Excerpt: 'Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife'

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Pexels / Photo by Johannes Plenio

In this essay from his new book, seminary professor L. Roger Owens reflects on the feeling of spiritual restlessness in midlife during an outing with his family.

WALK 29: Running the Ruts

[My son] Silas suggests an evening at Squaw Valley Park. With tennis courts, two playgrounds, sand-pit volleyball, basketball courts, and a walking path, Squaw Valley delivers variety for a family of five with divergent interests. I, on the other hand, want us to walk together at Beechwood Farms, but I know making this happen will require fine-tuned negotiating skills.

Threshold of Discovery book coverWe gather in the family room for the summit.

My opening gambit: “Let’s walk for twenty-five minutes, and then you kids can play at the playground for another twenty-five minutes.”

“But you can’t throw a Frisbee there,” Silas says, holding up the orange disc as Exhibit A.

True. I know Frisbee-throwing has to be part of the deal, though my shoulder aches just thinking about it.

“I’ll throw it with you in the front yard for a few minutes when we get back.”

With each offer, my walk time gets shorter, but victory, nearer. [My wife] Ginger watches with arms folded across her chest and a silent smile on her face, showing her enjoyment of this bit of familial bartering. I can tell I’m not going to get any backup; I’m on my own.

[My daughter] Mary Clare is easier to win over. I just tell her I saw almost twenty chipmunks yesterday; she can’t resist the allure of animal cuteness.

A few minutes later, the deal is done. We are traipsing up the hill in the front yard toward the van, happily unified in our decision to spend the evening at the nature reserve, and I’m congratulating myself on my diplomatic prowess. The next president would be wise to appoint me Secretary of State -- peace in the Middle East will finally be within reach.

But in the van our unity quickly unravels. Mary Clare wants to play music from the old red phone she uses as an iPod, and chooses something Vacation-Bible-Schoolish. The boys revolt from the backseat, shouting in unison, “Turn it down!”

“No!” Mary Clare screams, determined to have things her way. She clutches the phone to her chest.

[My son] Simeon begs to listen to a popular acapella group, Pentatonix, which he has obsessed over for months, but Silas objects.

“I don’t want to listen to Pentatonix. You always talk about how amazing they are.” His tone drips with disdain. “And you play them all the time and I’m sick of them,” he says, ending with a crescendo. Then he adds a coda. “And I feel the same way about Hamilton” -- a nearly sacrilegious admission in our family. An argument in the back seat ensues.

“Stop hitting me in the head!” Simeon says.

“Silas, leave Simeon alone -- don’t touch your brother,” I shout, glaring at them in the rearview mirror.

“I didn’t hit him, I just did this,” Silas says, bopping his brother in the cheek.

Ginger’s smile has disappeared, and I begin mentally composing my letter of resignation from the president’s cabinet. Peace in the Middle East will have to wait.

Yesterday I wanted to escape for an hour and find a little Sabbath rest in a world gone mad. Right now I want to rent an apartment on the other side of town.

***

When you find yourself mumbling under your breath about why you brought your kids with you, about what made you think this time would be different, about why you even had kids in the first place; when nine in the evening rolls around and you confront the nightly routine you’ve been following since what feels like the Mesozoic era -- make sandwiches for kids’ lunches, prepare the coffee to brew in the morning, brush your teeth, floss, take your medicine -- and you want to hoist the coffee pot into the trash can; when you rub your palm over the fabric of your life, and what used to feel soft, inviting, and invigorating now scratches like burlap -- that’s a sure sign: you are normal, and susceptible, as everyone is, to the demon known as acedia.

The ancient Christian monks of the desert called acedia the “noonday demon.” When a monk wakes in the morning there is energy, enthusiasm to face the day, but by midday the routines become tedious, hope dwindles, and he may wonder how he can possibly endure as the afternoon stretches out before him like a lifeless desert. The word acedia is often translated as listlessness or spiritual boredom, but really what names its power is the aversion to now at its heart. As the early Christian monk John Cassian said of acedia:

This is a harsh, terrible demon, always attacking the monk, falling upon him at the sixth hour (mid-day), making him slack and full of fear, inspiring him with hatred for his monastery, his fellow monks, for work of any kind. … He suggests to the monk that he should go elsewhere and that, if he does not, all his effort and time will be wasted.

Under the influence of acedia, you begin to hate your life, your routines; loathing builds and you either want to give up or flee. Before you know it, you’ve run away from whatever you were doing -- or were trying to find the energy to do -- and have raced into the kitchen to rifle through the freezer [in] search of fudge-ripple ice cream.

The ancients called it the noonday demon because it struck at midday. But isn’t midlife the noontime of our lives? So we shouldn’t be surprised when acedia sneaks up on us here.

I know I’m suffering acedia when all my talk and good intentions and even belief about seeing God in the daily, finding the divine in the mundane, noticing God in the moment -- when it all dissolves into the monochrome gray of routine. Even these walks -- here I am on my twenty-ninth -- are becoming routine, rote, something I have to do. They are lacking surprise. Oh look, another bird. Yay. I know exactly what Kathleen Norris means when she says, “The grip of acedia on the human spirit is such that even the great beauty of this land and seascape can be rendered impotent and invisible.” When this beauty is masked, how can I possibly see the mystery at the heart of it all, or hear the Spirit speak through a squirrel or in the squabbling of siblings, as I believe the Spirit does? How can I feel God’s presence when it all feels like here we go again?

And then I find myself trapped in a van or on a monotonous walk, and there’s no ice cream anywhere close.

The grand vision to which I aspire -- and which I have tasted, off-and-on -- is expressed by Thomas Merton. I want nothing to be truer than what he once wrote: “It is God’s love that warms me in the sun and God’s love that sends the cold rain. It is God’s love that feeds me in the bread I eat and God that feeds me also by hunger and fasting. … It is God’s love that speaks to me in the birds and the streams.”

And through the giggle of a six-year-old?

The squeaking saxophone of a fifth-grader?

The baked-goods of a sixth-grade son?

The good-night kiss of a wife?

The infuriating energy of a puppy?

An aching arthritic shoulder after an hour of throwing a Frisbee?

If yes, then I want to see this love and feel it and let it be seen through me. But acedia -- boredom, frustration, aversion -- can blind me to it and send me to Dairy Queen in a matter of seconds.

Cassian had not been in the desert for very long when acedia afflicted him. So, he went to Abba Moses, a wise, well-known monk, and told him that he wasn’t able to free himself from acedia until he stopped what he was doing, left his cell, and went to visit Abba Paul. Abba Moses responded, “So far from freeing yourself from it, you have surrendered to it completely and become its slave. You must realize it will attack you all the more severely because you have deserted your post.” Cassian fled the present, fled now.

He went to visit Abba Paul, no doubt, because fudge-ripple ice cream doesn’t keep in the desert. I wonder if he considered buying Doritos.

***

Once the walk begins the bickering abates; freedom from the confines of the van has allowed the negative energy to dissipate. Mary Clare lunges into the brush and pulls out a stick about her height, its crooked, thick bark peeling off. She takes a few steps, using it as a staff, before she announces, “I’m up to the challenge,” and then flings it back into the brush.

We follow the same relatively short route I walked yesterday. The kids and I sit on the bench from which I watched the two clowning chipmunks, but today none are willing to perform for an audience of five. Impatient, the kids run off, making enough noise to scare away any small animals that the quiet ones among us -- Ginger and I -- might otherwise have seen. This is the way it seems always to be when the five of us are here. The kids run ahead, fighting about who’s going to be in the lead, as they have begun to do now, and Ginger and I linger behind.

But something alters our usual. Mary Clare starts to wheeze, her fall allergies and asthma conspiring to slow us down. Ginger listens to her breathing, an ear to her mouth and then her chest, and nods to indicate she detects a raspy wheeze on each exhale. We tell the boys to stop running so Mary Clare won’t feel compelled to try to keep up, and -- mirabile dictu -- they comply. Within a minute the whole scene is transformed. Ginger and Mary Clare now linger behind, holding hands, and the boys are holding my hands -- Simeon on my left, his soft, padded fingers interlacing mine, and Silas on the other side, holding on with his smaller, bony hand. The five of us walk slowly and quietly toward the playground.

To our right, a chipmunk bursts from the brush like a superhero leaping into the air, and lands two feet up the side of a tree. We observe it, and it observes us, before it jumps back undercover, and we hear it burrow away.

And I forget about an apartment on the other side of town. I want this to last forever.

***

I recently reviewed Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. She writes about the ruts we can fall into in midlife -- relationship ruts, family ruts, work ruts, hobby ruts -- and recommends changing things up. Enamored with brain imaging technology, she shares the scientific consensus: “The brain rewards novel activity and craves surprises” -- which seems to me like a declaration that the demon of acedia is no demon at all, and we should heed the restlessness.

Hagerty writes, for example, about how marriages lose their romantic spark when they get into ruts -- date night, again; movie night, again; watching Downton Abbey, again. She asks, “How can middle-aged couples keep their marriages fresh?” Her answer: novelty. “The brain rewards novel activity and craves surprises.” To test her theory, Hagerty and her husband rented an RV for several weeks and motored across the country.

Her story has haunted me. Does it require a drastic -- and expensive -- adventure to inject renewed interest in a marriage, a job, a hobby, or a friendship? Does one need to escape the rut to appreciate it anew?

Then I remember those ancient monks. Their antidote to acedia costs less and requires no vacation leave. They put a premium on patience and perseverance, on just sticking it out, but they also prescribed manual labor to help make it through the desert of the afternoon. When the noonday demon strikes, and you want to flee your cell -- go back to the city and take up your old trade or join another monastery -- when the aversion to the present afflicts, whatever the present happens to be -- whether praying the psalms or putting up with bickering kids -- do something with your hands, they suggest, engage your body, right where you are, or pretty close by.

There’s a saying from the desert about Anthony, the “Father of Monasticism,” that illustrates this advice. In his struggle with acedia, he cried out to God for help. A little later, when he got up to wander about, Anthony saw a vision: a man sitting down to work -- plaiting a rope -- and then standing to pray, then sitting to work, then standing to pray. He knew he saw an angel sent by God to help him. “Do this and you will be saved,” the angel said, words that filled Anthony with courage and peace. Without “deserting his post,” as Cassian did, Anthony discovered he could stay within the rut, within the routine, but vary it slightly, engaging his body, using his hands, and thus persevere in prayer and work throughout the day.

That’s what’s happened on this walk, I realize. We didn’t have to find another park, go bowling, or take a vacation to Yellowstone to gaze at the geysers, tired of each other and the same ole, same ole. A little variation, injected into the routine -- Mary Clare’s wheezing -- slowed us down and caused us to recalibrate our present without escaping it. The change invited patient walking and touch -- in this case holding hands -- but it could have been running a hand across the bark of a tree, or walking barefoot in the grass. And we are once again engaged, delighted by the present moment rather than scheming to escape it.

I wonder if this principle might hold for other areas of midlife.

So you and your spouse watch a movie every Saturday night. Do you really need a cruise to reawaken the romance, rekindle the relationship? What if you start holding hands again during the movie, like you used to do, or take turns giving back or foot rubs? You could plait rope, I guess, but I’d try backrubs first.

Friday night has been family pizza night -- with delivery from the favorite pizza joint -- for how many years? Try making pizza together. Take turns stretching and rolling the dough, chopping the vegetables, placing the pepperoni on the pie instead of racing to a restaurant and dropping $100 on a meal, only to leave dissatisfied. Much of the time, the promise of reinvigorating a routine rests no further than our fingertips.

Here’s the question I want to start asking when restlessness at the noon of my life tempts me: What little shifts, what “work,” can I do here and now, within the routine structures of this life that grace has given me, to help me reinvigorate the routine, to see and love the present anew? After all, there’s no money in the bank to rent an RV.

Merton says God is feeding me in this moment, anyway, so why would I send back the plate?

***

While the kids are playing, Ginger and I see two chipmunks scurry from the meadow, across the path, and up a hill near us. Like two kids, we skip over to investigate -- I guess we can’t resist the allure of animal cuteness, either. Already, here’s something new. Usually I’m alone or with the kids out here, but here we are, the two of us, shoulder to shoulder, bending over like preschoolers on a fieldtrip, looking for chipmunks. What we see is a faint rut in the grass, the path the chipmunks follow each day to find food and water, their light-as-a-feather bodies bending the grass, leaving this groove.

Rut -- it’s such a pejorative word. “I’m in a rut,” we say, the implication being that we need to get out of it. But the monks and this walk are showing me that there can be novelty within the ruts, and beauty, and space for growth in both patience and perseverance. There can be room to reimagine how we live in the rut. Not all ruts must be gotten out of, for God is in our ruts as well.

From the book “Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife” (Church Publishing, 2019), by L. Roger Owens. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.