Not too long ago, I found that I’d plunged myself into a murky sort of swamp—trapped between the jaws of the black dog and the jeers of a noonday demon of acedia, to which I’d opened myself up through sheer laziness. Beyond a daily intercession session where I asked God to give his blessing, grace, healing, or peace to many—all mentioned by name—I’d stopped praying.
Don’t get me wrong—if you’re not praying very much, if you’re not seeking out a conversation, or carving out a bit of time to simply be with Christ, then simply interceding for others is no bad thing. Even if it is done lazily with a mind distracted or stultified, such prayer is efficacious and good because intention (thankfully) carries them higher than our too-grounded hearts might imagine.
But I am a Benedictine Oblate, and part of my oblation means praying the Liturgy of the Hours as often and as well as I can within my station of life. Sometimes, that has meant managing up to three offices a day. Sometimes, it’s meant managing only one, but for decades now, the idea of putting down the breviary and essentially ignoring it has seemed unthinkable to me.
But then came COVID-19 and a deepening sense of brain fog that, by the start of 2021, had overtaken me. Lots of good habits went bad, including my best habit: participation in the Hours, the daily prayers of the Church.
The black dog began to unclench, and the noonday demon began to flee a little, when I determinedly began to utter a brief prayer upon rising—one that would feel sincere but not overtaxing: Lord, by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free. You are the Savior of the world!
Just managing that for a week or so made a difference. I could feel it. My optimism increased—only a little, but a little was good.
After a while, I felt up to Morning Prayer and shuffled into my oratory, lit my candles, covered my head, and settled down, once again opening my breviary. Asking the Lord to open one’s lips “that my mouth may proclaim your praise” after one has been away for a while is a humbling thing. Intellectually, we all know God is there, that God is always waiting for us—like the father of the prodigal son—yet because we so easily project our own characteristics on the Father, we wonder if he is rolling his eyes and turning the page of a good book he started while we kept him waiting. For me, it took a few minutes of silence to really believe God might be glad to see me making a profound bow once more.
It is remarkable how often I open the Hours and find within the antiphons, Psalms, and canticles the exact expression of my heart.
One particular morning, Psalm 102 was precisely what I needed to read as I struggled with a sense of spiritual desolation and world-fatigue:
I have become like a pelican in the wilderness, / like an owl in desolate places. / I lie awake and I moan / like some lonely bird on a roof.
Praying the Office privately can sometimes feel lonely, but it can also allow one to linger within a phrase, to slow down and really commit to a Psalm or canticle line-by-line. Doing so that morning brought me to a tidy reminder by the great song’s end:
Long ago you founded the earth / and the heavens are the work of your hands. / They will perish but you will remain. / They will all wear out like a garment. / You will change them like clothes that are changed. / But you neither change, nor have an end.
Here is a beautiful depiction of the futility of our daily stresses and worries; a reminder of the constantly permitted renewal of all creation, including you and me. God arrays himself in the splendor of all of it through times and trends and seasons. He wears it all, and wears it out, like garments needing changing.
And he does that through us. We—if we are willing—are the garments; we permit God to array himself in us, and then wear us until—if we are true saints—we are worn out to little more than cinder.
Being used up is what eventually brings the glory. Just as a summer that has reached its peak must end, bursting into splendid autumn, we must be ready to grow into ourselves until we are fully ourselves (thus fully what God wants us to be), and then we must be ready to become something else entirely, as God wills it, even if we feel pretty comfortable where we are.
I didn’t like the long lockdown and the quarantining, necessary as it was for the sake of elderly family members. But it became what I knew, and stepping out into something else was scaring me enough to test my trust.
Perhaps the reason we sometimes get stuck in that swampy space between depression and acedia is because we try to stop the process of renewal; we fight it, hanging on to where we are (as though a season held dearly can extend into forever) because things feel scary and trust is hard, especially if we feel like we’re being urged toward becoming the something else God wants us to be. We put down the prayer books and the beads and hold back on participating in what comes next because what we know has begun to feel familiar and right to us, and thus comfortable.
Well, where is the Christian adventure in that? No wonder I was depressed.