Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Value of Repetition

At Morning Prayer today the reading centered around the value of repetition. The writer spoke eloquently of how our very lives are framed by a sense of sameness--our hearts beat at a regular rhythm (lub-dub, lub-dub), we inhale and exhale breaths, the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, and, particularly at a time like this, we notice the regular shifting of the seasons from awakening and growth in the spring, to abundance of life and verdancy in the summer, to the slow and gradual death of the vegetation in the fall, to the dormancy of the cold winter. This cycle, this sameness, to life is all around us.

The liturgy seeks to replicate this, at times. In the St. John's books, we go through a four-week cycle of the Psalter. I've now been here long enough to pick up on the repetition of the scriptures I heard during my first and second weeks here. "Lord, you have been our refuge, our ever-present help in times of trouble." This mixture of form with some freedom lies at the heart of an understanding of worship as reflecting the very nature of life itself. The liturgy provides a "frame," much like the window at the Stella Maris chapel above frames the fall colors.

American culture, on the other hand, tends to value that which is new and different over that which is old and the same. New faces of celebrities dominate our news stands while old faces are consigned to oblivion. No one wants an old car, they want the newest and latest. This same thinking permeates the expectations regarding worship by many of my students. They confuse new and different with more sincere and truthful--when, in reality, oftentimes it is the tried and true which ministers most to us in times of trouble. At funerals, we read the twenty-third Psalm, not because it is avant-garde but because it brings back to us familiar words and images of comfort in a time of distress.

I think that many young people are missing exactly this need for a sense of the regular and mundane. They stay up late with no thought of the morrow and shove food into their bodies that brings no real nourishment. And, when they find themselves in a spiritual and emotional malaise, they look around for something new with which to fire the passions, like a drug addict who needs a different kind of high to get him through the day. The Benedictines are teaching me to value that which is repetitious and mundane, to look for value to the everyday and the ordinary. If it is the Psalms that have sustained the people of God over time, then learning to say them on a monthly basis (even, as St. Benedict suggests, to commit them to heart) is sure to provide spiritual nourishment when it is most needed.