I make a weekly visit to a nursing home about an hour away. I have a dear parishioner who has been in that place, or similar places, for about eight years. Our conversations center around the past week, her life and mine, with occasional forays into deeper matters. One of the difficulties of life in a nursing home is the sameness: one day differs little from another, making time seem to stand still and become interminable. It’s like Ground Hog Day, only you keep waking up in a nursing home.
I have been around nursing homes for about forty years. It’s a normal part of a priest’s life. Usually, those who are there are in a somewhat steady state of decline. It is rare to see someone still thriving after eight years. Most often, ministry in that setting is focused on end-of-life issues. It is also a place of deep ascesis.
What is left when all of the goals and daily chores of life are stripped away? For many, that kind of loss is an entry into depression and worse. Getting out of bed in the morning is often made possible by the simple fact that we have a reason to do so. Depression can leave a person trapped beneath the covers, unable to connect with the demands of the day, overwhelmed and alienated. But when nature itself, whether through age or accident, has taken away most of the matters that give us pleasure, or even the sense of accomplishment, pushing depression back and making a daily effort to live can require an ascesis of the deepest sort.
When I visit the nursing home, I make my way through a gauntlet of wheelchairs. Very often, there are individuals staring into space, or, watching re-runs of old tv. Some are victims of dementia and call out in repetitions that are as empty as they are interminable. It is not a place conducive to meditation or reflection. I have long been aware that many people dread making visits, like those who cannot bear hospitals. I sometimes expect that it is the vision of our own mortality that creates the stumbling block.
My own circumstances have been forcing me to slow down of late. I am preparing to “retire” in January, meaning that I will become the unpaid assistant in the parish with a new Rector. He is already in place as we are transitioning, a fact that has made my day-to-day activities to be less engaged (he must increase while I must decrease). I will continue writing, traveling, and speaking, even in my retirement, never fear. But the slowing down has been a serious change of gears in my spiritual life. That I have written more lately on the small, the stable, the lesser, and such, is a reflection of my day-to-day thoughts. There are fewer distractions which requires greater concentration.
Fr. Roman Braga, who learned to pray, he said, while spending two years in solitary confinement in Ceausescu’s torture prison, urged people to slow down. “God wants to speak to us,” he said. Over the years, my experience has been that the primary reason for failing to take an hour or two to “listen” or pray have to do with my own willful avoidance rather than the demands of daily routine. Somehow, the appointment with God is all too easily bumped for something “more pressing” (or some such excuse). As things wind down, my excuses keep diminishing. I sit. I listen. I hear, “Slow down. It’s ok.”
It has always struck me as interesting that the life of a hermit is generally restricted to older, more experienced monks: young ones are not allowed to venture into that territory. St. John of the Ladder said, “Solitude ruins the inexperienced” (Book 27 in The Ladder). St. Ignatius Brianchininov, in his The Arena, gives an entire chapter over to warnings about solitude. It is, nevertheless, the case that nature conspires to press us into solitude as often as not. It is little wonder that we fall into depression and worse. An involuntary ascesis can become torture.
For myself, I am working to make voluntary what will eventually happen anyway. Learning to bear my own company and seeking to bear the company of God are proper to this time. I am noticing some changes. For example, I can barely stand to have the radio or music playing in the car when I’m driving – they’re distractions. I’d rather pray. Nevertheless, the noise of my ADD-addled brain provides ample distraction by itself most of the time. What to do with that noise is a matter of constant learning.
Attention-deficit. Those words, strangely, describe much of our lives, even when our brains are fine. The world lives in a permanent state of distraction, summoning our passions with an incessant call for its own attention. Our lives will be lived in “just a minute,” while such a minute never seems to arrive. Despite the best efforts of all, history fails to conform to our demands, creating ever more distraction that says we must try harder.
In the Orthodox tradition, there is what is termed “the one thing necessary.” It harkens back to Christ’s word to distracted Martha’s complaints regarding her sister. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening, ignoring the housework. Christ says to Martha, “Only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen that good part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42). It is in prayer that we sit at the feet of Christ. It is communion with Him that constitutes the one necessary thing. This is true life, the fount of all blessings. It takes a little time.