Back in high school, I was debating whether I should take calculus during my senior year. I hated math, but loved my grade point average – and high-level math courses offered a good way, in theory at least, to keep it up.
“What do you think?” I asked a teacher who had watched me struggle through Algebra II, where I once scored a 21 percent on one of his quizzes.
“What do you think?” he asked with a chuckle, no doubt recalling that quiz.
“Well, I got a B in trig, and Mr. Berger thinks I should take calculus,” I told him.
Mr. Berger had chaired the math department since the conclusion of the Civil War. Still, he had a real talent for connecting with kids decades younger than him and, most of all, a burning belief that you could never learn enough math.
“Oh, c’mon, of course Berger thinks you should take it!” my teacher nearly yelled. “He’s totally biased. He thinks monkeys should take calculus!”
I thought of this conversation recently while reading a passage by Fr. Thomas Keating, whose book of daily spiritual reflections is now required reading in my house. Fr. Keating pioneered “centering prayer,” a meditative, Eastern style of prayer in which you try to empty your mind of all thoughts and create deep interior silence. The goal is to build the spiritual reservoir we need to live an active, grounded life in the real world.
That’s exactly what I’m looking for.
There’s only one problem: Fr. Keating never had a family.
How do I know that, apart from that fact that he’s a longtime Catholic priest?
Because of statements like this, as he describes the importance of centering twice a day for 20-30 minutes:
“To find time for a second period later in the day may require special effort. If you have to be available to your family as soon as you walk in the door, you might center during your lunch hour. Or you might stop on the way home from work and center in a church or park. If it is impossible to get a second period of prayer in, it is important that you lengthen the first one.”
As I documented last week, mornings in my house are not exactly contemplative. Trying to squeeze in a lengthened prayer session of 40 or so minutes would mean getting up around 5:30. And every time I do that for more than a few days, I fall behind on sleep and get sick. Upon returning home from work in the afternoons, I’m greeted by a 10-year-old boy, a 7-year-old girl, a three-month-old miniature schnauzer and a wife who has been managing all of them in addition to running her own business.
Would it be a good idea at this crazy dinner hour to mosey over to a church or sequester myself upstairs in the home office for half an hour?
To paraphrase my algebra teacher, you tell me.
So, much as I remain intrigued by centering prayer, I won’t be steeping myself in it anytime soon. Instead, I might try to center once a day for 10 minutes. Fr. Keating would probably say that’s not much better than doing nothing, but, like Mr. Berger, he’s maybe a little too close to his own material.
What we really need is a realistic spiritual approach for people with hectic lives, and it needs to be created by people with experience in hectic living. That’s something we can sort out here together on this blog. I look forward to and, in fact, very much need your input on styles of prayer that work for you.
I did end up taking calculus by the way – and earned a ‘C’ for the year. That didn’t help much with my grade point average, but it did teach me a couple things. It’s a pleasure to learn from people who are really passionate about what they do. And for that very same reason, their advice doesn’t work for everybody.