God guides the humble in doing right and teaches the divine way to the lowly
— Psalm 25:8
There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons. And he asked them: “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?” They replied: “We do not eat or drink.” “Is it vigils?” They said: “We do not sleep.” “Then what power sends you away?” They replied: “Nothing can overcome us except humility alone.”
— Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
When I spent Orthodox Holy Week in Jerusalem years ago, I saw an unusual ritual in the Syrian church on Holy Thursday. The patriarch, imitating the humility of Jesus, girded himself with a towel and knelt at the feet of the clergy to wash their feet. After this, he took his seat. Then the clergy surrounded his chair and lifted it above their heads, for “all who humble themselves shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11). From this elevated position, the patriarch gave us all a blessing.
Humility is perhaps the most misunderstood of Christian virtues. It has been confused with low self-esteem, or suffering devaluation by others without complaint. Religious tropes of unworthiness (“I am a worm, not a person!”) haven’t helped. But humility is foundational to spiritual growth. When the Psalm says that God “teaches the divine way to the lowly,” it means that there is something essential, life-giving and godly which comes only through humility.
In the 4th century, Christian men and women fled the corruptions of a dehumanizing culture in search of a more authentic way of being. In the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, they discovered that humility was not just the first step on the path toward the “divinization” of our humanity; it was the path itself—the self-emptying process which makes room for God to fill us. This is the wisdom the Psalmist promised, and it became foundational for western monasticism, of which every contemporary Christian is a beneficiary. As Thomas Merton put it, humility “empties the soul of all pride and annihilates it in the sight of God, so that nothing may be left of it but the pure capacity for God.” [i]
Humility is countercultural in the age of “selfies.” It is the antidote for narcissism—grandiose self-importance, entitlement, insatiable lust for attention, and self-promotion. It gives glory only to God.
Humility begins with consciousness of sin—our own incompleteness, our distance from what we are made to be. This frees us from having to pretend to be what we are not. We drop the disguises and self-delusion, admit our weaknesses and limitations. We relinquish the need to be in control or make everything about us. We accept our dependence on God—everything is gift, not possession. We acknowledge our need for mercy.
Humility also heals our relationships with others. If we don’t have to be the smartest in the room, or the most important, or always correct, we can shed the arrogance, egotism, fear and competitiveness which disable loving community. We submit ourselves to the presence, influence and “otherness” of others, even when it is difficult to do, because interdependence is the truth of love. We even accept the hard things beyond our control without losing faith. And by not insisting on always having the best for myself, or asserting my rights without reverent regard for humanity or the planet, humility restores the balance of paradise.
Benedictine sister Joan Chittister sums it up this way: “Humility is the total continuing surrender to God’s power in my life and in the lives of those around me.” [ii]
[i] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (182), cited in William H. Shannon, Christine M. Bochen, & Patrick F. O’Connell, The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 216.
[ii] Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991), 65.
I took the photograph at the Venice Biennale in 2019. The sculpture is “The Guardians of Time” (2018) by Austrian artist Manfred Kielnhofer. The faceless anonymity of the monkish figures and the young woman refute the assertion of self. Even the latter’s self-conscious pose is at least practicing the posture of humility and surrender, if only in play (her act was spontaneous, inspired by the figures). But is not all Christian practice a form of play, where we try out a self we have not yet become?
Ash Wednesday is a border crossing. Our foreheads, like passports, are stamped with ashes, and we step bravely into the forbidding wastes of Lent’s strange land. By the time we reach the other side, we will be someone else.
The Lenten journey is commonly viewed as a time of personal growth and transformation, a solitary immersion in the refiner’s fire, a testing and cleansing of our innermost heart. We learn to travel light, shed the inessentials. We face our demons. We renounce regrets and angers, and interrogate our desire. We listen patiently, till the Silence speaks. The desert saints, who fled the corruptions and distractions of the Roman Empire to meet God on open ground, modeled the classic regimen:
“[G]et up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and commandment of God. Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress, be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes… Do your work in peace. Persevere in keeping vigil, in hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, and in sufferings.”[ii]
This year, however, Lent’s collective dimension comes to the fore. The pandemic has made our social behavior a literal choice between life and death. Thoughtless selfishness about masks and social distancing, however trivial it may seem in the moment, may have murderous results. Necessity has forced us all to live, as Thoreau advised, “deliberately.” At the same time, climate change, racism, economic dysfunction and political crisis continue to issue their own relentless summons to collective conversion.
Return to me with all your heart, says the Lord, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments.… Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.…Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.” [iii]
These words of the prophet Joel, recited aloud in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, seem so well-aimed this year. Although the United States is not the biblical chosen people, Joel’s words do hit home. Our toxic national quagmire should put us all in sackcloth and ashes, rending our hearts and crying “Mercy!” for 40 days of public atonement.
It’s not enough to blame Trump, Hawley, Cruz, McConnell and rest of that sorry mob of schemers and traitors. However despicable their betrayals of democracy, however pathetic their black hearts and shrunken souls, those individuals are but the rotten fruit of our unaddressed national sins, what Martin Luther King called “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.” [iv] The common response to the violent insurrection unleashed at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 has been a claim of innocence: “This is not who we are.“ And yet, in the words of one candid observer, “It is what we do.” [v]
Writing about coming of age during the Vietnam War, Patricia Hampl describes her attempt to identify with the American ideal rather than its present reality. Walt Whitman was her guide. “Out of the ashes of the Civil War … Whitman fashioned his thrilling American conception, … envisioning a country full of charmed lovers with arms around each others’ waists.” Distressed by napalm abroad and civil strife at home, Hampl wanted to cling to America’s best idea of itself.
“I could escape American history which was a bad dream and enter the dream of America which I wished could be history. A sleight of hand, a last-ditch attempt to return to the purity of abstraction, to the Mayflower moment, the radiant arrival in paradise before anything had happened. Ourselves—but rinsed of history.” [vi]
No such luck. We the people can only be rinsed on the far side of the Lenten desert. For now, nothing but ashes, sand, and dust, as we endure our dryness with broken and contrite hearts, engage our demons without evasion or fear, renounce our innocence, and surrender to grace.
[i] Daily Office Psalm for Ash Wednesday, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
[ii]The Apophthegmata (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 199-200.
[iii] Joel 2:12-13, 15-17. This passage is one of two choices of Ash Wednesday texts from the Hebrew prophets. The other, Isaiah 58:1-12, is also a cry for collective repentance, adding a list of corporate sins well-known in our own day: injustice, oppression, neglect of the poor, hungry and homeless.
All of our hearts ask the night this question: Am I safe and am I loved?
— Brother David Steindl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
— Compline Antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis
In The Benedictine Gift to Music, Katharine Le Mée links the musical octave to the progressive sequence of canonical hours. Do is the starting point (Lauds). Re and Mi launch us into the energetic activity of the morning (Prime/Terce). Fa, when only a tentative half-step is taken, is a moment of indecision or uncertainty about the meaning and the outcome of our journey (Sext). Sol, “a bright, triumphant note,” signals our recommitment to the day’s work, wherever it may lead (None). La continues onward, but it is more subdued, accepting a sense of loss as we let go of what is behind us (Vespers). Si is charged with an unsustainable tension, resolved only by our surrender to the resting place of Do (Compline).
“The key to the completion of the octave,” says Le Mée, “is our willingness to give up any personal desire to know exactly what should happen and our claim to and control of the results. The last step, therefore, is one of surrender, the point of second awakening, where synthesis and integration take place.”[i]
Before you go to bed tonight, try singing the octave syllables, ascending slowly and deliberately from Do to Do, visualizing the progress of the day in those seven steps. Notice particularly the relaxing of tension as you make the final half-step. Just so does Compline complete[ii] the circle of the hours, inviting us to cease our strivings and rest in the arms of grace. “Entering the fullness of night, we return from song back into the silence.” [iii]
Designed for tired bodies, the Compline rite is short and to the point. It begins with the most succinct of bedtime prayers: The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. The iambic rhythm of its three last words (two pairs of syllables with the stress on the second of each) replicates in sound the sense of an ending: a-per-fect-end. It’s like a gymnast sticking a landing—emphatic and conclusive. And so it should be, since “a perfect end” expresses multiple levels of cessation: the end of the day, the end of life, and the end of time.
Of course, when Christians say “the end,” we are speaking about more than termination. We are speaking about purpose. What is the purpose of a day, or a life? What is the meaning of time and history? We don’t always know exactly where a path leads until we reach its end; it is only at the end that the journey’s meaning is fully revealed. Still, we get hints and glimpses of our ultimate future—our “perfect end”—along the way, so that we might, with God’s grace, proceed in hope rather than dread.
The connection between sleep and death is an ancient and enduring one. When someone dies, we pray for “the repose of the soul,” that the deceased may “rest in peace.” The two states share an outward resemblance, and a subjective one as well. When we go to sleep, our eyes close, and the conscious mind becomes “dead to the world.” From the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, a recumbent figure was a common feature on European tombs. When stone sepulchers went out of fashion, the corpse itself was arranged to imitate the sculpted sleepers of the old tombs: lying peacefully on its back, with hands joined or crossed.[iv]
Every sleep is a practice in letting go, a rehearsal for the inevitable dispossession of death. You can’t take it with you. What’s done is done. Surrender control. Plans, projects, worries, hopes—let it all go. Exit the visible world and sink into the abyss of the dark unknown. It’s rather amazing that most of us do this routinely every night. But our mortal bodies don’t really give us a choice. Whether at the end of the day or the end of our life, surrender is how the game is played.
Surrender is best done willingly. If we believe there is something beyond oblivion, we can lie down in peace. Under most circumstances, we all believe in tomorrow morning as a matter of course. We usually do it without thinking. We go to sleep … we wake up … life goes on. But when we meet the hour of our death, can we still trust in the morning after?
In their reflections on the canonical hours, David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell express the existential mixture of anxiety and faith faced by the thoughtful soul in the Compline experience:
Night is at once threat and grace: threat, because when night falls, we stand at the edge of chaos – the neat little world that we have created for ourselves throughout the day now threatens to fall back into chaos; but grace also, because the protection, the divine nearness to which we have become accustomed through the chants and prayers throughout the day, will not abandon us.[v]
We should “keep death daily before our eyes,” says the Rule of St. Benedict.[vi] Only so can we maintain clarity and perspective about our existential situation. If you forget death, you won’t know who you are or where you stand. We are creatures who will die; pretending otherwise will give us less life, not more. As Teresa of Avila reminds us, “Don’t be troubled. Everything passes, but God stays. One who has God lacks nothing.” [vii]
Mark Barrett, O.S.B., tells of a fellow monk serving as headmaster of a posh British school. At a gathering of parents and donors, he told them that the school “prepared its students not for Oxbridge, the City or the Guards, but for death.” Barrett doesn’t report the speech’s effect on enrollment. [viii]
In my essay on Vespers, I wrote about practicing the Examen, a prayerful review at the close of day. “From the perspective of the end, we can look back on the story of the day as a whole: How did it go, for good or ill? … Where did God meet us—and did we notice? … When did we remember—or forget—to be our truest selves? … And, most importantly, did we say yes to Love?” The Examen may also be done at Compline (which includes a brief confession), though on the threshold of sleep any interrogation should be brief. The hour is made for letting go, even of the critical work of mending the soul. As Elizabeth Yates puts it in her Book of Hours:
This is no time to dwell upon the disturbing, the unattained, the imperfect. To do so would be to find sleep elusive … By an act of will, that which may have marred the day must be given over to God to enable thinking to be anchored fast in that which is good. Rest will come then, and with it the restoration that is sleep.[ix]
Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; What has not been done has not been done; let it be.
— Night Prayer, A New Zealand Prayer Book
Compline is grounded in deep trust. Entering the darkness, we renounce our fear. The Psalms of Compline tune our awareness to the protective Presence which will carry us through the night:
O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us. (70:1)
Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings. (17:8)
I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (4:8)
Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth. (31:5)
These are images of profound sweetness, sinking us into the embrace of the Divine Beloved. Every night, including our last, we “fall asleep in Christ.” But the act of complete surrender to the Divine Other is not lightly done. Jesus spent his last breath commending his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46), so when we ourselves say the same words we are connecting to something far deeper than a good night’s sleep. The sacred words commit us to the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising. What we have been will be exchanged for what we must be. It is a costly Way, but we never walk alone—or entirely in the dark. Come what may, we remain in the protective shelter of God’s love. This is the central meaning of Compline.
Our ancient night prayers, composed centuries before electricity, strike matches of faith in the endless black: Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night … protect us through the hours of this night … illumine this night with your celestial brightness … preserve us in peace, and let your blessing be upon us always.
These are beautiful and consoling prayers on the verge of sleep. However, at the end of any given day, not everyone is having a peaceful night and a perfect end. There are many “who work, or watch, or weep this night.” Our own day is not truly complete until we gather them also into the blessing way. A movingly earnest prayer, attributed to St. Augustine, does this work by putting emphatic stresses on a series of beseeching verbs:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
Compline draws to a close with the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s valedictory canticle from Luke’s gospel. The long and varied symphony of the canonical hours resolves into a peaceful diminuendo: with this quiet song of surrender, the day’s music fades away into the Great Silence.
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior …
Old Simeon has waited all his life for the moment when a lifetime of longing would find its perfect end. When he sees the infant Jesus brought to the Temple, he recognizes the child as the salvation of the world, “a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people Israel.” In this revelatory moment, to which all his years have led, he makes his own personal Compline. Now his “day” is over. His story is complete. He does not cling to the moment, for it is gift, not possession. He knows how to walk away and let go.[x]
Since the fourth century, the Song of Simeon has been sung by countless voices at the close of day. Its calm, accepting spirit supplies a perfect end to our daily pilgrimage from Vigils to Compline. The canticle also prepares us for the hour of our death, teaching us to end our days with gratitude and trust, that we may, at the last, depart in peace.
In his deeply informed and formative book on Compline, Prayer as Night Falls,[xi] Kenneth V. Peterson balances the “little death” of Compline and sleep with the divine promise of an ultimate awakening. A longtime member of the celebrated Compline Choir at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, Peterson describes a choir pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in the year 2000. After singing Compline with a congregation in the great medieval church, the choir descended in procession to the crypt. There, in the company of sleeping saints, they sang a text by John Donne, conveying in the gloom a foretaste of resurrection morning:
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening Into the house and gate of heaven, To enter that gate and dwell in that house, Where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, But one equal light; No noise nor silence, but one equal music; No fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; No ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; In the habitation of thy glory and dominion, World without end. Amen.
Donne’s text, from a sermon in 1628, was adapted by Eric Milner-White (1884-1964). The music was composed by Peter Hallock, founder of the Compline Choir, in 1991. You can listen to it here. For more on Compline (including a directory of Compline services in North America, and links to lovely musical examples), visit Kenneth Peterson’s rewarding websites:
[vii] The 16th-century saint, who knew her share of turbulence, said this in a famous poem, “Nada te turbe,” which has been set to a Taize chant in both Spanish and English. Thirty years ago I sang it with 2000 pilgrims in the candlelit Taize church, experiencing deep calm as a lightning storm raged outside. “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten …”
[viii] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 106.
[ix] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 49.
[x] Barrett’s commentary on the Nunc Dimittis cites a poem by Cecil Day Lewis about “his experience as a parent of ‘walking away’ from his son on the boy’s first day of school.” Lewis says, “… selfhood begins with a walking away, / And love is proved in the letting go.” (Crossing, 108)
[xi] Kenneth V. Peterson, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013). Peterson’s thoughtful exploration of the history and meaning of Compline is, as Phyllis Tickle has said, “a totally satisfying experience for mind and soul.” And the book’s website, cited above, provides beautiful musical examples.
This is the sixth in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This reflection considers Vespers, the transition between day and night.
Now the day is over, Night is drawing nigh, Shadows of the evening Steal across the sky.
This familiar 19th-century Vespers[ii] hymn was dropped from the Episcopal hymnal in the proposed revision of 1982. A selection committee had deemed the text too sentimental and the tune too simple (5 of its 8 bars are on the same note, a kind of Anglican “om!”). But when the new hymnal came to a vote at the church’s General Convention 38 years ago, a motion was made from the floor to restore this old favorite. I was present for that debate, when one delegate after another stepped to a microphone to declare how much that hymn had meant to them, how formative the singing of it had been for their sense of belonging to a spiritual community with a fondness for dusk. The motion passed easily, and the hymn was rescued from the ecclesiastical dumpster.
Unlike its Vespers companions in the hymnal, its opening verse makes no mention of Christ or the Creator. It offers no theology of the day as divine gift, sings no praise to the Source of eternal brightness. It simply devotes quiet attention to the sensory data of the twilight hour: shadows lengthen, light fades. As temporal creatures, we have an inborn sensitivity to the vanishing of time. The Vesper drama, the most poignant of all the hours, is performed daily: sun goes … light fades … night falls. Failing to attend would impoverish both consciousness and spirit.
“Absolutely unmixed attention” (Simone Weil’s definition of prayer) is how to keep Vespers as a sacred hour, a time to engage with the sense of an ending and acknowledge our own temporality. Days must end, lives must end, and both passages deserve our profoundest attention.
Fairer through Fading—as the Day Into the Darkness dips away— Half Her Complexion of the Sun— Hindering—Haunting—Perishing—
How many Vespers have we missed, shut inside with the lights on or distracted by our screens? And when we do honor the hour with our attention, it is rarely in community. I suspect we could trace the affection for “Now the day is over” to the effect of ritualizing the inevitability of ending in the company of others. Such shared, collective awareness is a powerful thing. When I try now to recall memories of singing that hymn, I don’t see individual faces, but only a group, deeply united in song. It is always dusk, whether at a campfire or in a candlelit church as the windows grow dark. The strength of our voices feels surprising, surpassing their usual reticence, as if a greater power has possessed us in the form of sound.
For those of us not adept at goodbyes, bidding farewell to the day can produce a certain melancholy, but this is more than compensated by the beauty of the vesper light—the saturated sunset tints, the subtle tonalities of twilight.
Vespers also prompts what Jesuits call the Examen: a prayerful review of the day. “In the evening we shall be examined on love,” warned St. John of the Cross, comparing day’s end to the Last Judgment. And, adds poet Thomas Centolella, “it won’t be multiple choice … No cheating, / we’ll be told … no more / daily evasions.” [iv]
From the perspective of the end, we can look back on the story of the day as a whole: How did it go, for good or ill? … Where did God meet us—and did we notice? … When did we remember—or forget—to be our truest selves? … And, most importantly, did we say yes to Love?
Few days go perfectly, and neither do we. But the spirit of evening’s Examen is not self-criticism but self-compassion. Whatever the day has brought, let it end not with regret but with gratitude. Vespers calls us home, after all, to the place where we are always welcome just as we are.
Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace, Your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace, Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray, Your love in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.[v]
Kathleen Norris learned “the true purpose of vespers” from her sojourns in monastic community. It is, she writes, “to let my body tell me, at the end of a workday, just how tired I am.” Vespers invites us to “let the day suffice, with all its joys and failings, its little triumphs and defeats.” [vi]
While I love daybreak, so full of possibility and potential energy, I think Vespers is my favorite hour—“sweeter than Matins,” said Emily Dickinson, who herself preferred the mature and mellow ripeness of the completed day to the freshly planted seeds of morning. It is an haven of peace. We put down our work and retire from the fray. We go homeward—and inward—to restore our bodies and nourish our souls.
St. Anselm’s pastoral counsel from the Middle Ages seems even more necessary today:
“Flee for a while from your tasks, hide yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts. Come, cast aside your burdensome cares, and put aside your laborious pursuits.… Give your time to God, and rest in him for a little while. Enter into the inner chamber of your mind, shut out all things save God … and having barred the door of your chamber, seek him.” [vii]
Watch the sunset. Savor the fading light. Look for the evening star. Light a candle. Love the silence. Let your heart speak. Give thanks.
“Let evening come,” says Jane Kenyon in her lovely Vesper poem. “Let it come, as it will, and don’t / be afraid. God does not leave us / comfortless …” [viii] Yes, let it all come: darkness, ending, even death itself. Don’t be afraid.
In the meantime, hallow the loveliness of Vespers’ daily gift, so perfectly described by Breton poet Anjela Duval:[ix]
The day is now over, The hour’s come I was waiting for. After labor so material, How sweet a spiritual hour.
I’m bathed here in tranquility. I hear no sound around me. But the sound of the pendulum, Counting out drops of time.
The hour of prayer, hour of study, Hour of dreaming, of fantasy, Hour divine, full of ecstasy.
In this hour there’s so much happiness! Only one thing’s missing to perfect it: — In the hearth the singing of a cricket!
[i] Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) published “Now the day is over” in 1865. It is in the Episcopal church’s The Hymnal 1982, #42. Baring-Gould was an Anglican priest, writer, and folk-song collector. His other best-known hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” did not survive its deletion from the 1982 hymnal.
[ii] “Vespers” derives its name from Hesperus, the Evening Star (usually the planet Venus, sometimes Mercury) which appears in the West after sunset. Where I live, sunset is at 4:20 p.m. on the Winter Solstice and at 9:11 p.m. on the Summer Solstice, so Vespers can be a very moveable feast.
[iii] Emily Dickinson’s “Fairer through Fading — as the Day” (938) compares the doomed beauty of twilight with the phenomenon of a dying friend seeming to look better just before dying.
[iv] Thomas Centolella, “In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love,” in Lights and Mysteries (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1995).
[v] Jan Struther (1901-1953), “Lord of all hopefulness,” The Hymnal 1982, #482. This “hours” hymn, with verses for waking, midday, evening and sleeping, is set to Slane, a lovely Irish tune. As a boy, I used to sing it walking home at dusk, after basketball or track practice. I‘ve always loved the way, in just 4 verses, it embeds us prayerfully in the daily round.
[vi] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 237-238.
[vii] St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109), was the most brilliant Western theologian between Augustine and Aquinas. Cited in Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 42.
This is the fifth in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This reflection considers Sext and None, the hours of midday and mid-afternoon.
Bumper to bumper, the days stream past the day-old baked goods store though sometimes a Sunday morning pulls in, driven by some old man who stops in the present for a moment to buy a little bag of yesterdays. But mostly the days, by the dozens, dry out and get thrown to the birds, sparrows and starlings to whom each hour is as tasty as the last.
— Ted Kooser, The Wheeling Year
What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us Time and time over. They are to be happy in: Where can we live but days?
— Philip Larkin, “The Whitsun Weddings”
The “sixth hour” after Prime is the midpoint of the solar day. At the highest point of its arc, the sun concludes its ascent by crossing the meridian, passing over from the sky’s eastern half (ante meridian) into its western half (post meridian). From there until sunset, it’s all downhill.
As the summit of the solar journey, when all shadows shrink toward nothingness, noon shares the refulgence of the summer solstice: the sky’s luminosity is at the full, and time pauses to linger. “Here the sun, / Sleepless, inhales his proper air, and rests,” said Wallace Stevens, celebrating the annual moment of “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change still possible.”[i] An earlier American poet, Emily Dickinson, celebrated noon as a daily symbol of fullness and ripeness. It was a momentary taste of eternity, a glorious timeout from the temporal flow.
The soul has moments of Escape— When bursting all the doors— She dances like a Bomb, abroad, And swings upon the Hours,
As do the Bee—delirious borne— Long Dungeoned from his Rose— Touch Liberty—then know no more, But Noon, and Paradise— [ii]
The whimsical Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) recommends proper enjoyment of the midday pause. “Just as lunch was at the center of man’s temporal day, and man’s temporal day could be seen as an analogy for his spiritual life, so lunch should (a) be seen as the center of man’s spiritual life, and (b) be held in jolly nice restaurants.”[iii]
But midday can be more than a pleasant break in the action. However busy the day, monastic communities take time out to give thanks for the morning, reflect on its challenges and its gifts, and invite grace and wisdom for the afternoon. And so too may we uncloistered believers, immersed in the secular world, profitably recollect, reorient, and recommit in the middle of the day’s story. What is time for? What is this day for? What is it trying to tell me? What is it asking of me? “We harvest what the morning sowed,” says a noonday hymn. “Now grant us undiminished strength / to stand and do what still remains.”[iv]
For the mystic, the noonday surplus of earthly light both images and ignites an inner fire. “Be ablaze with enthusiasm,” said Hildegard of Bingen. “Let us be an alive burning offering before the altar of God.”[v] And it was beneath the midday sun that St. Paul was brought to his knees by “a bright light from heaven” (Acts 22:6). To borrow another line from Emily Dickinson, I imagine Paul’s transformative glimpse of divinity to have been “As much of Noon as I could take / Between my finite eyes.”[vi]
But even in the brightest noon, there lurks the shadow of crisis, “the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.”[vii] Just as the sun’s zenith is the beginning of its descent into night, the soul at noon must reckon with its own temporality. Our escape into the “arrested peace” of Paradise is but a moment. Like the sun, we too must decline toward the Night. And the sense of an ending, the pressure of time running out, afflicts the present moment with doubt. Have I done my best with this day so far? Will I have time to complete the work I have been given to do? Does it matter?
In their meditations on the Canonical Hours, David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell point out the spiritual duality of the noonday hour:
“Sext comes right in the middle of the day, in the middle of everything. It is the middle of our life each day, the time of opportunity and the time of crisis … At this turning point in time we decide the fate of our day, and cumulatively the fate of our lives. Do we renew our fervor and commitment, or do we let the forces of entropy drain our resolve?”[viii]
The Latin word for noon (meridiem) and its European derivatives (mezzogiorno, mediodia, le midi) are simply descriptive: “the middle of the day.” But the English term, confusingly derived from None, the canonical hour for mid-afternoon (3 p.m.), holds negativity in its heart. As a palindrome, it reads “no” from either direction. This double no evokes refusal, but is it the refusal of time—noon as a taste of timeless eternity—or something more dire: refusal of the temporal flow of life itself?
In her poem, “A Clock stopped,” Dickinson sees a death image in the cessation of a ticking clock at exactly 12 p.m.—called “Degreeless noon” by the poet because the overlapping of hour and second hands, both pointing to XII, leaves no intervening angle between them. Their stilled hands no longer circle the hours. Their “dial life” is at an end. Does that signify eternity or oblivion? This question haunts many of Dickinson’s writings. The word “no” permeates this poem, not only in “noon” but also in “not,” “snow,” “nods,” and, most chillingly, “concernless No”—conveying the indifference of death and nothingness to human fate.[ix]
A Clock stopped – Not the Mantel’s – Geneva’s farthest skill Can’t put the puppet bowing – That just now dangled still –
An awe came on the Trinket! The Figures hunched, with pain – Then quivered out of Decimals – Into Degreeless Noon –
It will not stir for Doctors – This Pendulum of snow – This Shopman importunes it – While cool – concernless No –
Nods from the Gilded pointers – Nods from the Seconds slim – Decades of Arrogance between The Dial life – And Him –
The word for midday occupies the exact middle of the poem: noon is the 38th word out of 75. And the poet makes it rhyme with pain. That’s a slant rhyme: the vowels disagree but the hard sound of the final consonants match. The pairing of noon and pain is unsettling, expressing the ambivalent nature of the hour—the solar zenith where the day begins its decline. Significantly, it was at this very moment that the Lord of life was nailed to the cross, as every noonday liturgy recalls.
Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms: Grant that all the peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer: Service for Noonday).[x]
Mortality is not noon’s only shadow. The Psalmist warns of “the sickness that lays waste at noonday” (Psalm 91:6). The Greek term for this malady is acēdia, variously translated as listlessness, restless boredom, discouragement, despondency. At its extreme is the suicidal ennui of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” who descends into total inaction with his perpetual refrain of refusal: “I prefer not to.” John Cassian (c. 350-435), whose 5th-century writings on desert spirituality would be a wellspring for later monastics, rendered acēdia in Latin as taedium cordis (“tedium of the heart”). The desert saints, who struggled with acēdia beneath the enervating Egyptian sun, gave it a more personal title: “the noonday demon.”
Cassian’s desert mentor, Evagrius Ponticus (c. 360-399), described acēdia as a chronic inability to be present:
“The eyes of the listless monk gaze out the window again and again, and his mind imagines visitors. A sound at the door, and he jumps up .… When he reads, the listless monk yawns plenty and easily falls asleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms. His eyes wander from the book. He stares at the wall and then goes back to his reading for a little. He then wastes his time hanging on to the end of words, counts the pages, ascertains how the book is made, finds fault with the writing and the design. Finally he just shuts it and uses it as a pillow. Then he falls into a sleep not too deep, because hunger wakes his soul up and he begins to concern himself with that.”[xi]
I’ve met that noonday demon, and I suspect you have too. All the more needful, then, to transit the daily meridian with a prayer on our lips, and trust in our heart. “Today I place before you death and life,” says the Holy One. “Choose life!”[xii]
You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. (Psalm 90:5)
By mid-afternoon, lengthening shadows measure the lateness. With each day’s passing, we think about endings and rehearse our own finality. The daily theater of impermanence may provoke in us wistfulness or melancholy. But it can also teach the art of letting go. This day has bestowed its gifts and it blessings. We have received them as best we could. We are grateful. But we don’t hold on. We don’t worry about the morrow. We entrust ourselves to the Giver, without clinging to the gift.
At None, the day’s labors are winding down. We might wish for more time, or more energy, to complete them gracefully, and we may not have the option to set them down unfinished. But if one has any choice in the matter, would it be better to honor the hour rather than the task? Late afternoon, the hour of None, calls us to work of a more inward kind. How can we make space for the questions, and the prayers which they prompt in us?
What has this day taught me? What could I do differently tomorrow? What requires mending before the sun sets? What burdens can I lay down? Who needs my forgiveness? What must I forgive in myself? What am I grateful for? What precious moments did I forget to sanctify with my deepest attention? Where did I remember God?
The light of a waning afternoon is the sweetest kind. It is warmer and softer, purged of glare and harshness, suffused with fondness. It invites stillness, contemplation, tranquility, rest. It makes the world glow for weary eyes. It is honey for the soul. In these latter days, most of us lack tower bells to announce a pause for mindfulness, or muezzins in minarets calling us to prayer. But afternoon light remains omnipresent, inviting us all to sink into the mystery of the moment, wherever we may be.
W. H. Auden wrote a cycle of poems on the canonical hours: Horae Canonicae. As the poems take us through the diurnal passage from Prime to Compline, we soon realize the poet is talking about Good Friday. The poem for None—the hour when Christ died—imagines the waning of that most singular day.
It is barely three, Mid-afternoon, yet the blood Of our sacrifice is already Dry on the grass; we are not prepared For silence so sudden and so soon; The day is too hot, too bright, too still, Too ever, the dead remains too nothing. What shall we do until nightfall?
These lines register something of my own feelings over a lifetime of Good Fridays, when I exit the church at None into “silence so sudden and so soon.” How does one move on from the death of God? What shall we do until nightfall?
Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves, The shops will re-open at four, The empty blue bus in the empty pink square Fill up and depart: we have time To misrepresent, excuse, deny, Mythify, use this event, While, under a hotel bed, in prison, Down wrong turnings, its meaning Waits for our lives …[xiii]
I think every disappearing afternoon shares something of this mood. Most days, the doings will be far less dramatic or significant, but there still remains a sense of aftermath, of carrying on under the influence of events now past, trying to make sense of them—or not—while somewhere up ahead, a fuller accounting “waits for our lives.” In any case, every day changes us, and discerning how is part of our prayer life.
But if the weight of Auden’s subject seems too much to carry with you into the average evening, let me leave you with a poem by William Stafford, a gem of self-compassion for the late afternoon:
Nobody cares if you stop here. You can look for hours, gaze out over the forest. And the sounds are yours too—take away how the wind either whispers or begins to get ambitious. If you let the silence of afternoon pool around you, that serenity may last a long time, and you can take it along. A slant sun, mornings or evenings, will deepen the canyons, and you can carry away that purple, how it gathers and fades for hours. This whole world is yours, you know. You can breathe it and think about it and dream it after this wherever you go. It’s all right. Nobody cares.[xiv]
[i] Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer,” Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America, 1997), 323.
[ii] Emily Dickinson, “The Soul has Bandaged moments”— F360 (1862) 512.
[iii] Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything (1980), cited in Mark Barrett, OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 9.
[iv] Charles P. Price, “The fleeting day is nearly gone,” Episcopal Hymnal 1982, # 23.
[v] Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), cited in Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 111.
[vi] Emily Dickinson, “Before I got my eye put out”— F 336 (1862) 327.
[x] Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 107.
[xi] Evagrius Ponticus, On the Eight Spirits of Evil, cited in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 204), 326.
This is the fourth in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This fourth reflection concerns Terce, the first of the “Little Hours.”
The design of Prayer . . . is not merely to make us devout while we are engaged in it, but that its odor may be diffused through all the intermediate spaces of the day, enter into all its occupations, duties, and tempers.
— Hannah More, Practical Piety (1812)
Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.
— The Book of Common Prayer
The “Little Hours”—Terce, Sext and None—are the most challenging for a personal prayer practice, because they span the middle portion of the day, the “9 to 5” when we are most occupied with our business in the world. Unless we are professional contemplatives, our days involve more doing than being. We are busy with whatever it is we do, with little chance for prayerful pauses. Even the monks who created the canonical hours kept their daytime devotions short, or “little,” to allow sufficient time for work and study.
During his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau managed to renounce working and doing for long stretches:
Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.[i]
An entire morning given to reverie is an enviable use of time, but for most of us, including Thoreau, it is hardly sustainable as a daily practice. A viable spirituality for the Little Hours must come to terms with the demands and obligations of the day. As Benedictine abbot Cuthbert Butler (1858-1934) put it, “a contemplative life does not lie in the absence of activity, but in the presence of contemplation.”[ii]
How then do we nurture a contemplative awareness as we perform our daily work? How may we “remember God and eternity in the midst of [our] business” so that the fragrance of prayer “may be diffused through all the intermediate spaces of the day?”[iii] Let’s examine each of the Little Hours in turn, beginning with Terce.
Terce (“third”) is the 9 o’clock hour, when the working world is getting underway. Whether resuming ongoing projects or conceiving new ones, we launch into the morning with fresh energy and commitment. In the Book of Acts, Terce is the hour of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the disciples with the power of enthusiasm and possibility. This “third hour” invites us to engage each new day’s work—our own Book of Acts—in that same spirit.
Come, labor on! Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain? [iv]
Wendell Berry sets a high bar for our labor when he says it “defines us as we are; not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone.” Even when our work is less than ideal, or only a means to an end, it may still be possible to honor our tasks with the mindfulness and care of a Brother Lawrence, who found joy in the humblest employment: “It is not necessary to have great things to do,” he said. “I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God.”[v]
Of course, not everyone’s day may feel like participation in the divine task of repairing the world, or the cultivation of human flourishing, or the fulfillment of personal vocation. There are some jobs which should not even exist, because they bring harm to the planet, society, or the worker. There are many people whose sense of purposeful time has been diminished by unemployment, retirement, or illness. And there are those who suffer days of perpetual affliction and sorrow. At such negative extremities of human experience, can prayerful awareness still flourish? Can we still cry to God “out of the depths?” Or is consciousness of transcendent presence and divine impulse only for the fortunate or the serene?
In 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for political activities. After seven dismal months in prison, he was taken out to be executed by a firing squad, or so it seemed. It turned out to be a cruel charade—there was a last-minute reprieve. The rifles were lowered and the condemned prisoners were returned to their cells. But having looked death in the face, Dostoevsky realized the utter preciousness of life under any conditions. Back in his cell, he dashed off a letter to his brother.
“When I look back on my past,” he wrote, “and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul—then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness!”[vi]
Dostoevsky’s revelation from the depths of human suffering would sustain him through four years in a Siberian labor camp, and bear fruit in his visionary writings about the power of divine compassion to humanize a heartless world. Even in the abyss, we can be surprised by joy. Even at the grave, we make our song.[vii]Praise to the Giver! Praise to the gift!
Thankfully, most of our lives are less dramatic than Dostoevsky’s, but whether our story be sweet or not sweet, may we perform each day’s work mindful of time’s gift—the opportunity to make a difference, to add more goodness, truth and beauty to the world. Where there is hatred, let us sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is injustice, action. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.[viii]
The spirit of Terce is oblation: as our day begins to unfold, we offer it up as expression and embodiment of the divine impulse. An old eucharistic prayer puts it this way: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” Elizabeth Rooney’s devotional poem, “Oblation,”[ix] posits self-offering as a daily practice:
I hope each day To offer less to you, Each day By your great love to be Diminished Until at last I am So decreased by your hand And you so grown in me That my whole offering Is just an emptiness For you to fill Or not According to your will.
As we dive into the flow of the day, Terce reminds us to keep God in mind and heart and body. Our hours belong to God. Receive every moment, every labor, every encounter, every delight, every challenge as divine gift.
Prayer isn’t just a momentary act. It is a stance toward reality, a state of awareness. It may involve words, chant, ritual, or pure silence—an attentive pause to listen for whatever needs to be heard. And it always involves breathing. “By following your breath,” says Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “and combining the Full Awareness of Breathing with your daily activities, you can cut across the stream of disturbing thoughts and light the lamp of awakening.”[x]
Pray at the door of morning … pray as you go … pray as you labor. Want what God wants. Be thankful. Do love’s work. Refuse despair.
In 1960 New Orleans, a six-year-old African-American named Ruby Bridges became the first black person to attend an all-white elementary school in the segregated South. On her first morning, she was met by a shouting mob of white people. At first she thought it must be some kind of celebration, like a Mardi Gras parade. But she soon realized the screams were directed at her. Federal marshals protected her from physical assault, but the hateful words and jeering faces were terrible enough. A few years later, Norman Rockwell painted that little girl’s courageous walk to school for a story in Look magazine.
Ruby Bridges was met at the school door by Barbara Henry, the one teacher who was willing to teach a Black child. Years later, Bridges would write about that moment, “You cannot look at a person and tell whether they’re good or bad. Evil comes in all shades and colors. That is the lesson that I learned from the teacher that looked exactly like the people outside that threw things, spit, and yelled—she looked exactly like them, but she was different, and I knew that at six years old, because she showed me her heart.”
For a while, Ruby’s first-grade mornings—her Terce—always began with the taunting mob. One day, she paused before going inside. Her lips were moving, but the shouting drowned her out. Her teacher later asked her why she had stopped to talk to the crowd. “I wasn’t talking,” she said. “I was praying. I was praying for them.”[xi]
[i] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), from the 2nd paragraph of “Sounds.”
[ii] Dom Cuthbert Butler, cited in Rowan Williams, The Way of St. Benedict (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2020), 112. Butler was a Benedictine abbot and patristic scholar.
[iii] “remember God”—John Gother (1654-1704), cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London: SPCK 2008), 34; “may be diffused”—Hannah More (1745-1833), in Practical Piety; or, the influence of the religion of the heart on the conduct of life (1811), cited in Mursell, 118. Gother was a Catholic priest who catechised the London poor; More was an Anglican writer who stressed the inseparability of prayer and social action.
[iv] From “Come, labor on,” a hymn text by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897), #541 in The Episcopal Hymnal1982. This was often sung at chapel during my 6 years at an Episcopal school in Los Angeles, where self-motivation was strongly encouraged!
[v] Citations from Karen Speerstra, ed., Divine Sparks: Collected Wisdom of the Heart (Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2005). Wendell Berry, p. 520; Brother Lawrence (from his 17th-century text, The Practice of the Presence of God), p. 521.
[vi] Cited in Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 181-182.
[vii] This beautiful statement of resurrection faith is from the Eastern Orthodox Memorial Service, sung as part of the Burial Kontakion in The Episcopal Hymnal1982, #355.
[viii] From the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis, although the earliest traceable source is from 1912. I added the injustice/action line.
[ix] Elizabeth Rooney (1924-1999) was an Episcopal poet and a member of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross.
[x] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation (1987), cited in Dennis Patrick Slattery, Grace in the Desert: Awakening to the Gifts of Monastic Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 40.
[xi] Ruby Bridges, cited in Marion Wright Edelman, “Lessons from Ruby Bridges” (Oct. 26, 1918).
This is the second in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This second reflection concerns “Vigils,” the liminal space between yesterday and tomorrow.
What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “What if you slept?”
The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night, all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me.
— Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Vigils is the most fluid of the canonical hours. It may be kept at midnight, or at 3 a.m., or just before dawn, as a prelude to the sunrise hour of Lauds. While the world sleeps, monastics rise from their beds and make their way in the dark to the choir. The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict recommends that the first Psalm be read “slowly and deliberately,” to allow the community’s sleepyheads extra time to arrive. “If the resurrection of the dead is anything like getting up in the morning,” complains one monk, “I am not completely convinced that I want to be included.”[i] But prayer never sleeps. “At midnight I will rise to give you thanks,” says the Psalmist. “My eyes are open in the night watches.”[ii]
Vigils is not for all people at all times, but as an occasional practice it has much to offer. Being awake in the night is not like being awake in the day. We are different, our surroundings are different, and time is different. All these differences affect the quality of our consciousness, our physical energies, and our prayer. It’s no accident that the two most mysterious events in the gospels, the Nativity and the Resurrection, took place in deepest night.[iii] “When all things were wrapped in peaceful silence and night was in the midst of its swift course,” said Meister Eckhart, “a secret word leaped down from heaven.…”[iv]
The hours between midnight and dawn should not go unvisited by the waking self. They whisper secrets which sleepers never know. I’ve driven through black nights on lost highways, watched 72-hour film marathons with (mostly) open eyes, arisen at midnight to ascend Mt. Rainier with a headlamp, drifted in and out of sleep lying on the floor of the Fillmore Auditorium in the wee hours of a Grateful Dead concert, and curated all-night multi-sensory worship in a circus tent with 400 Episcopalians.[v] Even though only the last of these was a specifically religious event, I always felt transformed to some degree by my night-journeys. By the time the sun restored the ordinary, I was no longer quite the same person. Something had shifted. Maybe it was the world; maybe it was just my eyes, or my heart. But the next morning I always felt radiant and new, like the first morning of Creation.
What is it about a vigil experience that makes this so? For one thing, my post-midnight self, even when awake, is more prone to a state of reverie, when the daytime’s fully conscious subject gives way to the “night dream” which, as Gaston Bachelard suggests, “does not belong to us. It is not our possession. With regard to us, it is an abductor, the most disconcerting of abductors: it abducts our being from us. Nights, nights have no history.… we are returned to an ante-subjective state. We become elusive to ourselves, for we are giving pieces of ourselves to no matter whom, to no matter what.”[vi]
The world, too, is different in the dark—its solid forms dissolved into shadow, purged of detail and color, cloaked in absence. The noise and strife of daytime forgotten in the hush. Deep, deep silence: like the primordial stillness before the birth of everything. An environment without verbs. “Baptized in the rivers of night,” said Thomas Merton of the Vigils hour, the earth recovers its “innocence.”[vii]
Time slows, pausing deliberately between yesterday and tomorrow. No longer a flowing river, it becomes a pool of infinite depth where we can wash away our hurry-sickness. “A single hour takes a long time to pass,” says a modern Book of Hours, “but living in it is discipleship for eternity.”[viii]
In the Book of Genesis, Jacob has two contrasting experiences at the Vigils hour. In one, he is given a blissful vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, revealing the ultimate Reality so often invisible in the glare of sunlight. In the other, he wrestles desperately with God till dawn.[ix] So it is for us. Sometimes our night vigil is bathed in tranquility and illumined by love. And sometimes we watch anxiously over a sick child or a dying friend, or pray for the ones who are afraid or lost in the dark, or wrestle with our own troubled thoughts, or wait with expectant and vulnerable hearts for the dawn of God.
Benedictine writer Macrina Wiederkeh distills the essence of Vigils prayer, when even the most restlessly wakeful are invited to rest in the sacred pause of what T. S. Eliot called “the uncertain hour before the morning.”[x]
“In the middle of the night, I pray for those who sleep and those who cannot sleep. I pray for those with fearful hearts, for those whose courage is waning. I pray for those who have lost vision of what could be. When I rise in the middle of the night, my prayer is simply one of waiting in silence, waiting in darkness, listening with love. It is a prayer of surrender. In my night watch I do not ordinarily use words. My prayer is a prayer of intent. I make my intention and I wait. I become a deep yearning. The silence and the darkness are healing. My prayer is now a prayer of trust. I keep vigil with the mystery.”[xi]
When I was a teenager, the climactic all-night vigil in Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country, made a deep impression on me. In the days of South African apartheid, on the night before his prodigal son’s execution, the Rev. Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican priest, climbs a high mountain to pray—for his own failings, for the soul of his son, and for the liberation of his people. Hour after hour, through the darkness, he keeps vigil for Absalom (“my son, my son!”) and for all the broken and lost. When the sun finally breaks the horizon—the very moment of his son’s execution—he makes eucharist with a maize cake and tea, remembering with thanksgiving God’s promise of salvation. “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”[xii]
Over the years, the image of Fr. Kumalo on that nocturnal summit has informed my own affinity for Vigils. There is something profoundly uncanny about every “night watch,” when sleep is forsaken in order to contemplate “the Mystery of the world,”[xiii] whose ineffability is uniquely conveyed in the hours of deepest dark and silence.
At Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, the monks would take turns making the rounds of the expansive main building on “fire watch,” guarding the multitude of flammable wooden spaces through the night while the community slept. Thomas Merton’s shift on the night of July 4th, 1952, became for him a vivid metaphor for the spiritual journey into God, related in his famous “Fire Watch” essay.
As Merton moves thoughtfully and prayerfully through the monastic spaces, he retraces his personal history as a monk. Every room is inscribed with significant memory. But his fire watch is also the journey of the human soul. By first descending into the monastery’s lower depths and gradually ascending to its highest point in the abbey tower, he replicates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery and the Divine Comedy, where the way down becomes, in the end, the way up.
Merton’s “Fire Watch” reflection is framed by biblical images. It begins with Isaiah’s tower watchman keeping vigil through the long night, alert for a word of revelation. And it concludes with a divine word of comfort to Jonas, better known as Jonah, whose descent into the belly of the fish foreshadowed Christ’s death and resurrection.
“The sign of Jonas”––Merton’s term for the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising––is “burned into the roots of our being,” he said. And he described his own life’s pilgrimage as “traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”[xiv]
For the receptive soul, Vigils is the hour when we listen to the voice of silence, and rest in the grace of unknowing. In “Fire Watch,” Merton sums up prayer in the dark in four lines:
While I am asking questions which You do not answer, You ask me a question which is so simple that I cannot answer. I do not even understand the question. This night, and every night, it is the same question.[xv]
[i] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 11.
[iii] The Christmas midnight mass and the Easter Vigil both incorporate the Vigils aura of nocturnal mystery when they take the assembly deep into the night. But many churches sacrifice this dimension when they choose the convenience of starting so early that they end well before midnight.
[iv] Meister Eckhart, cited in Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 50. Yates’ book contains prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. The Eckhart quote appears at Midnight.
[vi] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 145.
[vii] Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” epilogue to The Sign of Jonas (1953), cited in Lawrence S. Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master—The Essential Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), 107.
The Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus, “Can a person every day make a beginning of the good life?” The Abba Silvanus answered him, “If he be diligent, he can every day and every hour begin the good life anew.”
— Sayings of the Desert Fathers
When wrongdoers are questioned by congressional committees, they try to evade self-incrimination through rambling, irrelevant responses to pointed questions. Since each committee member is given very limited time to interrogate a witness, those who have something to hide try to “run out the clock,” hoping that time will expire before the truth can be revealed. A skillful questioner will shut down such verbal evasions with a parliamentary phrase: “Reclaiming my time.” Whenever those words are uttered, the witness must cease to babble, allowing the questioner to attempt a more productive use of the allotted time.
I love that phrase—“Reclaiming my time”—for its spiritual implications. It seems a perfect description of the ancient spiritual practice of “praying the hours”—setting aside certain moments or periods of each day to reclaim our time from whatever is wasting it. I don’t mean wasting in the sense of failing to perform ceaseless labors of “doing” rather than “being.” An hour daydreaming in the hammock, reading poetry or playing the guitar is not misspent, however much the voices within or without may cry, “Get back to work!” No, by wasting time I mean the failure to enjoy its fullness or attend to its depth. I mean forgetting the sheer wonder of being here in this moment, this story, this life. I mean failing to understand that time, as W. H. Auden reminds us, “is our choice of how to love and why.”[i]
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developed cyclical prayer practices for reclaiming time. Through words, music, attentive silence and bodily postures, the faithful pause periodically during the day to remember, praise and thank the divine Source in whom we live and move and have our being. Prayer times synchronize the believer’s consciousness with the natural sequence of the day: morning, midday, evening and night. For Christian monastics, for whose life of “unceasing prayer” there were no secular hours, only sacred ones, seven divine “offices” became the norm. The pattern was Scriptural—“Seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119:164)—but also natural: the sequence of hours reflects the changes in the quality of light and sound as well as the energy levels of our bodies.
There are seven traditional, or “canonical”[ii] hours. Some of the specific times are variable in accord with changing seasons and differences in latitude, but the “seven times” span the length between waking and retiring. An eighth “hour,” Vigils (or Matins), was combined with Lauds to keep the list at seven, but it really stands apart from the chronology of the waking hours, in the timeless interval between the days, when monastics rise from sleep to dwell prayerfully in the deepest dark of ineffable Mystery.
Vigils (Midnight or later) Waiting and reverie Lauds (4-5 am or daybreak) Waking Prime (6 am) Beginning Terce (9 am) Doing Sext (Noon) Pausing None (3 pm) Doing Vespers (Sunset) Ending Compline (Bedtime) Surrendering
In the late Middle Ages, devout laypersons created a demand for a portable “Book of Hours”—a sequence of devotional texts and images structured on the monastic daily pattern. For two and a half centuries, these prayer books were the most widely read texts in Europe. But once the sacredness of time was eclipsed by modernity, hours became commodities, acquired and spent in labor and leisure, but no longer burning with divine Presence. Most people no longer “had time”—or inclination—to pause and pray seven times a day.
If you are ever able to go on retreat to pray the hours with a monastic community, do it, as often as you can. Your relationship with time will be deepened and renewed. But how might we pray the hours when we are on our own in the secular world, immersed in the ordinary circumstances and flow of our lives? Given all the demands on our time and attention, is it possible to forge a sustainable practice? I believe that it is not only possible, but absolutely necessary, in order to reclaim our time as gift and blessing.
As St. Anselm of Canterbury urged the faithful in the twelfth century:
“Flee for a while from your tasks, hide yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts. Come, cast aside your burdensome cares, and put aside your laborious pursuits.… Give your time to God, and rest in the Divine for a little while. Enter into the inner chamber of your mind, shut out all things save God …”[iii]
In a 24/7 world, it’s hard to make any space to shut out “all things.” As Kathleen Deignan writes in her contemporary Book of Hours: “There is no room for the mysterious spaciousness of being, no time for presence, no room for nature, no time for quiet, for thought, for presence.”[iv]
During the many months of pandemic shutdowns and lockdowns, our habitual relationship with time has been significantly disrupted . So many routines which shape our customary lives, like going to work or school, have been altered or cancelled. The annual round of seasonal markers—liturgical celebrations, sporting events, holiday weekends, performing arts series, music festivals, vacation travel, graduations, birthday parties—has suffered a similar fate. Sheltering-in-place homogenizes our waking lives with an enervating sameness. Sometimes I forget what day of the week it is.
Time blurs and dis-integrates, loses its shape, becomes increasingly subjective as we disconnect from the larger rhythms and measures of season, cosmos, and tradition. Our temporality seems less firmly structured by the interplay of memory and hope, planning and expectation, coming and going, activity and rest, labor and festivity, variety and difference.
In Martin Amis’ short story, “The Time Disease,” a fear of time itself acts like a virus, attacking the balance that integrates past, present and future in human consciousness. Having lost the capacity to believe themselves part of a meaningful narrative with a redemptive future, people have grown numb to hope, deathly afraid of “coming down with time.” The story, published in 1987, is set in the year 2020!
COVID-19 reminds us daily of our ephemeral and vulnerable condition: finite, mortal, subject to immense forces beyond our control. At the same time, it has weakened our ritual relation to time, by erasing the recurring collective markers, like the first communal shouts of “Alleluia!” at the end of Holy Week, or the joyous tumult of fireworks at a Fourth of July picnic, which affirm a sense of regularity, continuity and renewal. The future has become radically uncertain. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, much less next year. Fewer of us are making long term plans right now. But it still remains within our power to receive and embrace the gift of this day, this hour, this moment. We can, through conscious practice, sink deeper and deeper into the mystery of being-here-now.
Praying the hours
I am the appointed hour, The “now” that cuts Time like a blade.
— Thomas Merton, “Song: If you seek…”
An hour is not an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates.
— Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
Rather than pass the time, we must invite it in.
— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
In The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous medieval mystic calls us to practice mindfulness: “Be attentive to time and how you spend it. Nothing is more precious. This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. God, the master of time, never gives the future. He gives only the present, moment by moment.”[v] But such mindfulness is not native to moderns, as Hugh Rayment-Pickard laments:
“We ignore the time that is open to us. We diminish ourselves by wishing time to pass. We are, for the most part, incapable of real concentration. Our days are broken by distraction, scrambled into muddles of chores, errands, impulses, evasions, interruptions and delays, besotted with routine. We characteristically fail to see the ways in which a given period can be expanded, deepened and slowed by the exercise of will and awareness.”[vi]
This condition of un-mindful triviality is good for some laughs in Sarah Dunn’s “A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994,” a diaristic parody of the Book of Hours. After rising at noon, the Slacker’s day includes naps, television, café idling and aimless wandering, but also the following highlights:
12:45 p.m. Plan the world tour you would take if any of your relatives happened to die and handed you a pile of money.
1:52 p.m. Peruse an op-ed article stating that your generation represents ‘the final exhaustion of civilization.’ Resolve to fire off a scathing yet piquant rebuttal.
2:42 p.m. [During a commercial break in an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes,” think about starting a new project]: a flow chart in which you … categorize and classify every philosopher throughout time …
After more wandering, napping, drinking, and all of 17 minutes dedicated to “hunker down with Schopenhauer,” the Slacker’s day concludes:
11:05 p.m. Return home. 11:30 p.m. Putter around your room. 11:48 p.m. Rake the sand in your Zen rock garden. 12:15 a.m. Alphabetize your cassettes. 12:33 a.m. Practice your dart game. 1:00 a.m. Assume the fetal position for late night infomercial viewing. 1:26 a.m. Stare near-crippling bout of existential angst in the face. 1:57 a.m. Once again, glorious sleep.[vii]
Will time so waste us? Or can we restore our souls—and our daily experience— with an attentive, receptive relation to temporality, and the eternity from which it springs? As the monastic communities discovered while the ancient world was collapsing all around them, praying the hours at the beginning, middle, and end of each day is a deeply transformative practice. It changes the quality of the day, and it changes us.
There are a number of excellent contemporary guides to help us pray the hours in our wordly precincts beyond the cloister. In Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day, Br. David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell describe the canonical hours as “seasons”: each stage of the day has its own character, its own virtue, its own meaning:
“The hours are the inner structure for living consciously and responsively through the stages of the day.… The message of the hours is to live daily with the real rhythms of the day. to live responsively, consciously … We learn to listen to the music of the moment, to hear its sweet implorings, its sober directives.”[viii]
In Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Macrina Wiederkehr sees the hours as an antidote for contemporary hurry-sickness:
“We practice pausing to remember the sacredness of our names, who we are, and what we plan on doing with the incredible gift of our lives—and how we can learn to be in the midst of so much doing.”[ix]
In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Sr. Joan Chittister reminds us that prayer is not a mood but a practice:
“To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our own terms. To pray only when it is convenient is to make the God-life a very low priority in a list of better opportunities. To pray only when it feels good is to court total emptiness when we most need to be filled. The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer. But … without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down.”[x]
Grounding ourselves in a daily prayer practice is vital in the best of times. In 2020’s massive tsunami of pandemic, climate disaster, social unrest and political madness, it is a lifesaver, a shelter from the storm. Tossed between the Scylla and Charybdis of high anxiety and profound melancholy, many of us are exhausted or worse. We need proven tools for survival—and renewal.
This post is the first in a series on praying the hours. Subsequent posts will explore various dimensions and qualities of the hours contained within the day’s three main divisions: Beginning (Vigils, Lauds, Prime); Middle (Terce, Sext, None); and End (Vespers, Compline). The series will conclude with some suggestions for adapting the hours to the diverse and demanding lives we actually live. As Benedictine John Chapman counsels, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”[xi]
For further reading
Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976). This classic little volume has 2 pages of prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. I have opened this often over the years.
Brother David Steidl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day(Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001). A wise and indispensable treasury of reflections on each of the hours.
Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008). A thoughtful exploration of the 7 hours, with many excellent texts and thoughts to inspire your own construction of a daily practice.
Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007). Contemplative rites for a 7-day cycle for Dawn, Day, Dusk and Dark, consisting entirely of prose and poetic texts by Thomas Merton, with a helpful introduction by Deignan. Much of the imagery is drawn from the natural world surrounding the famous contemplative’s Kentucky hermitage, tincturing the devotions with a deep awareness of the seasons of the day and of the year.
Joan Chittister OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991). Chittister’s attractive Benedictine balance of attention and receptivity provides an accessible foundation for a daily prayer practice.
Mark Barrett OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008). Another Benedictine offers fruitful and imaginative reflections on each of the canonical hours.
Kenneth V. Peterson, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013). This thorough appreciation of the last office of the day blends liturgical history, theology, and personal experience. The perspectives on Compline illumine our approach to all of the hours. Peterson’s website provides glorious examples of Compline choral music discussed in the book: http://prayerasnightfalls.com
World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Christian McEwen, Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2011). Not a religious text per se, it invites us into a way of being which is essential for mindful living and praying. It’s delightful reading, celebrating what Thoreau called “the bloom of the present moment.”
Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988). A fertile appreciation of our relationship with time, and how to deepen it.
Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2004). An accessible read on the theology of time.
Kevin Jackson, The Book of Hours: An Anthology (London/New York/Woodstock NY: The Overlook Press, 2007). A secular celebration of every hour of the day, with a wide range of literary excerpts. While not about prayer or spirituality, it is great fun, and will sharpen your sense of each hour’s aspects.
There are many books and websites with liturgies for praying the hours. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has daily offices for Morning, Noon, Evening and Compline. A number of other Anglican prayer books can be found at http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/
[i] W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (1941-42), in Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1976), 297.
[ii] “Canon” in Greek meant a straight rod, used for measuring or aligning. In Church usage, the word designated right rule, measure, or proper order, as in the biblical canon, canon law, or the canonical hours.
[iii] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 42.
[iv] Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 32.
[v]The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous English work of the late 14th century, cited in Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 92.
[vi] Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2004), 20.
[vii] Sarah Dunn, “A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994,” in The Official Slacker Handbook, cited in Kevin Jackson, The Book of Hours: An Anthology (London/New York/Woodstock NY: The Overlook Press, 2007), 62-64.
[viii] Brother David Steidl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day (Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001).
[ix] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 13.
[x] Joan Chittister OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991), 31.
[xi]Mark Barrett OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 26.
Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) on the road to Naples.
Alexander: “Where are we?”
Katherine: “Oh, I don’t know exactly.”
— Opening lines of Journey to Italy
The first shot of Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film, Journey to Italy, is through the windshield of a speeding Bentley on an open stretch of country road. It is an image of pure velocity, revealing neither origin nor goal, but only the fact of motion. Inhabiting the subjective eye of the camera, we know only that we are rushing forward, out of the past, into the unknown.
Then we see who is inside the car. Alex and Katherine Joyce are Londoners, on their way to Naples to sell a villa inherited from their Uncle Homer. We deduce from their clothes—his tweed jacket and her leopard-skin coat—that they are a couple of means, accustomed to shaping their own story. But the names “Joyce” and “Homer,” invoking the great voyager Ulysses, suggests that their journey will take them beyond the familiar into the land of unknowing. “Where are we?” “Oh, I don’t know exactly.”
For the Joyces, Naples, along with nearby Vesuvius and Pompeii, is radically elsewhere—neither Rome nor Milan, and certainly not London. In the Italian south, modernity has not erased the archaic remnants of mythic memory or silenced the primal voices of earth, sea, and sky. The ancient past is not dead and gone. It speaks through rituals and ruins. It erupts from the depths of history, utters forgotten tongues.
Time slows in the south. The north’s purposeful hurry dissipates beneath the Neapolitan sun. The forward rush of the opening scene is replaced by aimless drift. A firm sense of story—beginning, middle, and end—dissipates into Mediterranean languor. The eventful developments we expect from movie narrative are absent. Like Dante in the dark wood, Alex and Katherine have strayed from the straight road of storytelling. They have lost their way.
The Italian south doesn’t create their malaise; it reveals it. “I’m getting sick of this crazy country,” Alex complains. “It poisons you with laziness. I want to get back home, back to work.” Without the familiar fictions of their London life, the habitual doings and distractions which postpone the honest reckonings of a hungry heart, they find themselves face to face with the alienation, egoism and fatigue of a failing marriage. They hardly know what to say to each other. When they do, the words are often abrasive or wounding.
Rossellini’s leads were actors whose own lives were in emotional disarray. Both Ingrid Bergman (Katherine) and George Sanders (Alex) had recent divorces, and Bergman’s current affair with Rossellini—a scandal at the time—was coming apart. She was tearful on the set. Sanders, recruited precisely for his sour and cynical manner, was also unhappy. With his biggest roles behind him, what was he doing with a largely nonprofessional cast in a low-budget art film?
Rossellini’s practice of handing out dialogue at the last minute kept his actors off balance, so they couldn’t overthink their performance in advance . Trained in the conventions of Hollywood’s highly scripted and plot-driven narratives, Bergman and Sanders often seem at a loss in a film where so little happens. His confusion and her uncertainty infused their roles with authenticity, blurring the line between fiction and documentary.
“All those shots of eyes looking.” —Jacques Rivette
“The film opens a breach and all cinema on pain of death must pass through it.”
Journey is more than the story of a marriage. Its wider theme is the malady of the secular age. Both Alex and Katherine are imprisoned within themselves, unable to connect with each other or the world. To borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, they are “castaways of the western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity.” [ii]Journey would pave the way for a cinema of alienation, haunted with the ghostly nonbeing of lives “lacking in purpose, in passion, in zest, in a sense of community, in ordinary human responsiveness, in the ability to communicate.…” [iii]
This was a new kind of cinema, born of twentieth-century trauma. After the Holocaust and Hiroshima, it became impossible to limit the art of film to self-contained stories, within which the actors can take action to resolve problems and produce definitive and satisfying conclusions. The damage and disfigurement of humanity, its existential crisis and utter lostness, had to find authentic representation in movies about “nothing.” That is to say, their true subject would not be a narrative but a condition.
French film scholar Antoine de Baecque writes about the impact on filmmakers of the shocking footage shot during the liberation of the Nazi death camps. The idea of “aestheticizing horror” through fictional recreations of the camps seemed obscene at the time. “I could never do that,” said American director Samuel Fuller. “How can you do it better than the Germans?”[iv] But those terrible images lodged themselves permanently in the psyches of directors like Rossellini, Antonioni, Resnais and Godard. As de Baecque writes:
“These images born of the war, which deeply marked cinema and filmmakers at the time, did a kind of subterranean work, a ‘reworking’ so to speak, subconsciously—since they never actually appear in postwar films—and then resurfaced in films (often ten years later) in definite forms, like traumatic memory that, little by little, had bored its way into the history of cinema. An art form had lost its innocence, and the great auteurs would no longer be making the same kinds of films.” They could only “return to the real by getting out of the studio to film the world.” [v]
Skulls of unknown dead at the cave cemetery of Fontanelle in Naples.
In Journey, the memory of death resurfaces again and again. We see the charnel house skulls in a Naples cemetery, a funeral cortège rounding a corner to block our progress, and the ruins of Pompeii, where a thousand Romans were buried alive by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Even when Alex and Katherine bask in the pleasant Mediterranean sun, the volcano looms behind them as a reminder of mortality.
Sunbathing at Homer’s villa, with Vesuvius in the background.
Two people have lost their way in a world of death. Is there no exit? The spirituality of Naples wants to speak, but Alex has no ears to hear, no curiosity beyond his enclosure of self-absorption. Katherine, however, proves more adventurous. When she drives into Naples from the villa, the film cuts between her “entombment” inside the car and the fecundity of street life all around her—strolling lovers, pregnant women, sidewalk vendors. The contrast between the carefully composed studio shot of Katherine behind the wheel and the cinéma vérité footage of the street creates an unstable mix of fiction and documentary. The wall between herself and a wider reality is starting to crumble.
The polished studio shot of Katherine encased in her car contrasts with the documentary realism of the street scenes around her.
“That’s what God is for, to make our lies truth.”
— Iris Murdoch, The Good Apprentice
In writing about the novels of Iris Murdoch, theologian Paul S. Fiddes describes the ‘unselving’ of self-enclosed characters. He could be writing about the Joyces as well. Like Murdoch’s protagonists, they “learn, or fail to learn, to be truthful, which means giving attention to what is real around them. At one level … this means noticing people as they actually are, rather than as we want them to be for our convenience. It means delighting in all the contingent details of the world, recognizing the ‘otherness’ of people and things, and living with all the hazards of accident. At the very least the disciples of goodness accept the ‘muddle’ of the world, and at the best they experience its amazing variety as being the Sublime.” [vi]
Katherine’s tourist itinerary of Naples thus becomes something more: a journey into the depths of the past—the cave of an ancient Sibyl, an ossuary of anonymous skulls, galleries of Roman sculpture, the ruins of Pompeii. Here she begins to face what Rose Macaulay called “the ruins of the soul; the shadowy dreams that lurked tenebrously in the cellars of consciousness; in the mysterious corridors and arcades of dreams, the wilderness that stretches not without but within.” [vii] Remnants of a vanished past, signifying the paradoxical dance of time and eternity, interrogate the meaning of her present existence. As we are now, so you shall soon be. What are you doing with the tiny slice of time you’ve been given? When you’re gone, what remains?
In the archaeological museum, the eyes of the past interrogate the modern viewer.
When Katherine looks at statues, they stare back. Who are you? The “I” of the camera, a third subjectivity, looks at both—at the statue, then at Katherine. In the museum and the other visited sites, the film becomes a documentary of Ingrid Bergman’s face, “a sensory surface on which the sounds and images are imprinted. The film appears to rest entirely on her reactions.” [viii]
When Katherine gazes into the sulphur pits of Vesuvius, where subterranean energies surface into visibility, we are reminded of Dante’s Inferno, the classic template for every descent into the soul’s hidden depths.
Katherine and her guide at the sulphur pits of Vesuvius.
Gustave Doré: Dante and Virgil in the 8th circle of hell.
The crisis point in Journey follows a bitter argument between Katherine and Alex. At the very moment Alex says the fatal word—“divorce”—they are interrupted by Burton, the villa’s property manager, who insists they come immediately to the excavation at Pompeii, where a pair of “bodies” is about to be uncovered.
When Pompeii was buried under six meters of volcanic ash two thousand years ago, its inhabitants died instantly. Their bodies dissolved over time, leaving hollow forms in the hardened ash. During the shooting of Journey to Italy, archaeologists were in the process of injecting plaster into those forms to recreate the ancient “bodies,” and Rossellini was allowed to film the fictional Joyces watching the real uncovering of a buried past.
“You must come!” Burton had told them. “Imagine—to actually see the shape of a man just as he was then, the moment when he was surprised by death.” In fact, what they do see is two people, a couple who took their last breath lying side by side as lovers.
The forms are real plaster, but at the same time they are fictional figures, reimagined into the visible from the empty shapes left behind by the dead. They are, in effect, tangible expressions of nothingness, which might also be said about the hollow and aimless lives of the Joyces. For any viewer, those plaster forms of vanished Pompeiians prompt unsettling meditations on life and death, presence and absence, and our own essential nothingness. I myself contemplated Pompeii’s plaster ghosts almost fifty years ago, and I can still recall the melancholy—and the fascination—those forms evoked in me. As Julian of Norwich put it in the 14th century, without divine love sustaining us in every moment, we would all sink into nonbeing.
Alex and Katherine watch the unearthing of the ancient couple at Pompeii.
What the Joyces behold, as they watch the archaeologists brush away the ash from the plaster forms, is history made visible. Staring into the abyss of time, they are confronted by the smallness and brevity of their own lives. Their own nothingness surfaces into awareness. The falsity of their solipsistic lives, independent of a larger world and ignorant of death, begins to give way.
The image of the ancient lovers is itself a shock, history’s rebuke to their own loveless marriage. Perhaps most terrible of all is the photographic nature of the forms, capturing a single instant of the past and removing it from the flow of time. The Roman lovers are a still image, frozen in a moment with no future. For Katherine and Alex, stuck in a hell of their own making, it displays the horror of an existence which cannot change, a deadness with no exit. They recognize themselves—sans embrace—in the plaster forms.
Katherine recoils and bursts into tears, demanding that they leave the site. As the couple descends a flight of ancient stairs to find their car, Katherine asks her husband, “Is this the way out?” It is another Dantean moment: the way down is the only way up.
Once back in their car, they try to put some distance between themselves and the place which has tried their souls. But the south will not let them go. Passing through the town of Maiori on the Amalfi Coast, they are blocked by a great crowd jamming the central square. It is a procession for San Gennaro, the only Christian festival to claim an annual miracle: the liquefication of the martyred bishop’s dried blood. The persistence of this claim in a skeptical age highlights the archaic strangeness of a region where the past seems so unperturbed by modernity. And in this land of miracles, Journey to Italy reaches its miraculous conclusion.
Unable to drive any further, Katherine and Alex get out their car, the symbol of their isolation from and control over exterior circumstance. Immersed in the teeming crowd, they seem nakedly exposed to the energies all around them. When Katherine is suddenly swept away by a surge of bodies, Alex runs to rescue her. They embrace. Suddenly—miraculously—awakening to a forgotten but genuine bond between them, they confess their folly and profess their love.
The miraculous reconciliation defies expectations.
It’s a Hollywood ending, but one in quotes, because this is a modernist work, where the real and ambiguous world insists on breaking into the neatly scripted story. If the revelations and crisis that preceded this moment only result in a happy ending for the couple, who might then resume their distance from the world if not each other, it is not a true unselving. It would allow the lie of autonomous lives to carry on.
Alex and Katherine embrace as the camera pulls away.
The film’s true miracle is not the “happy ending” of the Joyces’ embrace and the lovely closeup of famous movie stars. Rather, it is their disappearance into the larger world of humanity and history, and through that, into the ultimate mystery of the world, whom we call divine. And this miracle happens when the camera, on a crane, pulls away from the couple to sweep over the crowd. The Joyces are not forgotten, but they are now understood as part of a much larger world. But this world is not anonymous and impersonal. The uniquely personal remains undiminished in this great communion of mortal beings, as the final shot, now at eye level, watches face after face after face pass by, into a collective future that never stops unfolding.
Every age will see a film differently. I’ve watched Journey to Italy many times over the years, but viewing it during the pandemic has touched an existential nerve. Larger realities are breaking into our settled world, and we will never be the same. Our own Vesuvius looms on the horizon.
Film critic Laura Mulvey, in her commentary on the excavation scene, points out that cinema itself, not just particular films, confronts us with our mortality:
“The figures of the excavation are formed by an imprint left by the original. Film too is an imprint.…The presence of the human figure on celluloid is one more layer, one more trace of the past brought to life and preserved.… With the coming of death and the passing of time, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, as well as the passersby in Naples, are now themselves dead, their images fossilized on celluloid, just as the figures of Pompeii were cast in plaster.” [ix]
“Life is so short,” says Katherine among the ruins. And as today’s pandemic spreads its shadow over the earth, and climate change undermines the stability of the physical world, we too have become more conscious of our vulnerability and our brevity, and less able to maintain the illusion of untouched autonomous lives. We can no longer keep death at a safe distance; we dance every day on the razor’s edge between being and nonbeing. Who knows when we, too, will be “surprised by death?”
But in the long run of time, the question of my fate or your fate must give way to a larger perspective. We are all in this together, and—come what may—I believe we will, in the end, be gathered into the great procession of a redeemed humanity, shouting “Glory!” for all eternity. It will no longer be death that takes us by surprise, but grace.
Love among the ruins. “Life is so short.”
Journey to Italy (1954) is the third feature in a trilogy of “voyage” films which Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman, who left a successful Hollywood career to make these art films—some of her best work—with the Italian director, with whom she would fall in love. All 3 films involve a transformative journey into an unfamiliar and challenging place—a barren island in Stromboli (1950), the world of the poor in Europe ’51 (1952), and the mysterious south of Italy in Journey. In the U.S., The Criterion Collection has produced a beautifully mastered box set of the Trilogy, with excellent commentaries, to which I am indebted, on the discs and in the booklet. Journey to Italy can be streamed, but (in the U.S. at least), it is available on disc only in the box set, which is definitely worth having if you love film.
[i] Cited in James Quandt’s commentary, “Surprised by Death: Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage Trilogy,” on the Criterion disc, 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman (2013). Rivette, along with Godard, Resnais, and Truffaut, would be greatly influenced by this film, and often praised it in their writings.
[ii] Godard is describing his own film, Contempt (1963), which was itself an hommage to Journey to Italy. Cited in Quandt’s commentary.
[iii] This quote from Richard Gilman’s “About Nothing—with Precision,” Theater Arts 46, no. 7 (July 1962), p. 11. Gilman is writing about another Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, who would take the theme of alienation to the limit in films like La Notte (1961), where the alienated couple remains stuck in their private hell, unlike the couple in Journey to Italy. Rossellini regarded Antonioni’s films as too pessimistic, but both filmmakers were dealing with the same modern malady: alienation, drift, and emptiness. Gilman is cited in Seymour Chatman, Antonioni, or, the Surface of the World (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985),
[iv] Cited in Antoine de Baecque, Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema, trans. Ninon Vinsonneau & Jonathan Magidoff (New York: Columbia University, 2008), 68. Fuller shot footage for the U.S. Army during the liberation of the camp at Falkenau (you can find it on YouTube), but he never tried to recreate the horror in a fictional way. He did show his actors watching documentary footage in Verboten!(1959). The fictional shots pale when intercut with real images of mass death.
[vi] Paul S. Fiddes, Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue between Literature and Christian Doctrine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999), 173.
[vii] Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness (1950), cited in Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 231. Macaulay’s character is contemplating the bomb craters and ruined buildings in 1946 London. The remnants of past destruction bear thematic resemblance to Pompeii and evoke similar responses.
A 500 mile pilgrimage led me to the Cathedral of Santiago (May 11, 2014).
Today is the Feast of St. James, whose tomb in Galicia has drawn countless pilgrims to trek across Spain for 13 centuries. I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in 2014, and this blog began with my dispatches along the way. It was, as every pilgrim will tell you, an indelible experience, and you can read about my own journey in the links below.
It took me 33 days, averaging 15 miles a day, but now you can do it in about 2 minutes.
For tomorrow’s segment of the virtual liturgy streaming on Sundays from our parish during lockdown, I combined images (in sequential order) from my Camino with a pre-COVID recording of the parish choir singing “Seek Ye First.” It seemed a fitting way to honor the saint on his feast day.
The pilgrimage begins with a rainy day in the French Pyrenees, and ends inside the Santiago cathedral with the spectacular censing at the daily “Pilgrims’ Mass.”