Yesterday as I sniffed and sneezed and shivered from the flu, the thought came to mind: “Surely, I can watch a movie since I can’t focus on anything else right now.” But alongside that thought was another, and thankfully, louder one: The whole point behind taking a break from 2-D screen stories was to practice not using them as an escape from unpleasantness. So I didn’t. And as I turned the heat up to broil and put on three layers and shuffled aimless from room to room, a story came to mind from the desert fathers.
Abba Antony was struggling with weary boredom in his life and work (it’s odd to think of those radical monks getting bored), and prayed for wisdom about how to deal with it. Later, when Antony got up to go out, he saw a man that looked like him, sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray (desert monks stood to pray and then did a full bow, with knees and head to the ground), then sitting down and working, then getting up again to pray. Antony realized it was an angel of the Lord sent to teach and reassure him. The angel said, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ Anthony felt both joy and renewed courage at the angel’s words.
Now, the desert fathers are best when not taken too literally. There was more to Antony’s life than work and prayer. This story focuses on identifying and taking simple mini-steps in moments of challenge.
I took a good look around my apartment and knew that, one step at a time and very slowly, I could pick it up (it had that 48-hour-sickroom-no-energy-to-put-things-away look) and choose to make something sustaining and healing to eat. My spirit was willing (sort of), but my body was weak.
Ah, yes. The body.
Somehow, even as a staunch believer in Jesus’ incarnation, divinity in human skin, my reflections on contemplative living have rarely mentioned the body’s role in spirit-full practices. And the body is important, because it is where we are and partners in all our choices. If the body is not convinced, well, it’s going to be tough going. The body can register a complaint quite loudly.
I firmly believe that contemplative living (meaning a prayerful attentiveness to 3-D life and God in the midst of said life) is possible in any circumstance. It looks different for me than my dear friend with two small children and twinfants. (I’m constantly in awe of her ability to deeply pay attention and prayerfully reflect in the midst of the physical and mental joys/demands of four children.) Or my former pastor, who shared that set-apart daily times for prayer and being in the Word were the only way he could keep going.
The particular situation, the embodied life, is the only place where the choice for contemplative living can be made–not a pretend “if-only-I-lived-in-a-monastery (or fill in the blank), then-I-could-pay-attention” life.
Sometimes the body needs a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge, sometimes it has a deeper wisdom that needs to be listened to. The Holy Spirit meets us faithfully where we are at (in our bodies) and helps us to discern when to nudge it in a different direction or when to follow its suggestion. I did pick up my apartment and cook dinner, doing a single-task shuffle while listening to big band holiday music.
I also took a long nap in the midst of it. Resting is a step just as much as work.
In honor of the body’s (and spirit’s) need for nutritious and yummy food, and my current non-dissertation reading, Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, I will leave you with the most amazing (and easy) soup recipe, slightly adapted, from her food blog, Orangette:
Red Lentil Soup with Lemon
4 Tbsp. olive oil, plus additional good oil for drizzling
2 large yellow onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. kosher salt, or more to taste
A few grinds of freshly ground black pepper (optional)
Pinch of cayenne or Aleppo pepper, or more to taste
2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups red lentils, picked through for stones and debris
2 large carrots, peeled and diced (optional)
Juice of 1 lemon, or more to taste
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
In a large pot, warm the oil over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering. Add the onions and garlic and cook until golden, about 6 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, cumin, salt, pepper, and cayenne, and cook for 4 minutes longer. Add the broth, 2 cups water, the lentils, and the carrots. Bring to a simmer, then partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Continue to cook until the lentils are soft, about 40 minutes. Taste, and add more salt if necessary. Stir in the lemon juice and cilantro. (I left out the pepper, carrots, and cilantro.)