Oblation has not ended! It has simply moved to its new format at churchlife.nd.edu.
Come and visit us at our new site.
Oblation has not ended! It has simply moved to its new format at churchlife.nd.edu.
Come and visit us at our new site.
When I first purchased my home, I learned very quickly about how to care for the rose bushes on the side of our house. In order to let the flowers blossom to their full potential, it was necessary to prune them with some degree of regularity (a lesson I learned the hard way after the first summer).
In an analogous manner, the Center for Liturgy has been responsible for two “growing” publications in the Institute for Church Life, both of which require a bit of pruning. We first started up a blog connecting the celebration of the liturgy to the spiritual life. Quickly, we discovered that Oblation reached an audience that we didn’t know was interested in liturgical prayer: young adults. We grew so large, that we began to publish not simply once or twice a week but daily. In the four years that the blog has been in existence, we have seen significant growth from 15% in year 1 to 40% over the last year. This blog has become a trusted voice in liturgical formation, especially among Millennials, throughout the United States. It has also become a space to feature the insights of the entire Institute for Church Life, in some sense, becoming a project that was much bigger than the Center for Liturgy.
At roughly the same time, we started up an academic publication for the Institute for Church Life, aptly entitled Church Life. This journal has been marked by its beauty, its serious study of the implications of evangelization in pastoral and social life, and for doing non-desk bound theology (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 133). Our first issue, with minimal advertising and a somewhat difficult platform for reading, had viewership of 25,000 in the first year alone. We wanted more people to be able to read the pastoral theology of John Cavadini, Cyril O’Regan, Ann Astell, and more. But, the digital platform we used was too clunky, too hard to share.
Beginning last year, with the help of a new communications director, we concluded that it was time to do some pruning of these publications. Beginning in February, we will be launching a new site (churchlife.nd.edu), which will include:
Through this four-fold approach, the Institute for Church Life will be at the forefront of the academic study of evangelization in the modern world (catechesis, liturgy, preaching, and social action), providing accessible pastoral resources for those in ministry, as well as engaging in the digital acropolis. We see ourselves as writing a new chapter in both the history of Notre Dame, as well as the American Church.
We hope you’ll come and join us.
Timothy P. O’Malley, PhD
Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Church Life
ND ’14, MTS ’16 (History of Christianity)
This weekend, Pope Francis delivered his homily inaugurating the October 4-25 Synod on the Family. Predictably, the Synod of Bishops has generated much controversy and polarization over the past year or so, especially when it comes to what the Synod may yield in terms of Church teaching and practice regarding homosexuals and divorced and remarried Catholics. If my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter updates are of any indication, both Left and Right seem to be convinced that this is the sole agenda for the gathering of prelates, and that one side is poised to ‘lose’ on these two topics. The bishops will either vote ‘conservative,’ and uphold policies of ‘discrimination’ toward those who feel marginalized by the church, or they will vote ‘liberal’ – much to the dismay of the right – and announce new policy for the reception of the homosexual and the divorced and remarried.
But what our Holy Father made clear in his homily on the eve of the Synod is that those who enter into this moment in Church history through the lens described above (regardless of if one falls on the Left or the Right) has already missed both the purpose and the nature of the assembly: its purpose is not to create policy but to explore “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world”; its nature is not that of a meeting of Congress but of a “moment of grace.”
The Holy Father’s homily serves as a reminder that this Synod should not – nay, cannot – be viewed through the political lens. Its hermeneutic, Francis reminds us, is rather one of love:
“If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn 4.12).
This love, the foundation and telos of the Church’s mission in the world, is multidimensional. Repeating the words of his predecessor, Francis urges:
The Church is called to carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions. The truth which protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds. “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 3).
At the same time, the Synod will be concerned with how this love can be more effectively presented to the world.
And the Church is called to carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; even more, to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.
This Synod on the family will be concerned with authentic love, and with how the Church can better fulfill its vocation of acting as a bridge in the world: a bridge on which the love of the Creator can pass between both Creator and created. For the Church is not in the world to burn bridges, but to build them. And this act of building bridges is a labor of love. As John Paul II said:
“Error and evil must always be condemned and opposed; but the man who falls or who errs must be understood and loved… we must love our time and help the man of our time” (John Paul II, Address to the Members of Italian Catholic Action, 30 December 1978).
How appropriate that on the eve of the assembly of bishops our Pontifex (literally: “bridge-builder“) captures the spirit of this synod through such a simple but apt image of the Church in the world.
The full text of Pope Francis’ homily can be found on the Vatican’s website.
Follow Tony on Twitter.
Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
At the beginning of the academic year, the Center for Liturgy often finds itself in the midst of re-articulating the vision that animates our work. We are a Center at the heart of the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission; one that renews the Church through liturgical scholarship and education. We publish material on this blog and in a nationally recognized journal, we hold conferences and host guest lecturers, and we teach courses to undergraduates and graduate students at our University. In the coming months, we’ll be talking about an expansion in our summer offerings related to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, working with Newman Centers, and more.
Yet, the articulation of a mission includes far more than the activity that we perform on a yearly basis. Over the last five years in which I have served as director of the Center for Liturgy, we have listened to those involved in liturgical and catechetical ministry in the Church. We have held conversations with undergraduates and graduate students about the state of liturgical education in the United States. We have met with other universities engaged in the mission of liturgical formation according to their own unique charism.
We have come to the conclusion that the liturgical renewal promised by the Second Vatican Council is, well, unfulfilled. Too often this unfulfilled vision becomes an occasion to blame others.
While such blame is often cathartic, offering an easy solution to the renewal of the liturgical life of the Church (get rid of those at fault), these blame games seem to ignore that the Second Vatican Council presented a vision of liturgical prayer as so important to the life of the Church that it should not be surprising that there is work that remains. Further, the very moment in which the Church recognized the liturgy as central to her identity was also the precise moment in which modern, secular approaches to being and knowing alike won out over theological accounts of what it means to be a human being in the world.
The problem with much liturgical renewal today is that it ignores the difficult task of liturgical formation. National liturgical gatherings continue to repeat the same tired phrases again and again, ignoring the fact that these phrases are often meaningless to the modern person. Full, conscious, and active participation is a desired goal. But, what about the fact that it seems more and more Catholics choose not to be present in the first place?
The Center for Liturgy, thus, believes that a renewal of liturgical formation is necessary under the rubric of the New Evangelization. That the goal of liturgical renewal is not ultimately oriented toward better liturgies alone (though this should also take place). Rather, it is to make possible an encounter with Jesus Christ through the liturgical rites; an encounter that ultimately transforms what it means to be human. The purpose of liturgical prayer is thus the formation of a way of life, a disposition of gratitude that is the source of meaning of human life. As Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium:
The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed. Finally an evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving (no. 24)
In other words, the mission of the Center for Liturgy is what one becomes through the practice of liturgical prayer; the kind of life that one lives through learning to praise and adore the living God.
The Center for Liturgy at Notre Dame is thus oriented toward creating educational opportunities that renew the Church in this way of life. There is something “lay” about our approach insofar as we see liturgical prayer less about who gets to do what during the liturgy; and more about the renewal of politics, culture, and family life.
For this reason, the Center for Liturgy focuses our undivided attention on the kind of imagination that the liturgy forms us in. The imagination is the human faculty that enables us to make meaning in the world. It allows us to see a simple activity as getting up in the middle of the night to care for a sick child as a Eucharistic offering. It is that faculty that forms us to see our work in the world as a similar offering. It is the faculty that transforms two people living together as married into an image of Christ’s self-giving love of the Church in the sacrament of marriage. Our educational programming is concerned about fostering this kind of imagination not simply through the liturgy but through the work of catechesis, of theological education, and a style of research that takes seriously the lay experience of liturgical prayer. Of the union between liturgy and politics, justice, spirituality, our relationship with the environment, ethics, vocation. Of discerning those cultural obstacles that make liturgical participation difficult in the modern world and then promoting the kind of “liturgical ecology” that holds up human life as gift.
This is the work that inspires us on a regular basis. It is the mission that will continue to infuse our programming. We are not a Center that plans on gathering people because they want to prepare for the new liturgical reform (or the reform of the reform of the reform). We see value in these conversations. But they are not ours.
Our mission, is taken directly from Pope Francis’ own address to theologians:
A theology – and not simply a pastoral theology – which is in dialogue with other sciences and human experiences is most important for our discernment on how best to bring the Gospel message to different cultural contexts and groups. The Church, in her commitment to evangelization, appreciates and encourages the charism of theologians and their scholarly efforts to advance dialogue with the world of cultures and sciences. I call on theologians to carry out this service as part of the Church’s saving mission. In doing so, however, they must always remember that the Church and theology exist to evangelize, and not be content with a desk-bound theology (no. 133).
Ours is not a desk-bound theology. It is a theology that seeks to renew the liturgical life of the Church so that the entire cosmos might experience the transformation of love made possible through the Christian vision of existence. We think this involves a renewal of preaching, of music, of aesthetics, of catechesis, and spirituality. This is the mission of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy moving toward into its fifth decade of existence.
We hope that you’ll join us in our work.
MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame
Yesterday, Our Sunday Visitor ran a piece by Center for Liturgy Director Timothy P. O’Malley, in which he addressed the posture the Church ought to take toward culture in the Third Millennium. Noting the growing sense among some Catholics that the “public sphere is becoming increasingly unfriendly toward a Catholic worldview,” Dr. O’Malley asks: “Should the Church retreat for a time in order to form an alternative way of life outside of the present culture?”
There is historical precedent for this option, to be sure. O’Malley cites the establishment of Catholic primary and secondary schools as an alternative to the religious education mandated by American public education in the mid-1900s. One might also think of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which was in itself the kind of ‘retreat into particularity’ that O’Malley discusses. Largely (though not entirely) in response to the Protestant Reformation, Trent can be in part interpreted as a withdrawal, that the Church could reassess the fruits it offers to the world, and how best to form Catholics in its distinct worldview.
As O’Malley points out, this kind of retreat is at times necessary for the sake of deeper engagement in the world. Yet at the same time, he reminds us that this retreat can never become sectarian. “The ecclesial vision of the Second Vatican Council is not a Church radically against the world,” O’Malley writes. “[…] Rather, the Church must retreat into particularity precisely because it is only in the particularity of our vision of human life taken up into Christ that we have anything to offer the world to begin with.”
Below are several paragraphs from O’Malley’s article. The article can be read in its entirety here:
Among some committed Catholics in the United States, there is a sense that the public sphere is becoming increasingly unfriendly toward a Catholic worldview. In the last two years, Catholic schools and institutions have been affected by a variety of legal challenges over same-sex marriage, funding for contraception and laws that make it increasingly difficult to care for the most vulnerable among the human family, whether the unborn child or the immigrant.
In this context, questions have arisen about the viability of the Church’s involvement in public life in the present age. Should the Church retreat for a time in order to form an alternative way of life outside of the present culture?
It is not the first time that the American Church has been faced with the option of creating alternative institutions that form Catholics in a distinctive way of life. Catholic primary and secondary education within this country came about because of the American bishops’ wariness over the kind of religious education required by compulsory, public education instituted in the mid-1900s. Likewise, Catholic colleges and universities served both immigrant Catholics and non-Catholics alike who could not find a place in the firmly established Protestant colleges and universities. In both cases, retreat from public life resulted in the creation of institutions that have been beneficial for public life as a whole.
Finish Reading at Our Sunday Visitor.
MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame
I write to introduce myself. If you are a faithful follower of this blog, you may recognize me as a regular contributor. While I will continue to write for Oblation during these summer months, I have also been handed the added responsibilities of editing and publishing – tasks which I take up with great joy and gratitude. I will essentially act as a kind of pons, a bridge between our authors and you. I will be assisting Tim and Carolyn with their editorial responsibilities by facilitating Oblation’s regular production of first-rate theological pieces amidst the many conferences and events taking place over the summer.
I look forward to serving you, our readers, as well as to the interactions and dialogue that we will engage in together over the coming months. Please do not hesitate to reach out, and please continue to support Oblation by reading and sharing our pieces on your own social media sites!
Yours in Christ,
Anthony J. Oleck
University of Notre Dame, ’14, MTS ’16
Assistant Rector, Fisher Hall
Fellow, Center for Liturgy
This past fall, I experienced one of the fearsome nightmares of most college students: my laptop began to die a slow and painful death. When it came to the point of not saving my work, or moving so slowly that I could not do my work, I started panicking. My life as a student and the tangible witness of what I have do learned, and really all that I’ve managed to do in the last few years is all on this machine. I love to write! And so without my computer, I feel like a carpenter without tools, or a surgeon with no hands.
Enter in the engineers. Most of my extended family has an engineering background, and so this means some funny things for family gatherings. We discuss computer chips and 3D printers at Thanksgiving dinner (3D printers made the conversation three years in a row; I kept track).
We take apart old computers and play with circuit boards for fun, and nearly everyone (even those of us who aren’t engineers) generally know what’s going on in the tech world due to the engineers and those who aren’t engineers but still managed to inherit engineering brains. While I’ve long been awed by the things that many of my family members seem to know instinctively, my computer crisis gave me a reason to appreciate their place in the world even more than normal. My laptop was healed, just in time for me to write 50some pages and do all the research I needed to do for finals season.
That was the windup, and here’s the pitch: I will never forget the text my cousin Chris sent in to the family group message, after I sent a celebratory message proclaiming the laptop fully cured.
His quote there had my brain buzzing instantly about the idea of vocations. Chris’ comment- whether he realized it or not- showed an insight that said his role in the world and the gifts that he has- his role of a “fixer,” bound-to-be-a-brilliant-engineer, is somehow intertwined with mine: the cousin who is a student, a writer, and an aspiring catechist.
Now, Chris would not be offended if I said that he was not the most theologically minded high schooler on the planet. Theologian he may not be, but he’s wise about a lot, and his statement made me start thinking about the universal call to holiness, and yet the particularity of the vocations that God gives each one of us. My cousins’ (and dad’s/grandpa’s/uncles’) tech geniuses have helped support my work as a student and writer before; this isn’t an isolated incident. Maybe, in turn, the way that I can support the engineers is to hope that a few of the things I write help the Christophers of the world to understand that this “religion stuff” isn’t just for a class in school or sometimes on a Sunday morning, but rather is about responding to God’s love by the way we live our whole lives. If Chris’ job was to help restore me to my full capacities and functions as a Theology major, maybe part of my work is to help instill in him an understanding of realities and calls outside the tech world and to show that it is just as necessary as the work of the engineers. [Disclaimer: Chris gave me permission to use and twist his words in this piece].
Chris’ statement acknowledged an understanding of the importance of different types of work, but it also made me think about the fact that we have different gifts but the same call and destination ultimately. There has been a lot of discussion about this- what we call the universal call to holiness- especially since Vatican II. By virtue of our Baptism, all Christians are called to respond to the triune God who has out of love created, redeemed, and saved us:
“The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (Lumen Gentium, 41).
Maybe my cousins don’t consider helping their technologically deficient cousin a work of charity, but I certainly do, and it is a classic example of a way in which they used the gifts that they have been given and worked to acquire. They use and will continue to use their gifts to do great things. And they can do it and be holy, too. Holiness does not mean boringness. Sometimes we joke at home about the “dark side” being more fun, but what’s more exciting than literally being a part of the side of good to fight and save the whole world? C.S. Lewis once made the comment, “‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints” (Mere Christianity).
Sometimes, though, there is such a tendency within many of us- myself included- to delegate holiness to the saints of old, to nuns and monks in garb that seems foreign to our own; at best, sometimes we delegate holiness to the “nice, boring guys” historically. And yet among the canonized communion of saints we find carpenters, doctors, writers, artists, teachers, nurses, priests, soldiers… and that’s just the start. The point is that to be a saint does not mean to become boringly identical; it actually means to be sometimes startlingly unique and yet working for the same goal of glorifying God.
This what I mean by the “particularity” of vocation. The God who has created each of us in His image and likeness has always recognized that we are unique individuals. We all are called to the same thing- holiness, and we are all called to same final destination- heaven, but we aren’t all called to make our way there in the exact same way. We have our own personalities, our own families, our own life stories, our own gifts, and our own messiness. The magnificent thing is the fact that our Lord wants all of us, and can use all in our uniqueness of us for His glory.
As Chris recognized (or at least, like I’ve argued that he recognized) our vocations and our gifts are given by God to support one another and yet can all those different gifts be used together to help sanctify the whole world. I’m going to let St. John Paul II’s papal exhortation Christifideles Laici have the last word here on how to think about the particularity of our own vocations. It’s a lesson for the engineers of the world, the writers of the world, and all of us who fall somewhere in between:
“The “world” thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ… They [the laity] are not called to abandon the position that they have in the world. Baptism does not take them from the world at all, as the apostle Paul points out: “So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor 7:24). On the contrary, He entrusts a vocation to them that properly concerns their situation in the world. The lay faithful, in fact, “are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the Gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially in this way of life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they manifest Christ to others.”
To live out our call to sanctify this world, the Church militant needs the engineers, the doctors, the writers, the teachers, the artists, the lawyers, and everyone in between. All of our collective work can be sanctified and participate in Christ’s work of leading the world to its proper end: that of heaven, if we all remember the source of our gifts and for whose glory we should offer our lives.
A return of our series of what we’re reading this Monday, April 13, 2015:
1) A piece by a Notre Dame undergraduate from China in Notre Dame Magazine, reflecting on her longing in prayer:
Now, a year and a half after my awkward first encounter with the Catholic Mass, I still have no intention to be converted or baptized. But I frequently go to the small chapel in Lyons Hall and simply stand there and watch my friends praying. I still talk with Nina about my life here at Notre Dame and listen carefully to her perfectly logical responses. The reality is that there are irreconcilable conflicts in the world and they are probably going to exist for a long time. The question is: How can we each fight for our deepest belief with whatever we have but without demonizing those who hold equal passions on the other side?
Buddhism has a concept called “absolute see.” It means seeing without judging. Through the “absolute see,” we fully accept the world as it is and give up those useless attempts to change others or ourselves. Finally, we are able to truly face up to those irreconcilable differences in the world and start to appreciate them. The “absolute see” of the world does not ask that we change ourselves and abandon our deepest convictions. But it should humble us, temper our passions, make us realize our excessive self-righteousness, and compel us all to open our hearts and minds to new beliefs.
All of which brings me back to my crush on South Dining Hall Guy. I understand now my crush was not actually on the guy. I realize now that I was not drawn to his words or gestures or even to his subtle, peaceful smile as he finished his prayers. Rather, my crush, my feeling of pure happiness, was on that flashing moment when I accepted the common beauty of human beings shining through our irreconcilable differences. This conflicting world is beautiful, especially when we choose to fully accept it.
2) Learning to practice the radical gratitude of the liturgy with Peter Leithart of First Things (through the help of Paul Griffiths):
We are trained, Griffiths says, in “radical gratitude.” The liturgy trains us as recipients, as “being one who who has received” and received gratefully (234). The liturgy doesn’t leave any corner of life untouched by its habituation. What Griffiths calls “the liturgy’s imperialistic omnivorousness” involves “a complete embrace of those who undertake it.” We die and rise n baptism, having received a “renaming, reclothing, the gift of something radically new” (234-5). Other liturgical acts “depict and endlessly repeat the subsumption of the individual into, first, the community, and then, second, the LORD.”
Griffiths means this quite literally: “The individual’s language is overtaken and framed by the language of the canon of Scripture: he is written into its margins as an ornament to the illustrated capitals of its pages. And the individual’s very physical life is shown to him to be given its meaning by his membership in the communion of saints, a body of people extending far in time and space beyond what he can directly sense.”
The liturgy “constantly signals that there is nothing external to it, nothing belonging to the individual that cannot be taken p into it, and nothing anywhere that will not, finally, be embraced by it.” Even the inner theater “is gradually transformed by participation in the liturgy from a private spectacle into an iteration of a public drama. It becomes an instance of the liturgy that claims it” (235).
History isn’t cancelled by heaven. Eternity doesn’t annul the work of earth. The cosmos will have a consummation, the final revelation of a resurrected humanity, one rent yet redeemed. To borrow from the Bard, the winter of our discontent shall yet be made glorious summer.
Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
The Center for Liturgy is happy to welcome to the liturgical world of blogging Porter Taylor, an Anglican priest who has begun publishing his blog The Liturgical Theologian. Here is a sample for those considering how to celebrate Eastertide:
When Mary Magdalene encountered the Risen Lord in John 20 she was told to not hold onto him. Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father,” (John 20:17). We however are on the other side of the Ascension and can cling to Jesus. In fact, I think we should see the season of Eastertide as an invitation to cling to the Risen Lord! The post-resurrection accounts of Jesus show him teaching his disciples and followers the meaning of the Scriptures, how the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms had been fulfilled, and how he was leaving them with peace.
As we await the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, may we cling to Jesus with joy and gratitude for all he has done.
May we observe a holy Eastertide with feasting and celebration.
May we tell time according to God’s righteous acts.
May we proclaim with our lips and lives, “Alleluia, He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”
Fellow, Center for Liturgy
A few years ago, while in a class in which we were reading the writings of the Desert Fathers, my class discussed the penitential and devotional practices that the monks of the desert underwent. The Desert Fathers talk about various experiences of denying themselves food, water, sleep, companionship, space, and a host of other needs and luxuries. For a beginner, it was a little shocking to hear some of the practices that the Desert Fathers willingly experienced for the sake of ordering their lives to what truly mattered.
The Desert Fathers were, as the Church calls them, “ascetics.” The word “ascetic” is rooted in the Greek root “askesis,” meaning “to train.” Athletes with whom we are familiar train and practice various sorts of disciplines for the sake of their teams and their tournaments; they exercise and work out in specific ways that will help them in their sports; they eat more healthily and may avoid certain foods or drinks while in season (ps, fellow ND students, have you seen the fresh fruit and vegetables at the athletes’ ‘training table’??) . All of these prescribed practices have the ultimate goal of better preparing athletes so that they perform to the best of their abilities in their games, tournaments, meets, etc. In a very real way, the Desert Fathers saw themselves as athletes and soldiers for Christ, training in habits of virtues and in giving up anything that they felt would lead them away from the ultimate reality of God and desire for unity with God.
I remember reading through Benedicta Ward’s collection of the “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” and finding the section on self- control downright odd at first. The Fathers wrote about fasting from food, to remind themselves that only the Bread of Life could truly sustain them; at times they drank less water so that they would feel the discomfort of thirst and be reminded that water from this world cannot quench our deepest thirsts; they smelled dead bodies to remind themselves that death was coming, because they wanted to prepare themselves fully for the day that they met the Lord. I knew about fasting before this class, so I didn’t find that bit so hard to understand. But the smell of death along with this next one (to use very technical language) straight-up weirded me out at first.
“4.2: Daniel said about Arsenius that he used to keep vigil all night. He would stay awake all night, and about dawn when nature seemed to force him to sleep, he would say to sleep, ‘Come, you bad servant,’ and he would snatch a little sleep sitting down, but very soon he would get up again.’
Or this one:
“4.3 Arsenius said, ‘One hour’s sleep is enough for a monk if he is a fighter.”
Sleep is good! Really good! As my anthropology professor said a couple of weeks ago, “To put it simply, without sleep YOU DIE.” So, I want to think about the Desert Fathers and sleep as related to college students—but not in the way you might expect. College students are universally recognized as a sleep-deprived population of people. I remember being presented with a sort of trilemma my freshman year; a bleary-eyed, perpetually exhausted senior in my dorm who was finishing her senior thesis [at 1 am, in the dorm hallway] explained the college triangle of S’s: school, social life, and sleep. You could have two of the three consistently, she maintained, but only two; it was nigh on impossible to balance all three, and the one she willingly gave up was sleep, because YOLO (“you only live once”). Sleep is for the weak, and you can sleep when you’re dead. This was my first brush with the fact that college students generally tend to wear the badge of how little they slept as a badge of honor. As we walk across the quads, it is common to hear something along the lines of: “Man, I had an exam yesterday morning and a paper due last night, so I pulled an all-nighter, took my exam, napped for an hour, and then wrote my paper.” To this sort of feat, folks generally pat each other on the back in solidarity and admiration.
And now we go back to the Desert Fathers. As college students, shouldn’t we just reconcile ourselves to four years of sleep-deprivation? Could we consider it as ascetical companionship with the Desert Fathers? Maybe since Lent this year has coincided with midterms and the busy middle part of the semester, we could consider our mid-semester sleep deprivation solidarity with the Desert Fathers…….?
But my short answer is simply: no. I think we would be doing ourselves and the Desert Fathers a kind of disservice to assume that our sleeplessness is just like theirs. The Desert Fathers had all the opportunity in the world to sleep. To be a bit simplistic about it, the Fathers were mostly alone and in the desert. Seventeen centuries or so ago, there was not a whole lot to do in the desert except pray, study, reflect and sleep. “Fasting” from sleep in a place where there was no sound but the wind whistling through the desert caves, it probably took monumental amounts of discipline to get insufficient amounts of sleep and then offer that discomfort to the God who created sleep and who rested on the seventh day. Rather than uniting the sleeplessness of the Desert Fathers and the general college student population, my professor instead quipped, “If, for the desert monks it was an ascetical practice to avoid sleep, for college students I rather think getting sufficient sleep would be an ascetical practice!”
The point of all askesis (asceticism), including Lenten practices is to better train our hearts, minds, bodies and wills to realize what truly matters and in what ways things in this world might have too much of a hold on us. In Lent and in other spiritual disciplines that are appropriate to our station in life, we more deliberately put these things that we give up or prioritize at the service of the God who created us.
Quality sleep, of course it, is not to become a god of its own; when friends in crisis need us or other situations arise, charity comes first. But on the whole, it is just as difficult- if not more so- for us to admit our limitedness and prioritize sleep as it was for ancient monks in the desert to stay awake when the more obvious option was to go to sleep.
Actually making sleep a priority mean for undergraduates would mean some pretty intense discipline would have to be enacted in our lives. It means we would have to realize that we cannot always do everything. FOMO [fear of missing out] patients, I’m talking to you, here. Taking sleep as an ascetical practice means we would actually discipline ourselves enough to make those hours of sleep an option: we would need to start work well ahead of time, or resign ourselves to the fact that our essays might not be perfect. Maybe this means less procrastinating, Netflix binge-watching, video game playing, Buzzfeed quiz absorbing, or YouTube viewing. Pick your own procrastinating poison.
That just deals with the needless procrastinating, though. Maybe viewing sufficient sleep as a disciplined spiritual practice also means acknowledging that we cannot do everything; maybe it means we recognize that we could take on an extra club or say yes to another responsibility, but we instead say no. Maybe it means we are tempted to “just finish this one last thing” before bed, but instead we get sufficient sleep and decide we won’t hit the snooze button for an hour in the morning. By being well rested, we will certainly be more efficient workers in the morning. And admitting we need sleep may mean we are humbled in realizing that the world will keep on turning even if we are not quite keeping up with the Sullivans and the Rileys (the Notre Dame equivalent of the Joneses). The potential results are obvious. If we are better rested students, we’ll be more productive and we are more likely to live out our vocation as students in a way that we should. It’s a quality over quantity sort of relationship; we will produce much higher quality work, pay more attention to our reading, study more effectively for our exams than we would by trying to do too much or procrastinating too much, all while living in a state of constant sleep-deprivation.
Disordered prioritizing would have to be eliminated on the other end, too, after our work is done. At times I know that (were I perfectly reasonable,) I could go to bed early and sleep a heavenly 7.5 hours. Then through a combination of Facebook and Twitter scrolling, messaging who-knows-who-about-Lord-knows-what, I lose an entire hour. An hour is precious time, friends. That’s six snooze button hits. That’s almost a full Monday-Wednesday class period. That’s three episodes of Parks and Recreation, or definitely a completed reading assignment.
At their heart, all ascetical practices will enable us to better live out our call as Christians and our vocation to holiness. In a paradox that the world often finds confusing, by setting limits on ourselves we will be made more free to do what we are actually called to do and to do it well. In college, an environment where constant sleep deprivation is the norm, prioritizing healthy amounts of sleep should actually be considered a spiritual and physical discipline. It would help us to both prioritize what matters and recognize the limits of our time, strength, and abilities. Then, maybe we would offer what we do have time for as a true offering of our effort to God. Considering sleep as an ascetical practice would mean recognizing in the midst of our resumé, achievement-obsessed world that maybe we cannot do everything, all the time.
” Protect us Lord as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep, rest in His peace”
“I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4).