Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Little is a Lot (less is more?)

We've made a couple of small changes here in the past month. Since I had a lot to do with suggesting them, it's not surprising that I'm pleased with the outcome. But it has also given me a lot to think about.

The first change has to do with praying for others. After the Eucharist most mornings we have a community meeting, which we call Chapter (the historical reason for that is that a chapter of St. Benedict's Rule is read at the beginning of the meeting). As part of the meeting we go around to each member of the community so that he (or she - remember our Residents!) can let the community know about what is happening for them each day, make requests, ask for assistance with a job, etc. It's the organizational time for the coming day.

Now often enough one or another person will ask us to remember someone in prayer. The request is usually something that is quite important to the person making it, something that doesn't seem adequately attended to by just mentioning it at the Prayers of the People at Mass. Sometimes the stories of the people we're asked to pray for are heartbreaking. Sometimes the issue is personal enough that the person presenting it doesn't feel comfortable mentioning it in a public situation with all our guests around.

I got to wondering if we didn't need some formal way to respond to those requests. None of us bring a prayer request to Chapter if it isn't important to us, so don't we need to respond when someone asks us to pray? I had no way of knowing how each of us responded to those requests after the meeting was over, but I know that I sometimes forget all about them, at least until Chapter the next day. So I suggested that we have a time at the end of the meeting when I ask if there are any matters for prayer. People could mention anything on their heart, and then we'd have a space of silence, and close with a very short spoken prayer.

So we started. One of the surprises was how many people wanted to participate. When we just asked for prayers as part of our going around the circle, this is something that happened maybe once or twice a week, and sometimes not that often, so my expectation is that there would often be mornings when there was no particular agenda to be mentioned. In fact, there hasn't been a single day since we began when someone hasn't brought something. The second surprise for me has been the quality of the prayer time. It very quickly became not just a formal time when we weren't talking, but a deep pool of silence that our requests are dropped into. It's very intense, and it's a silence that almost speaks because it is so real. It gives us real time to respond to the needs of the heart that have been brought to us, and several members of the community have spoken about how important a time it has become for them. I also tend to remember those people or situations, and to pray for them, as the day goes on.

Our second change concerns leaving the Church after the Eucharist is over. We used to begin Chapter directly after Mass, and the community would leave just as soon as the dismissal was given. But this felt abrupt to me, and I increasingly thought that more time was needed to make the break with the encounter with Christ that had just happened in our midst before we go off to a completely different kind of experience. And I can also mention that sometimes the exit from Church had the aspect of a battle charge, and no guest would dare to stand in the aisle for fear of being run over. So I thought, how about starting Chapter 10 minutes after Mass ends? Just a small break to make things seem less rushed and more leisurely.

Again the result has surprised and pleased me. I almost always stay in the Church, so I don't know what it feels like in the other parts of the house, but for me the sense of depth has been noticeable. I get to linger and savor the experience of Christ within me. I get to wind up one experience before beginning another. And as as result, I am more 'there' at our Chapter, and that meeting has a fuller, more present sense that it has had for me. So we are honoring not only the Eucharist that has finished, but the Chapter that is about to begin. I also notice that as time passes the number of community members who remain in Church for those 10 minutes has increased noticeably.

Two tiny changes - one lasts 10 minutes, the other a lot less than that, and they have changed the whole feeling of how I enter the day. I now go forward a lot more collected (and recollected), a lot more peacefully, and often with a significant amount of joy. Nor am I the only one who feels like that, though we haven't had an evaluation of the changes, so I don't know everyone's feelings. But what I have been thinking about is how important a very small thing often is, particularly in the living of the spiritual life. A small change can have large results. And persevering in a small change can have even bigger results.

As I have said before in these columns, Fr. James Huntington, our founder, had a way of writing memorable sentences. One of his most memorable occurs in the Rule he wrote for our community, in the Chapter "Of Food and Fasting" (good Lenten fare). He says: "It is to be remembered that a persistent and long-continued self-denial is often harder and of more spiritual benefit than an excessive austerity alternating with an abandonment to appetite."

I know exactly where excessive austerity alternating with an abandonment to appetite gets you. Nowhere. It doesn't change anything. I know this from a lot of experience over a good many years. That's why I'm a fan of small changes. Making a small change and sticking with it is almost always quite enough for me. The effort required, while minuscule at first, sometimes quickly escalates, and even becomes excruciating. That's because making a small change can actually mean making a change, while the larger, more heroic gestures, followed by a complete collapse don't involve really changing anything.

This latest chapter in our life has brought this to my attention again. Living into our new rhythm will give me plenty to occupy my energies during Lent. I won't need much more, if I really attend to what is going on as a result of our small changes.

What's your version of all this?


Felicity Pickup said...

Re: "And ... no guest would dare to stand in the aisle for fear of being run over."

My own view of that was that the guests were just making way (in our own self-interest) for the "serving staff" get back to their other chores.

Felicity Pickup said...

I find the archive of The Prior's Column very useful as an FAQ, and this week's penultimate paragraph does address my latest FAQ ("am I right in limiting to a very small change")very well. Thanks.

On the other hand re the quote from Father Founder "persistent and long-continued self-denial" -- very unnerving to contemplate. Enough to give one the willies.

Tay Moss said...

It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's book
The Tipping Point which also suggests that small, well-considered change can lead to more success than larger, more ambitious attempts. The key is finding the right thing to change, which you seem to have done in these cases. I think keeping the discipline of silence may help in this regard as it helps one to see things as they are are...


Bluestone Farm said...

Those "small changes" are so often Earth-shattering shifts in small-change clothing. Persistent and long-continued practice is the magic wheel that spins everyday wool into find strands of gold — and each has its usefulness and its beauty.


Fred said...

(Patrick Jarvis posting at St. Paul's In The Desert Episcopal, therefore under the blog of Fr. Fred Myers):

Regarding change, I seem to have fallen just between both worlds, but favor small change as a means to access large change. I am currently attempting a huge change curve which has to do with physiology, and it is made up entirely of many, many small changes, done repeatedly over and over and over again to such a mind-numbing, dreary extent that it hardly seems possible that something beautiful could come of something so mundane. And yet, life has shown me that this is indeed the path by which God accomplishes so very much....despite all the flashy examples served up readily on reality/competitive television (and as a former broadcast executive, this is a world I certainly comprehend)and for all the overtalk in the political world of Change as a capital "C" currency, is it not the plodding, deliberate, small changes, the knit one, pearl twos, done correctly, repeatedly and with quiet determination in one's life that truly lead to lasting change?
They have been in my life....

One interesting dynamic, if you happen to be in the middle of the change paradigm itself, is that the change is not apparent at first, and often is imperceptible until after the change has actually occurred; it is then observable by others who are not as attached to the experience itself, but notice that there is a difference in spirit, health, demeanor or environment.

Somehow, especially when linked to prayer, it calls to mind the wonderful quote attributed to Mother Teresa, which goes something like this: "We cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."

Sometimes, many small things, when placed end to end, do coalesce to become something surprisingly big and beautiful. As part of the tapestry, we often only see our stitch in the fabric of the life around us.

Thank you, Br. thing that does not seem to change is your ability to provoke thought and stir the spiritual pot at a deeper level. And if you do get an extra moment to offer up a prayer for me, I'm feeling rather bold today.....I would like to ask for a recovery of bones and body strong enough to carry not just me, but also my vocation; that God would shorten my time of watching life from the sidelines and allow me to go physically where my brain and heart keep ardently returning; that the many, many lessons that I have learned in the shadows of struggle against a physical foe be put to use and that all this past suffering would bloom into something beautiful and useful and meaningful.

Patrick Jarvis