As citizens of late modern life, we seek to avoid boredom. We alleviate the stillness of a quiet moment by turning to our smartphones. We delight in the arrival of new emails, fresh stories and notifications from social media. Abiding in a world in which the “novel” is considered normative, we divinise disruption.
This approach to boredom has a negative effect upon religious practice among Catholics. In Catholicism, our liturgical life is unavoidably a bit boring (at least by the standards of the age). We pray the same (or similar) Eucharist Prayers from Sunday to Sunday. We hear the same Scriptures from year to year. We sing along to the same hymns and chants. The gift of the liturgy is this same-ness.
Now some liturgical boredom is not praiseworthy. This “bad boredom” is a matter of kitschy art, poor music, bland architecture, flavourless preaching and general apathy that infuses both priest and assembly alike. Our parishes should shun this bad boredom.
Likewise, bad boredom could simply be the case of an impoverished private prayer life. We may find the Scriptures dry and the Eucharistic Prayer banal, but not because they are. Rather, we’re the problem because we have ceased to savour the narrative of divine love revealed in Christ.
But even if we got rid of all this “bad boredom”, we would experience tediousness in our life with Christ. For there is a good boredom that is intended to draw us more deeply into union with the triune God.
This positive sense of boredom is evidence of a desire to enter more deeply into encounter with the Word made flesh. This is the boredom of a restless heart that longs to rest in God alone.
And the danger of the present age is that we confuse all boredom for the bad boredom that stultifies the spirit. We imagine that the only option available to us in the midst of good boredom is to find a novel way of praying that can rescue us from the monotony. But our insatiable desire for the novel can make it impossible to experience the fruits of prayer.
So, how do we become a “bored again” Catholic in the good sense of this term? Here are three practices that may help us:
1) Prayer as self-gift Those of us who pray in the 21st century are tempted by the evangelical fallacy that the efficacy of Christian prayer should be measured by concrete affections. This is plain wrong. Prayer is the way that we take up the attitude of Jesus to the Father: giving our whole selves to God in love.
In fact, praying while we’re bored, while we’re experiencing no particular affections, may be a more authentic way of entering into Jesus’s experience of sonship. We only learn true self-gift when we receive nothing in return. For love should never be about our own experiences. To become a “bored again” Catholic is to learn to love God rightly and justly, to give ourselves away, even if this means forgoing the immediate experience of consolation. It means to love God.
2) Prayer as preparation Prayer, whether liturgical or private, is not always about an immediate experience. Rather, we Catholics take the long view on prayer: it forms us gradually into a sacramental imagination whereby we can perceive the presence of God as infusing the created order. For men and women are made to be in the presence of God, a disposition that we have surrendered through sin.
Prayer is a restoration of this disposition, a preparation to once again dwell in the presence of God. As Blessed John Henry Newman writes: “The more frequent are our prayers, the more humble, patient, and religious are our deeds, this communion with God, these holy works, will be the means of making our hearts holy, and of preparing us for the future presence of God. Outward acts … create inward habits.”
We keep praying while bored because prayer still has an effect upon us, preparing us to savour the presence of God.
3) Prayer as silence Sometimes, good boredom means that we are ready to enter into a deeper relationship with God. The words that we utter week to week, whether in the Mass or in the Liturgy of the Hours, are insufficient. Thus, like St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, we may be called not to say more words, to perform more practice, but to dwell in silence with the Bridegroom. The medicine for boredom may not be anything novel but rather a loving silence before the Father through the Son in the unity of the Spirit.
In this sense, to become a “bored again” Catholic is not to give up the spiritual life, to surrender to apathy. It is instead to advance toward union with the crucified and risen Lord, who is total and absolute self-giving love.
Timothy P O’Malley, PhD, is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy in the McGrath Institute for Church Life. He is also professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He is the author of Bored Again Catholic: How the Mass Could Save Your Life (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017) and Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love (Liturgical Press, 2014).
This article first appeared in the March 17 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here