Sunday, October 3, 2010

Interupting the Day

My first job was the summer after my 16th birthday. I had to get a waver from the State of Ohio to work before I was 18, because the Child Labor Laws forbid working that young, but all that was required was filing out a form at the Post Office. I worked that summer for Procter & Gamble in a small office in downtown Cincinnati, somewhere, as I recall, in the neighborhood of 6th and Main, in the same area where P & G's headquarters were.

I was a stock boy. That particular office dealt with sending out coupons and special orders, and I went back and forth carrying boxes which were considered too heavy for the women who made up most of the staff. In between times I was assigned to a special offer. I was the one who took care of the orders on the back of the labels of Crisco and Fluffo.

For those who don't know, Crisco and Fluffo were vegetable shortenings for baking that were very popular at the time.

Fluffo, picture by Heather Libby

The labels of both products had a notice that there were recipes and a special offer on the back of the label. I sent out a free pie server to everyone who had responded. I suppose one of the points of all this was to find out whether people actually took the labels off the cans to see what was underneath. Since one 16 year old could handle the orders, I think the answer was that the mass market wasn't responding very well.

At lunch time, the 4 or 5 guys who worked in the department ate our lunches in a small room off to one side. It had a table and some chairs, but was otherwise pretty bare. It also had a large window that looked out on the city, and I remember two things about the view of Cincinnati from that window.

The first was that right down the street a building had been demolished to make a parking lot, and tearing that building down had revealed the side of the building next to it, and there, in all its glory, was an ad four or five stories tall for a 1903 Oldsmobile. I knew exactly what it was, because one of my hobbies was antique cars, and I had actually built a model of that exact car. It was one of the first vehicles to be commercially manufactured - so early that it was essentially a carriage minus the bars to which horses could be hitched and with the addition of a motor installed underneath the seat. There was a roof to keep rain off, but no side enclosure. I was fascinated by that ad, which had faded a lot, but was still clear a half-century later.

A 1903 Oldsmobile. Picture from America's Classic Cars web site.

The other thing I remember noticing especially was a large church right across the street. I think it was called St Francis Xavier. Like all things Catholic, it was a great mystery, partly alluring and partly forbidding. But I hadn't been there very long before I noticed that a number of the women from our department were going in and out every day at lunch time.

The vestibule of St Francis Xavier, Cincinnati. Picture by Elyce Feliz

I was very curious. I had never encountered this kind of behavior before. My Baptist family was reasonably devout: we went to church regularly, if not every Sunday. I was taught to tithe at an early age, and my father sang in the choir for a while. Our Church, in common with most churches of Calvinist heritage, had no Christmas service in those days, but on Christmas Eve my father would take my brother and me on his lap and read the Christmas story to us from the Bible, which meant that not only did he think it was important, but he knew where to find it in the Bible, something that I realized even then was above the usual knowledge of Scripture.

But going into Church on a weekday was a new idea to me. I knew that those women weren't going to a service, because in those days there would not have been masses that late in the day, so they must have been going in just to pray. With part of me I didn't understand that at all, but another part of me was moved - deeply enough that I still remember that discovery 60 years later.

And now here I am, all those years later, going into church 5 times a day, and I've done that most days for the last 45 years. I've been thinking about that this week, and especially about the noon time prayer.

For us, as for most monastic communities, that prayer is short. It's a service called Diurnum (from the Latin word for "noon"); 10 minutes of chanting Psalms and 10 minutes of silence. The message of the noonday Psalms is mostly about doing God's will and following God's Law, and the whole occasion has a spare feeling of time out from the occupations of the day. Each of our Offices has its own feel, and people are attracted to one and another of them. I think that Compline would get the votes for the most-loved office from a majority of people. I doubt that Diurnum is anyone's favorite, or at least I'm sure that it would be chosen by very few.

But I've begun to wonder if it isn't the most important one, even if it isn't the most loved one. Why? Because it's the one that makes you stop. It interrupts what you're doing. It makes you suddenly leave what you're working on and go to Church. It's the most difficult Office to attend to, because the mind is often still whirling with preoccupation about the tasks of the day. People (myself included) often dash in at the last minute for that Office. It's a definite interruption. And that's important.

Cynthia Bourgeault in her book on Centering Prayer talks about those moments in meditation when we realize that our minds have gotten lost in thought, memory or fantasy, and we become aware that we've drifted away from prayer and have to bring ourselves back. That moment, she says, is a moment of great power. No matter how often we get lost, or how frustrating the whole process is, we need to realize that the moment of coming back is a time full of possibilities for walking the spiritual path. Stopping and coming back - repentance, really - is a significant thing for the human personality. In the Buddhist tradition of Insight Meditation it is said that the moment of realizing that you've drifted away into thought and have to come back is the moment of insight.

What those moments of realization do for meditation is the same thing that Diurnum does for the day. It makes you stop. It offers the opportunity to come back to the center. God is the core of our being. Being stopped and brought back to that central place is a moment of power, at least potentially.

It's fascinating to me that though I had no training in this sort of thing, I realized the importance of it the moment I saw those women going into church. I knew they were doing something important and that it was something that I wanted. It was a number of years before I found my way to doing it myself - I was in college when that came to me. But the discovery of that practice was a big enough deal that it has never left me.

Diurnum is frequently annoying. And trying to pay attention is often damn near impossible,frankly. But that moment, the moment when I have to stop and come back, even if my attention only cooperates for an instant, is a crucial next step on the spiritual path. It resets my priorities. It says: "This matters more than anything else." It makes me actually do with my body what I often say with my lips and write with my computer. Becoming conscious of that is central to the integration of my faith and my life.

So thank God for that unattractive little Office. I have a intuition that a lot of important work is done then. And thank God for those faithful Catholic ladies in the 1950's. Though they had no idea they were doing anything for me, they opened a path that I'm still treading.

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