Photo: Felix Carroll
Spiritual Speed Bumps
I took a right off Main Street in Stockbridge, Mass., and onto Elm Street, not a mile from Eden Hill, home of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy. Signs, signs, everywhere signs — two of them, actually, one piggybacked on the other. The white rectangle on top read: "Speed Limit 15 mph." The yellow diamond underneath spelled it out for emphasis in sober, black letters. "CAUTION SPEED BUMPS AHEAD."
Elm Street is a narrow roadway, the kind of prosaic side street you might expect to find in the fictional Mayberry, N.C., of Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife. The comfortably cozy thoroughfare is pedestrian friendly, lined on either side with the post office, a restaurant, bookstore, coffee bar, St. Joseph's Church, and several quaint shops.
Before the two speed bumps were installed, however, Elm Street had turned into the Daytona 500 as drivers used it as a bypass of Main. Maybe it's the NASCAR effect, where certain drivers get behind the wheels of their Toyotas and Fords and suddenly think they're Dale Earnhardt Jr. Pedestrians were at risk.
I've taken this sloping turn from Main onto Elm many times. This time, though, I became distracted and missed the warning signs, driving on Elm at the old limit of 30 mph (okay, I'll come clean; I was doing 33), oblivious to the approaching menace.
The first speed bump brought me to a rude awakening. Car met obstacle with a sickening thud. The teeth-chattering vibration sent a metallic tsunami rushing from the front Michelins and back through the length of the car. I like my martinis shaken, not stirred, but not my car, particularly when I'm in it.
With my attention now on red alert, I slowed down and hit the second bump in the night at a placid and repentant 10 mph.
What has this to do with the Blessed Mother, you might ask? Plenty. Think Lent.
Pray, pray, and pray some more ... But how?
Lent is an invitation to take up Our Lady's motherly call for more prayer. Lent asks us to go deeper into prayer and to allow more time for meditation and reflection. Mary has been consistent, asking us to pray, pray, pray ... and pray some more. The world is in bad shape, and the antidote is prayer, which has the power to transform swords into ploughshares, what we otherwise call conversion.
But how? How is this done in an age when materialism has turned possession into obsession and the purchases necessary for a modest lifestyle into the greed of unchecked consumerism? How is this done when a fixation with fatuous pop culture and hollow celebrity keeps so many people languishing on the surface of life and away from the inner depths of spirit and soul, where Jesus told us the Kingdom of Heaven resides (Lk 17:21)?
How is this done when high technology — our glitzy machines, video games, iPods, cell phones, and all the other electronic distractions — requires more work, more play, more productivity, more extremity, more speed, and, curiously, more wasting of time?
Don't misunderstand. Technology, when used properly, has an irreplaceable role in making life better, but as with every advance, there's a flip side. The over-saturation of high-tech requires that we do more in less time. Less is slavishly more. It can feel like you're trapped in a room with the walls slowly closing in, something straight out of Edgar Allan Poe.
Because of new capabilities made possible by the incessant improvement of our machines, many people today suffer from "time anorexia." No time for Lent with them. They are chronologically undernourished, starving for more hours but living and working in a way that dishes out less. Then something happens that not too long ago would have been unthinkable: Time has to be rationed, like petrol in a gasoline shortage.
At work, we "multitask." At play, we overindulge like gluttons. When we go home, our blackberries, cell phones, and e-mail hunt us down like animals, keeping us away from loved ones and slamming the window of opportunity to enjoy the personal and private moments that help keep us sane and in Lent help keep us in prayer.
I'm amused (laughing to keep from crying) at the current TV commercial for a large Internet/phone/multimedia provider. This company is one of the biggest, and you'd instantly recognize the name. The spot shows impossibly happy people (all young and beautiful, of course) in rapturous, electronic activity. The company tag line at the end of the commercial says it all: "Always On."
Deciphered, the message is this: Keep up with feverish change or you will be eaten alive, for the postmodern economy runs on the principle of individual competition — do unto others before they do unto you.
"Always" is a pretty long time.
The slick, sugarcoated euphemism for this incessant intrusion is "productivity," a word that used to be accurate and descriptive but has since turned cynical. Taken to its logical end, if we're not careful, we soon reach an anti-human pace, where technology outruns our capacity to keep up. We then risk spiritual harm, for the breathtaking pace cannot safely deal with the speed bumps of life.
The capacity for machines to keep getting faster is virtually unlimited. And they will. Human beings, though, can only go so far before they break down. First comes the "Always On," then comes the collapse. We hit our difficulties head-on and at full speed.
Man and 'the machine'
I'm reminded of something C.S. Lewis wrote. Lewis, the great Christian writer and polemicist, made a startling observation. He pointed out that the modern temperament was largely the creation of technology. He also observed that the triumph of what he called "the machine" had changed the very way we think of ourselves:
The theme [of the great changes ushered in by the progress of technology] has been celebrated until we are sick of it ... What concerns us more is their psychological
effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word "stagnation," with all its material overtones, for what other ages would have called "permanence"? ... Why does
"latest" in advertisements mean "best"? I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines [continually] being superceded by new and better ones.
Lewis wrote this bit of prophecy in his book Selected Literary Essays (posthumously released in 1969, six years after his death), well before the electronic revolution. Lewis, a man plugged into God, foresaw the time in which we now live, a throwaway age of planned obsolescence. For the sake of a selfish indulgence that masks as convenience, we unhappily find ourselves shipwrecked in a disposable culture.
The vinyl record album is replaced by 8-track tape is replaced by the cassette is replaced by the CD is replaced by ... to keep up, you have to buy your favorite Frank Sinatra album five times in five different formats. The computer you bought last year will be a dinosaur the year after next.
We are at a unique place in human history. Never before has simply staying in place been so complicated or expensive. It's absurd: preserving the status quo demands constant upgrade! How can you "do" Lent in that milieu?
We even have disposable people. The Information Revolution has largely left behind the poor, uneducated, mentally ill, and handicapped. Our seniors wind up being warehoused in nursing homes for the "crime" of not being able to maintain the pace. Their families don't have the time to care for them at home. No matter. Speed does not need the downcast and forgotten, let alone the humble and poor in spirit, so this is not a tragedy. It's a mere inconvenience. Are they lonely? No problem. Stick them in front of a blaring television set and walk away.
Lost in the Land of Nowhere
Though deepening spirituality requires putting sensible limits on what Lewis calls the modern age's "characteristic illusions," who's ready to pay that price? Speed and productivity lead to financial abundance. Who wants to give up the expensive vacation at a five-star luxury resort so that they might take up the Way of the Cross? Then again, hasn't that always been the challenge of living an authentic Christian life?
The Cross, apparently, gives off too many painful slivers.
If we're not careful, this "myth of progress" draws us out of our spiritual lives.
And it's not just the laity that's tempted by modernity. The clergy also draws its share of attention. Pope Benedict XVI, in an address given last year on May 16 to the Superiors General of the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said this:
In these last years, consecrated life has been re-examined with a more evangelical, ecclesial and apostolic spirit; but we cannot ignore that some concrete choices have not offered to the world the authentic and vivifying face of Christ.
As a result, the secularized culture has penetrated the mind and heart of not a few consecrated persons, who understand it as a way to enter modernity and a modality of approach to the contemporary world.
As a result ... consecrated life today knows the temptation of mediocrity, of middle-class ways and of a consumeristic mentality.
The "myth of progress" leads to Nowhere. In the Land of Nowhere, a self-conscious emptiness straightjackets our free will so that we keep making the wrong choices. Consequently, our spiritual prospects remain long shots at best.
Prayer operates differently. Prayer leads to Somewhere. Prayer is deliberate. It has a long shelf life. There's no planned obsolescence. For instance, some our most effective prayers go back thousands of years. The Beatitudes don't need a makeover. Neither does the Golden Rule, probably the greatest ethical statement ever uttered, need a memory upgrade nor the "Our Father" a rewrite.
Which do you prefer: The Speed Culture of "the world," where the gate is wide and where many enter, or the Slow Culture of God, where the gate is narrow and few pass through? Jesus tells us: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it" (Mt 7:13-14).
Unfortunately, unchecked technological progress has become an unquestioned assumption. These assumptions, Lewis writes, become "so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them."
Such a spiritually naÃ¯ve age, traveling at breakneck speed, is prone to staggering inconsistencies and breakdowns of common sense. By the fruits you will know it.
â€¢ Such an age can tout the tremendous potential of computers to enrich our lives, only to get online and devour pornography, currently the Internet's #1 use.
â€¢ Such an age will vigorously fight to protect Wicca as a valid religion, yet it will throw a conniption when a town has the audacity to put up a crÃ¨che in a downtown square at Christmastime.
â€¢ Such an age has no problem distributing condoms in public schools as if they were M&Ms, but God forbid someone should want to utter a prayer on school grounds.
The two-word answer: 's-l-o-w d-o-w-n'
How is prayer possible in this fast-faster-fastest world, a blurry place that laughs at the use of the word "fast" as employed by Christians in Lent? The answer can be stated in two four-letter words: "s-l-o-w d-o-w-n."
That is the invitation of Lent — a time where we are called to examine and reflect on our lives and where we're headed. You can only do that by moving at a deliberate enough pace. Paradoxically, the "race" to heaven is won by running slowly. If we don't — out of a sense of spiritual self-care — do this, God often will step in and do us a favor. He will place in our way a spiritual speed bump or two.
At first, we won't recognize the speed bumps as positive. We will likely rebel. But if we open up to God's mercy, which is love itself, we will come to see through belief that all things work for the good. Don't take my word for it. To verify, simply look back on your life and count the times where a seeming setback actually turned out to be the very thing you needed to move forward.
Those occasions are the ones where God uses "coincidence" as a way of remaining anonymous. Only later, when we see the good that resulted, do we haul out the dusting kit and discover God's fingerprints on everything.
God deals with the Big Picture. How unlike us. We have in our hands at any given time only a few pieces of that picture. Unless we trust as a prerequisite to belief (else that belief fail to take root and wither away), we'll constantly be dealing with a meaningless, uncompleted puzzle. On the other hand, when we trust and take on the wider vantage point of God, we realize that we have more pieces of the puzzle than we think.
Trust is God's gift of Cinemascope to his creation. It's a wide-screen process that reveals more of the intended direction for our lives. The Big Picture starts to form.
Hard-wired to pray
When the Blessed Mother calls for prayer, she asks us to step out of the dizzying frenzy of our lives and move at a pace that allows peace, reflection, quiet, and eventually spiritual silence. All genuine religions know this and preach this truth in some form or fashion. There is no better time to find this quiet than in Lent.
Slowing down permits a calming tranquility, an absolute realm about which little can be said except that it quickly fills with prayer (remember, prayer can take many forms; it's not just memorized words we've been reciting since we were kids. I've experienced some of my greatest moments of prayer saying nothing while hiking in the woods or watching the birds feed in the backyard and acknowledging an unspoken thanks). You might say that as creatures of a loving God, we are hard-wired to pray.
When we ignore or suppress this part of our make-up, we miss out on so much. Speed kills, all right; it kills a fruitful prayer life. In the fast lane, it's always rush hour. If you find yourself tooling there, you'll also find dissatisfaction and unhappiness. You won't know why you are never satisfied.
"This is the happy life which all desire," wrote St. Augustine in Confessions, "to joy in the truth all men desire. Why then joy they not in it? Why are they not happy? Because they are more strongly taken up with other things which have more power to make them miserable, than that which they so faintly remember to make them happy."
When you become "miserable," you will be plagued by a mighty temptation to distract yourself from feeling the inner emptiness. Few have the strength to resist and try in desperation to fill the void. Drink, drugs, expensive toys, money, indiscriminate sex, porn, the big job, the prestige car, the trophy wife, or the showplace house won't, however, ease this inner restlessness. At best, you'll only anesthetize the hurt. But all "medicine" eventually wears off. Then what do you do?
You can panic and keep drugging yourself, or you can honestly look at the obstacles in your life and have enough faith to welcome them when they arrive. You can either suffer miserably or suffer in a way that "allow[s] the mission of suffering to be accomplished in us," as French Archbishop Francois Fenelon expressed it long ago.
Spiritual speed bumps come in an infinite variety: illness, losing a job, the death of a loved one, a humiliating experience. Chances are that you're experiencing one or two right now. Have faith, especially in Lent.
All of us get knocked off the horse. That's a given. It's also inconsequential. The important thing is not to give up or blame the horse. The important thing is to hitch your belt, climb back in the saddle and begin riding again. Know that Jesus and Mary ride with you.
When we use our trials and difficulties as opportunities to slow down, we can begin doing what the Blessed Mother asks of us in her repeated calls for prayer, repentance and conversion. We can also experience the kind of Lent that rejuvenates our souls.
Just as in actual speed bumps on the roadway, spiritual speed bumps jolt us if we miss the warning signs and are moving too fast. And isn't that the point, to prod us into alertness? Only then can we act with spiritual intelligence, which is nothing more than the capacity to see things as they are — not as we want them to be or pretend them to be.
So when a spiritual speed bump wakes you up, slow down, rejoice, and look into the truth. The life you save may be your own.
Dan Valenti is senior editor and writer for Marian Helper magazine as well as other publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.