Life in the slow lane

Daily Reading for November 15

My move from New York City to western South Dakota changed my sense of time and space so radically I might as well have gone to sea. In journeying on the inland ocean of the Plains, the great void at the heart of North America, I’ve discovered that time and distance, those inconveniences that modern life with its increasingly sophisticated computer technologies seeks to erase, have a reality and a terrifying beauty all their own.

Like all who choose life in the slow lane—sailors, monks, farmers—I partake of a contemplative reality. Living close to such an expanse of land I find I have little incentive to move fast, little need of instant information. I have learned to trust the processes that take time, to value change that is not sudden or ill-considered but grows out of the ground of experience. Such change is properly defined as conversion, a word that at its root connotes not a change of essence but of perspective, as turning around; turning back to or returning; turning one’s attention to.

Both monasteries and the rural communities on the Plains are places where nothing much happens. Paradoxically, they are also places where being open to conversion is most necessary if community is to survive. The inner impulse toward conversion, a change of heart, may be muted in a city, where outward change is fast, noisy, ever-present. But in the small town, in the quiet arena, a refusal to grow (which is one way Gregory of Nyssa defined sin) makes any constructive change impossible. Both monasteries and small towns lose their ability to be truly hospitable to the stranger when people use them as a place to hide out, a place to escape from the demands of life.

Because of the monotony of the monastic life, the bad thought of boredom (or acedia, the noonday demon) has traditionally been thought to apply particularly to monks, but I think most people have endured a day or two along the lines of this fourth-century description by the monk Evagrius:

I makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and the day is fifty hours long. Then it constrains the monk to look constantly out the window, to walk outside the cell to gaze carefully at the sun and determine how far it stands from the dinner hour, to look now this way and that to see if perhaps one of the brethren appears from his cell.

Anyone living in isolated or deprived circumstances, whether in a monastery or a quiet little town on the Great Plains, is susceptible to the noonday demon. It may appear as an innocuous question; “Isn’t the mail here yet?” But as monks have always known, such restlessness can lead to profound despair that makes a person despise his or her neighbors, work, and even life itself.

From Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

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