The Joy of Nada—Doing Nothing for Lent
By Angelo Matera
Posted 2/15/08 at 2:47 AM
Pascal said “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness” is that he doesn’t know “how to stay quietly in his room.”
That suggests something you can do for Lent—nothing. It’s not too late. If you’ve forgotten how, “All Nothing, All the Time,” a travel article in today’s New York Times, can help.
“Aggressive inactivity,” says the article’s author, is an ”art form… that deserves a guide every bit as detailed as a Fodor’s or Bradt.” He’s right about that (see the links within this post).
The article, though, seems to suggest that the only place to experience nothingness is in an expensive room in a cozy inn located near a scenic ski slope or quaint village, Why not a nearby YMCA, or even a Starbucks? The fact that the article appears in the Times’ “Escapes” travel section probably has something to do with why.
Still, the tradition of getting away from it all—to a monastery or a retreat house, for instance—is well-established, and you have to admire the Times for slipping deep thoughts into what could have been a straightforward sop to travel advertisers. And to its credit, the article does contain more than a little wisdom about a form of penance that’s not only more difficult than it seems, but is the perfect antidote to the workaholism that’s become epidemic.
One reason we’re addicted to activity is that it takes our mind off questions we don’t like to ask—What’s the meaning of life? What happens when we die? Why does God allow evil? These are the questions that Pascal said gave rise to distractions like fox hunting—and today, monster truck shows. Being a Christian doesn’t settle these questions, otherwise theologians would be out of work. And the spiritual growth that comes from grappling with the answers is a life-long process.
But I don’t want to get too lofty. What’s good about the article’s simple spiritual program is that it’s realistic. Sure, you can aim higher for Lent, and read a spiritual classic by one of the great mystics, like St. Teresa of Avila or Jean Pierre de Caussade, or the book with the best all-time mystical title—The Cloud of Unknowing. If you’d rather watch than read, you could rent Into Great Silence on dvd, the acclaimed documentary that makes you feel like you’ve actually joined a Carthusian monastery (I’m not kidding). If you’re ready for them these works are fantastic, especially if you have a spiritual director to guide you. But for most of us, it’s best to heed what Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete said when I asked him about St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul: Don’t try this at home.
Instead, start with the article’s sensible plan. For some reasonable period of time, do…
…Nothing that involves spending money.
…Nothing that requires strapping something to your feet.
…Nothing done with a device that can be purchased at Best Buy.
You can avoid the second one fairly easily if you’re not near snow. But the first and the third will obviously be tough, although the coming recession (partly caused by a binge of having and doing too much) will make them easier to tackle.
What’s the point of doing nothing? To commune with God? That’s reason enough. But can’t you commune with him while doing something like feeding the poor, visiting the sick, or some other act of love? Sure. But often time, we don’t have the spiritual strength to take on such charitable works—or just show compassion to the person closest to us—because we haven’t connected with the source of that strength, through silence, solitude and prayer.
An innkeeper’s observation about the transformation she often sees in her guests sums it up:
“They come almost irritated, some of them, with this angry edge to them,” she said. “And when they’re ready to leave on Sunday, they’re some of the nicest people you’ll meet.”
That’s just after a weekend. Imagine what an entire Lent of periodic nothingness could do?
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