We Did This Last Year

Among the things thoughtless young people are prone to say to teachers is: “we did this last year!” As in:

“Write an essay about the importance of George Washington for President’s Day”

“But we did that last year!”

Depending upon the ingenuity of the teacher and the extent to which he considers this to be a valid objection, he might try to change the assignment so that it’s different from last year, or find a different assignment, or just shrug and mention that anything worth doing is probably worth doing multiple times. “But we painted a still life last week” is not a good reason to neglect painting one this week if one wishes to learn how to paint, any more than having eaten yesterday is proof against the necessity of eating today.

All the same, we’re restless creatures. As Great Lent approached, I found myself thinking: But we did this last year! Every now and again I’ll be at Vespers thinking: But I was here just yesterday! I’ll be standing in Liturgy and find myself thinking: But we did this last week! No duh. And the week before, too. Indeed, people have been doing this in this way every single day for over a millennium. Crazy.

Just as teachers have different opinions on whether and when it’s a good idea to have to do the same thing again and again, so too do church leaders. The NWBC pastor mentioned that if a prayer becomes tediously habitual it’s a good idea to pray in a different way. The Orthodox take on this question, however, seems to be that if that happens it’s a good idea to pray it a few dozen more times, until I start noticing it again. Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord! So it’s Great Lent again, and the initial excitement has worn off. Great Lent is here and I don’t even want it to be. We did this last year. The Church isn’t going to come up with something new to please me, either.

What, then, is to be done?

If this past year were to have a theme it would be something like this: I’ve lost my initial excitement, but have not yet found a more lasting love. What am I to do? What am I to keep, and what do I leave? When I can’t teach out of a reserve of personal interest and enthusiasm, what do I do? When going to church three times a week isn’t an exciting opportunity, how do I pay attention there? We dull our capacity for wonder so easily. What do I do when I have neither stability nor excitement, nor constant encouragement? *Shrug* sure, I can draw. Of course I can draw; I majored in art. Why should I draw? Sure, I know theology. It’s beautiful, spectacular, moving, orderly, true theology. What do I do when formulations like “grace is uncreated energy” or “God became Man by nature that man might become god by grace” are just words?

I know two rather poor answers. One is to pull out altogether and do something else. The other is to change the formulations, the music, the wording, so that it “sounds fresh.” Neither is a very good answer, because the problem isn’t with the words, the hymns, the services; the problem is not with drawing or painting or sculpture. The problem is, quite obviously, with me, and changing the words will simply defer this problem to a later point at which the newer, stranger, louder, faster, brighter words and sounds and images also become dull. Until electric guitars and laser lights are just as dull as organs and hymn books. Until feces art is just as inane as color fields, which are just as inane as ready-mades, which are just as dull as the technically sound but stale canvasses of the Academy.

In answer to this, the Church proscribes a fast. When our senses are all dull from overstimulation, and our desires are disordered from constant use; when we are constantly surrounded with ads, music, objects, images, and on and on, all demanding our attention — when our attention has thereby become dull to the point of uselessness — the Church proscribes, in remedy, a fast.

 

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