The secret sauce to the Orthodox way of life is that it is frequently so boring and often very tedious. The Sunday Liturgies are the same year after year. The Sunday Gospels are the same, season after season. We confess the same sins over and over again. There are only so many ways you can dress up lentils and beans fast after fast. Morning prayers. Mealtime prayers. Evening prayers. How many “begats” can Scripture have? It’s all so very, very tedious and uninteresting. This is a good thing. It is a very good thing.
Our hearts are stone. It takes many years to wear grooves in stone, to smooth sharp edges. Drops of water must cascade on the exact same spot, day after day, year after year, for decades. Variety will accomplish nothing. One drop, crashing into the same spot, and another, and another—the same thing again and again—only this will work the stone and make its way below the surface, by wearing away that very hard, rough and sharp surface.
The typical number of repetitions for Orthodox of the Kyrie elieson (“Lord, have mercy”) is often forty. Sometimes twelve. Even when it is three, it is repeated after several petitions and prayers. The lesson: a praying heart needs many repetitions before it can come to mean what it prays.
The psalmist speaks of the “demon of the noonday,” that dark spiritual force of restlessness, dissatisfaction, a feeling of revulsion toward prayer. It is no surprise, then, that St Basil had his monks, and us, pray at noon that the Lord might “nail our flesh to the fear of Thee,” calling to mind the Cross and Christ’s admonition that anyone who follows him, must deny himself, and take up his cross, daily. That means we must not run from tedium brought by the noonday demon, we must not give in to the temptation for variety and feeling and experience. We must, instead, stay in place. This is the genius of the Benedictine vows. Once vowed to a particular community, you are vowed to a place, a carve-out within space and time. When one’s feet are planted can one summon the leverage of resistance.
Resist the devil, the Lord’s kinsman tells us, and he will flee from you. Put away the desire for variety, for feeling. Hand over the desire for deliverance from monotony, the longing for distraction. Do not move. Resist. Stand in the silence, look within the heart. There are dragons there, that must be slain. There, too, are angels to give one strength.
It often helps if one’s place of worship can be located in a field, on a prairie, where there are wide open spaces. The wind whistling in the eaves. The call of the whippoorwill, the singular bark of a roaming dog. The nighttime yip of a coyote. In between these is space and silence. The long stillness that reveals the restless heart. To that heart, perhaps alone with lit candles, that stormy and restless heart, full of passions and torrential thoughts, the Kyrie elieson can be spoken, whispered, placed within the breast, calmly, deliberately. This is the necessary resistance. This is the embrace of boredom and tedious inner labor. And in this embrace is the freedom from the demon of the noonday.
Sitting in silence, repetitious and laborious prayer, these are good things, useful things. They are what make a life of faith. They are the only means by which pathways to the heart can be made, so that grace can do its work. If they are the gateway to adventure, to a new story, I cannot tell. But they are a gift in themselves. And that is enough.