Boredom, Ordinary Time, and God’s Gift of Himself

It is routine to hear people good-heartedly mock the reasonableness of the Church’s liturgical calendar “celebrating” “Ordinary Time.” To celebrate ordinariness is a true curiosity within Western culture, because its members routinely seek escape from ordinary time, not it’s celebration. Why would the Church celebrate what many Westerners want to flee? Escaping ordinary time tends to involve the internet but, of course, entertainment, travel, and sports also assist with fleeing ordinary time. Escaping is necessary, it is thought, because ordinary life is claustrophobic routine. Regular duties and predictable events can be monotonous and unpleasant at times. On the other hand, routine can also be a source of interior peace. Most people do not want to be jarred out of daily predictability with “new and improved” experiences or unwelcome or urgent demands. Think of life in monastic culture: regularity frees a monk to be available for service or communion with God or friendship with other monks. Within the more common economic culture, however, embracing routine ordinariness as one’s life is dubious, and so artificial stimulation is proffered by the advertisement of entertainment or travel. The enemy is boredom, and boredom is bred within the folds of predictability. This predictability, exacerbated by the leisure available through technology, can cause the affective pain that ignites a search for escape.1 Boredom, a facet of the leisured, educated class in days past, is now universalized. Leisure encompasses many more citizens, boredom touches all classes. A major escape route from boredom is no longer a trip to Europe or evenings at concerts for the elite, but the democratized availability of cyberspace, fantasy space for all. Entering this world of fantasy is so frequent that psychologists are positing that what was considered excessive preoccupation with cyberspace just a few years ago may now be normative behavior, simply the new way of life. Others, still functioning with memories of how social life used to be, predict that excessive use of smartphones will soon spark a revolt. Those who utilize their phones as an extension of their hands and minds may well find themselves socially ostracized in the future. They may soon inhabit the same space now designated for cigarette smokers.2 Time will tell which way the culture is evolving.

Living in an escapist, bored society therefore opens people to experience the ordinary not as a gift carrying the peace of routine, but as something to disdain, hurry through, and leave behind like teens who abhor school and pine for “the weekend.” Such disdain colors the cultural mood. It raises the question whether ordinary life is a blessing or a curse. Such boredom is also a theological concern. Boredom harangues people until they discount the simple grace of living in a sacramental economy. Boredom hassles people, causing many to anxiously search for “experiences.”

Nevertheless, God once chose to abide with His people as a baby (Incarnation), and now in the form of bread (Eucharist). What could be more ordinary than these? Does the rush to escape the ordinary hinder the capacity to receive the gifts of God that lie within it? Does an anxious hunger for “more” — expressed in the search for distracting novelty — endanger one’s reverence for the Incarnation and creation (“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” [Gn 1:31])? Can one love the ordinary, the common place, the usual order? “Can anything good come from Nazareth” (Jn 1:46)? If people cannot be enfolded by the ordinary, they risk missing the “hour of our visitation” (Lk 19:44), because God graces from within reality, not fantasy.

To not miss the coming of Christ “in the flesh” of ordinary living, Christ has given life in the sacramental order. Living in this order both grounds one in reality and invites one’s affections to better rest in simplicity. Those living in this order can then marvel at the Incarnation and participate in its graces, where such participation can become a deep desire.

Disappointment with Time and the Temptation to Sloth

As Western culture becomes more isolated from the influence of God’s personal love and its members settle into an opaque world where the supernatural is obscured, they begin to live as fleshly (sarx), and so denigrate the real, the body (soma), where they risk being ingrates to the wonder of the ordinary.3 Those who still live in the soma receive meaning from within their communion with Christ, sharing in His body the Church and receiving it as gift (“This is my body, which will be given for you” [Lk 22:19]). The body is more than the pain of boredom bearing an invitation to seek entertainment. Succumbing to such is the very core of sloth.4 Neither time nor ordinary living is to be jettisoned in favor of fantasy. The body in time is one’s life; immersion in Eucharistic culture means one’s life is meant to be “given.” The body in time is meant to be received as a gift and then given to God and others in return as “liturgy.” This reciprocal gifting of bodies (ours and Christ’s) is the action celebrated liturgically in “Ordinary Time.”

In the maddening rush to escape time and ordinary routine, people eschew a way to exist in peace without boredom: contemplation of the ordinary. More precisely, disdain for ordinary life can be overcome by contemplating creation as a revelation.5 “Creation” does not simply mean trees, rocks, and rivers, but also those mundane routines that make up daily human life. Ordinary life veils, but it also unveils the presence of God. However, unveiling only occurs as the mind and heart become concentrated upon embodied living as that state vulnerable to approaching beauty. This penetration of the contemplative spirit happens only as ordinary life is welcomed as gift-bearer of the divine. To see the everyday as bearing an inkling of the divine is only attained through the virtue of guarding faith.

Faith as The Way

This faith that must be guarded is specific: it is faith in the One “who made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). Victory over boredom is won when faith invites God’s people to receive “things unseen” (Mt 6:6). Ironically, ordinary life hosts the occasions within which boredom entices people to its dark weight. These conditions may include personal success, material comfort, competency in one’s profession, and even one’s health. Things “running smoothly” in life can communicate peace or clandestinely host a trojan horse of boredom and sloth. Only individual vulnerability to receive the good things of God (creation, Incarnation, sacramental living) can aid in the discernment of which reality is being communicated.

In the initial state of creation, man was made fit for the quiet of contemplation, and therefore God placed him in a paradise of delights (Gen 2:15). But turning away from the true light to changeable goods, man was bent over by his own fault, and the entire human by original sin, which infected human nature in two ways: the mind with ignorance and flesh with concupiscence. Man . . . sits in darkness and does not see the light of heaven unless grace . . . comes to his aid.6

This “darkness” prevents the contemplation of the reality and depth of creation, the Incarnation, and even the Eucharist. The Eucharist is creation (man, bread, wine) suffused with Divine Presence and power, but, in the experience of those who are still “bent over,” it remains simply a ritual. To be “bent over” prevents seeing into the mundane as bearer of the supernatural. Grace “lifts up our heads” (Ps 110:7) so ordinary life is no longer thought to be exhausted by repeating patterns of quotidian obligations. Refusing to blindly bear one’s vocation as an escape artist from the mundane, one comes instead to abide as one who “sees” (Jn 12:44–46). One becomes someone who embraces and allows oneself to be embraced by time, by the relationships that populate one’s daily routines, and by the humble sacramental Christ who reaches out through oil, water, wine, bread, and priestly blessing.7

Once our desire has attained any finite object, we will know that this was not the true country for which we yearned. We must live from the paradoxical tension of neither spurning nor being satisfied with any earthly blessing. . . . We must neither curse this world nor can we be content with it.8

Boredom is psychic pain born of self-interest (being “bent over”). Self-interest tutors in immediacy. When the ordinary is slow to bear a presence, a spiritual encounter abiding at its core, people often seek substitute activities to contemplation. These replacements seek to quiet the ache for immediate gratification and lack of faith (Ex 32:4). When one refuses to patiently suffer any emerging encounter with the divine at the heart of creation and within the sacramental economy, boredom is born. And because boredom can arise from the frustration of not being at the center of reality, it can also be a vice. Some have said boredom is needed to escape boredom,9 as it is a motivator to seek satisfaction beyond the current situation. But this is only true if one superficial experience is not substituted with another in succession. Boredom can motivate one out of a barren situation only if virtue conspires with contemplation to see a person through to substantive engagements.

Paul warned about being conformed to this age (Rom 12:1–2), meaning becoming enslaved to the passing things of time. To whom is one conformed?10 The bored one is summoned by the noise of superficial distractions; the contemplative suffers a progressive purification of desire known only by remaining in the presence of the divine, whether He is felt or not.

New Eyes

The way out of boredom is to accept the gift of faith11 and receive new eyes that see beyond the self, new trust that life transcends the predictability of human limitation and routine. Those with faith in the coming of Christ are liberated from the suffocating self-interest born from being bent over, unable to stand erect in praise of God.12 In this bent condition they are met, astonishingly, by the “stooped over” God in Christ who has come to “lift up our hearts” through His own sacrificial gift of self, hinted at in creation (Col 1:16) and known in redemption (Jn 10:10), and now localized in the Eucharist (Jn 6:53–54). In this sacrament, the “stooping” God13 has entered all hearts and suffering to lift His people up to behold His face. And if they behold the face, there is the death of boredom, indeed.

In suffering the transformation from bored citizen to dynamic disciple, one must remain in the presence-of-God-become-communion through sacramental grace. Choosing to be enculturated within the sacraments, one elects to abide in those relationships and signs within which God Himself chose to meet one (1 Cor 11:24). God shares Himself, and in so doing enables us to become like Him (2 Pt 1:4; Rom 8:14–15; Jn 17:23). God WANTS TO share His joy with those who carry the life of His son in their being. Meister Eckhart once compared God’s desire to share Himself to a “horse running about in a green meadow. . . . It is the horse’s nature to pour forth its whole strength in leaping in the meadow. In the same way, it is a joy to God to pour out His nature and being completely.”14 Without steady communion with God in the sacramental economy, which is known within the ordinary beauty of everyday life, one can grow distant from Him as the source of joy. This distancing is predictable if one continues to be attached to superficial entertainments and not substantive encounters with Christ. Such superficialities birth boredom.

Without such detachment (asceticism), one cannot grow in desire to live in ordinary time, seeking simple contemplation and worship. Attachment to “this age” is not severed by will power, but only in a committed surrender to the relationship God desires with one. God is waiting in the ordinariness of the sacraments to take His people into His mysteries of love.15 He has no desire to leave them bereft in time (Jn 14:18). Evidence of His lack of desire to do so is dramatically known by His Incarnation and the sacramental economy He gifted to us in the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost.16 God’s creatures are meant for communion with Him. To graze restlessly among the trivial escapes of current pop culture and economy is not one’s vocation. “Relationship with God does not represent some kind of accessory truth . . . but is constitutive of man as such. Hence a man . . . without adoration is mutilated in his person. When we raise our voice today against [atheism] . . . it is not simply God that we are defending, but man himself. A man without God is not fully human.”17

This coming by God in Christ and His remaining here in the Spirit is God making Himself a gift to humanity in our dignity, and identity. Coming into time, and remaining there sacramentally, is fashioned not to be entertaining or “novel” or consistently emotionally stimulating. No, God embeds Himself as grace into the fabric of creation to be “closer to us than we are to ourselves.”18 This closeness is a sign of His love, His gentleness, and His mercy among us. Within the sober signs and actions of the Liturgy, He acts but does not startle or coerce. By His subtlety, He effectively attracts (1 Kgs 19:12) steady contemplation. His aim is to perdure in His people, not bedazzle.

To abide within His people, God shares His life through sacraments. One need only open one’s eyes and see. One must listen with an inner ear. One must become responsive to His touch. Most are busy about many things and, like St. Augustine, are “without” while He is within, drawing them into communion. He draws people through their senses into spiritual senses, so they come to recognize His voice, behold His beauty, and surrender to His touch from within.19 “We become real in our view of what is spiritual by contact with things temporal and earthly. . . . all Christianity hangs on the realization — the real partaking — of God incarnate in a real human body made of flesh and blood, in a real church, in a real world.”20 And this reality is extended to all through the ordinariness of sacramental life.

If this is true, then contemplation as a way of being available to the divine gifts embedded in ordinary life must be requested as a fruit of sacramental worship. Eyes that search the ordinary for hints of Divine Beauty and Love, soon move the will to see that dwelling in ordinary time is our true home, and all the years of choosing distraction and diversion bring shame as soon as this beauty and love is seen. Such beauty is more pervasive than ever known in the idolatry of immediacy. From within the generous heart of God, Who wishes to lose no one into the despair of boredom or desolation or isolation, emerges a gift that will save: His presence is accessible in the reality of created things. Domestic love, spousal and creation’s beauty, bread and wine, whispered words of priestly forgiveness in silence, can all carry us into the depths of peace if life in a sacramental culture is chosen. This culture will yield a desire to rest and think and choose out of a communion with He who is the creator of the stars yet abides in people’s hearts and homes. The imagination gifted by sacramental living will define anew ordinary life. Could anything be less boring?

  1. Elizabeth C. Hirschman, “On the Acquisition of Aesthetic, Escapist, and Agentic Experiences,” Empirical Studies of the Arts 1, no. 2 (1983): 157–172; doi.org/10.2190/29B9-JEMR-TKEE-742P.
  2. Daniel KardefeltWinther, “A Conceptual and Methodological Critique of Internet Addiction Research: Towards a Model of Compensatory Internet Use,” Computers in Human Behavior 31 (Feb. 2014), 351–54; doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2013.10.059.
  3. Edward T. Oakes, “Golden Living Dreams of Vision, the Mind’s True Liberation: Remarks on Deus Caritas Est,” Chicago Studies 45, no. 2 (2006): 133. Soma is the body in its integrity, sarx the body in its tendency to disassemble into sinfulness.
  4. “Now time is not killed; on the contrary, it is necessary to wed it, in other words, to cling to the present moment and to live it in all its spiritual intensity” (emphasis mine). Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2013), 126.
  5. Louis Bouyer, The Christian Mystery: From Pagan Myth to Christian Mysticism, trans. Illtyd Trethowan (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1995), 216.
  6. St. Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey Into God, trans. Ewert Cousins (New York: Paulist, 1978), chap. 1, para. 7.
  7. “The Eucharist becomes a ‘seeing,’ as happened in an exemplary manner to the disciples at Emmaus. In the breaking of the Bread we recognize Him. . . . In the Eucharist we behold Him.” Joseph Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 29.
  8. David W. Fagerberg, Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology (Kettering, OH: Angelico, 2016), 18.
  9. Andreas Elpidorou, “The Significance of Boredom: A Sartrean Reading,” in Daniel O. Dahlstrom, Andreas Elpidorou, & Walter Hopp, eds., Philosophy of Mind and Phenomenology: Conceptual and Empirical Approaches (New York: Routledge, 2016), 268–86.
  10. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2000), no. 1322.
  11. Joseph Ratzinger, Credo for Today (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009), 12–13.
  12. CCC 405.
  13. Hans urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 34.
  14. As quoted in Paul Murray, In the Grip of Light: The Dark and Bright Journey of Christian Contemplation (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 94.
  15. David W. Fagerberg, Liturgical Mysticism (Emmaus Press, 2019), 20.
  16. Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 137–38.
  17. Mark Nicholas, Jean Danielou’s Doxological Humanism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 160–61.
  18. St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 3, chap. 6–11.
  19. Timothy M. Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits (New York: Crossroads, 2012), 18.
  20. Erich Przywara, “Newman: Saint and Modern Doctor of the Church?” trans. Christopher Wojtulewicz, Church Life Journal (Oct. 11, 2019); churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/newman-possible-saint-and-modern-doctor-of-the-church/.
Deacon James Keating About Deacon James Keating

Deacon James Keating, PhD, is the Director of Theological Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University, Omaha, NE.

Comments

  1. Deacon Pat Cunningham Deacon Pat Cunningham says:

    The article is well researched and makes some very valid points for consideration. We did, however, lose something very important when we changed two liturgical seasons into one “Ordinary time.”

    The first season we lost is the season after Epiphany. To say a Sunday is “after Epiphany” gives a verbal witness to the reality that Jesus, the God-man, was revealed in the flesh. That is in no way an ordinary event, or ordinary human being. As it stands now, the Christmas-Epiphany season just dies with second vespers of the Baptism of Christ. That, by the way, reduces to a once-every-three-years happening the reading of the miracle at Cana Gospel, the third of the Epiphanies celebrated in the Extraordinary form season.

    The second season we lost is the Pentecost season. The octave was suppressed, thus making it appear that Pentecost celebration is not as important as Christmas and Easter. And we no longer count the Sundays after Pentecost. That was a weekly reminder that we are a Pentecost people filled with the Holy Spirit and required to evangelize the culture we live in. That’s just sad, a real loss.

    • Avatar Tony Phillips says:

      We also lost Septuagesima, which is why Lent sneaks up on me every year and by the time I decide what I’m going to give up (chocolate, because I need to lose weight, and broccoli, because I don’t like it anyway) it’s nearly Passion Sunday–except we haven’t got that either.
      The imposition of the new-style calendar (which, like most of the Novus Ordo itself, was not mentioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium) was an act of liturgical vandalism–but one that could be easily rectified.

  2. Avatar Bernadette Fakoory says:

    This work on boredom is truly refreshing and deeply inspiring to say the least. There are so many great points you have touched upon such as the contemplative suffers in progressive purification in a state of boredom. That in our state of boredom we ought not try to escape in becoming more active and thereby forfeit being in silent contemplation gazing upon Christ at work in the quiet of our hearts.

    I particularly like that getting beyond our human limits can only become possible through participation in Sacramental life of the Church most importantly in participating in the Eucharist , that is the center of all life and holiness of being.

    I would like to add that this boredom coincides with our recognition of sin in our lives that has left us empty, dry, static in darkness and chaos :resembling the void and darkness that covered the earth at the beginning of creation. it is at this crucial point that our faith in God comes to play a major part in our survival through this period of intense boredom and emptiness of life.

    I do not know how many of us can survive this fiery ordeal I mean the bending over backwards from self interest to God, from darkness of intellect to light in Christ Word., from death to life in Christ. It is called meta oil or conversion experience . When God finds us straying so far away from His saving presence, some of us and the work or deeds we thus far present to God is burnt up in the fire of purification and thankfully in judging our deeds , He is still merciful not out the smoldering wick.

    Thank you.
    Bernadette

  3. Wonderful way of thinking.

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