Thereafter, visits to my grandparents’ home in upstate New York were few and far between, a not-uncommon phenomenon in the early 60’s when average people did not casually hop on a plane and fly off somewhere. One visit sticks in my mind. Grandma and Granddad were in their 70s, and their average day, I noticed, followed a predictable routine – a very predictable routine. The high point of their day was the arrival of the postman, not that they got anything exciting or even interesting in the mail, but the thought that they could have, and they might someday sustained them. At the age of 10 I decided that at all costs I would avoid the kind of life that left me shelling peas on the front porch, or sitting in the parlor, waiting for the doorbell to ring.
With my eyes on the prize of excitement, I fled the country upon graduation from college, moving to Germany where everything, everything was different from the way it was back home. Okay, maybe not everything – but certainly enough things that I could content myself with seemingly constant novelty. After five years, when things began to get a little stale, I moved even farther away from home to Asia, where not only did the people not speak English, but even the writing was inscrutable. For me, it was the opposite of culture shock; it was raw heaven. I had discovered the polar opposite of the Same Old.
Although not everyone moves to the other side of the world to avoid boredom, most of us do go to great lengths, and when we’re young, we’re generally pretty successful. Things usually just seem to be leading you onward and upward when you’re young. Possibilities swirl in your future, and you have that feeling that the Next Great Thing might at any moment tap you on the shoulder or call out your name. Then, as you get older, the field of opportunities, like your arteries, begins to narrow. You finally meet Mr. or Ms. Right, you marry, you have kids, and one day you look up from what seems to be the 96th load of laundry you’ve done this week and realize that that sound you hear is your brain cells screaming as they die. Boredom, with which you have up to that point in your life had only a passing acquaintance, has become a permanent house guest. It’s a shock and a half.
I think my grandparents handled monotony far better than we do. It never occurred to them to expect that life would be ceaselessly entertaining. We, on the other hand, have been promised great things, leaving many of us middle-aged suckers demanding our money back. We can end up feeling cheated somehow, as if our lives might have been perpetually thrilling if only we had or we hadn’t (fill in the blank). Our minds wander back to kindergarten, when the other kids used up all the glue and so the teacher said we couldn’t put glitter on our art project, but not to worry because it was very nice just the way it was. And we took our drawing home, and our mom told us that it was very nice just the way it was. And we knew that it wasn’t. It lacked sparkle. If only we could get some glitter into our lives….
I wonder sometimes if that doesn’t account for some of the attraction of the Protestant charismatic movement. Believing in God, having faith that He loves you, and counting on His beneficent providence is nice. Actually seeing someone healed right before your eyes, or hearing a prophecy of future events isn’t nice – it’s spine-tingling! Thrills are just what is lacking in most Christians’ spiritual experience, so a movement that promises them can be most appealing. As a teenager my mother introduced me to the charismatic movement, and when miracles weren’t forthcoming (in 30 years of charismatic affiliation, my mother – who believed to the bottom of her soul – never encountered one verifiable miracle), we remained undaunted – the thought that they could have, and they might some day sustained us. The idea that our God might not be opposed to allowing His people to suffer the monotony of faith was simply foreign to our doctrinal system. Yet in competing with the spirit of this age, we were bound to lose. Perpetual stimulation is a worldly goal. The tabloids of the 21st century have gone waaaay past shrill in their headlines: Gwyneth baby drama crisis SHOCKER!!!! They have had no choice – the clamor for excitement has driven them and all advertisers to scream hyperbolic prevarications at the top of their lungs. Understatement went out with 8-track tapes. The world is totally 24/7, beyond xtreme. Information overload is our mom, and hyperstimulation our stepmom.
No wonder Lent is a tough sell. It asks us to accompany Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days – 40 of the longest days in history, to hear some people tell it. They are being deprived of the Internet, or texting, or TV watching, so that they can sit around with Jesus, and He isn’t saying much. He isn’t doing much. He appears to be sitting on the front porch watching the world go by, like my grandparents at the end of a long, hard day of waiting for the mail. If He can hear our brain cells dying, He isn’t giving any indication.
Faith, hope and love are the front porch of the Christian life, and that is where Jesus is to be found. Lent is the Church’s attempt to reorient us to this fact, to call us back out of the shrieking world and invite us to sit at the feet of the Man Who believed He had nothing more important to do than to spend 40 days alone in prayer. Out of that extended retreat, we may recall, came miracles – real miracles, the kind seen in the Catholic Church to this day. Jesus never got out of the habit of retiring to be alone with His Father. Had His Dad required Him to spend 80 years in the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth planing boards, He would have planed those boards with great love and contentment, because He had but one objective: to do His Father’s will.
Perpetual excitement is for weenies. Thrills are for wannabees. Sitting on the front porch with the Master is the real xtreme experience. Let’s pray we’re up to it.
On the memorial of St. Benjamin, deacon and martyr
Deo omnis gloria!