Useless: spirituality at the monastery

During Palm Sunday weekend I went on a retreat with my colleagues from our class on "Practicing the Presence of God" to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. There, we spent a lot of time in prayer, praying the hours with the monks, and in silence away from devices and even conversations. It was a pretty formative time for me, I think. Over the weekend I read through Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and reflected on God's action in my life. It was interesting, perhaps even ironic, to read Life Together by myself... usually during the silent hours at the monastery.

Life Together is an exploration of the communal experience of Christian spirituality. The last time I read Life Together I think I was a sophomore in college (at Azusa Pacific University), in about 2005. Reading about 10 years later was a much different experience, especially in the context of Holy Cross Monastery. Bonhoeffer’s reflections are profound. For Bonhoeffer, the spiritual life is not a life in isolation. It is a life of community, a life which opens us to the other. In this, he holds a similar dialectic to that of Henri Houwen (see Way of the Heart, 23-32) wherein even solitude is to make us more compassionate ministers. “The time of meditation does not let us down into the abyss of loneliness; it lets us be alone with the Word. And in so doing it gives us solid ground on which to stand…” (LT, 81). We do not associate with one another in Christian community out of a compulsive and dependent need of the other, in themselves, but out of a need for Jesus Christ. “Within the spiritual community there is never, nor in any way, any ‘immediate’ relationship of one to another…” (LT, 32). This, again, points to Nouwen’s understanding of solitude—a “furnace of transformation” wherein we are liberated from our “immediate” and compulsive need for others, their metrics and their expectations. We cannot be for others in any healthy way if we cannot be “alone with the Word.”

I am so very prone to compare myself to others and, perhaps especially, to measure myself according to what I perceive others to expect of me. And not only what others expect of me, but what I expect of myself. My daily life is consumed by deadlines and rubrics, so much that my spiritual life gets shrink-wrapped and molded in the same cast. My spiritual life has become a new “work” with outcomes external to itself. As work, its value is measured according to what it produces—a deep spiritual thought, a profound spiritual experience that I can “use.” It cannot be a good in itself. “Prayer should not be hindered by work…” (LT, 69). In a sense, prayer does not belong to the world of work. It determines work, it shapes it and orients it—“The prayer of the morning will determine the day” (LT, 71)—but it does not belong to it. In this, Jurgen Moltmann has been helpful. Moltmann frames the Christian life and its liberating qualities in terms of “play.” He writes, “liberation from the bonds of the present system of living takes place by playing games” (Theology of Play, 13). Rather than be enslaved to the need for “purposes” and outcomes and metrics of value, we are invited into the freedom of “uselessness” and joy.
[Humankind] shall give glory to the true God and rejoice in God's and [their] own existence, for this by itself is meaningful enough. Joy is the meaning of human life, joy in thanksgiving and thanksgiving as joy. In a way, this answer abolishes the intent of such questions as: For what purpose has [humanity] been created? For what purpose am I here? For the answer does not indicate ethical goals and ideal purposes but justifies created existence as such... the answer does not lie in demonstrable purposes establishing my usefulness but in the acceptance of my existence as such and in what Dutch biologist and philosopher Buytendijk has called the 'demonstrative value of being.' Recognizing this, we escape the dreadful questions of existence: For what purpose am I here? Am I useful? Can I make myself useful? (Theology of Play, 19).
The value of the spiritual life is not in its ability to live up to expectation or to produce something useful in us. It is delight in God, it is play, and therefore it is—by the standards of work—a waste of time. As Henri Nouwen puts it, in discussing prayer, ‘The world says, ‘If you are not making good use of your time, you are useless.’ Jesus says: ‘come spend some useless time with me.’ If we think about prayer in terns of its usefulness… God cannot easily speak to us” (Spiritual Formation, 19).

Bonhoeffer has a similar outlook, I think. The spiritual life is not a utility of community. Community is a utility of the spiritual life (if we are to think of utility at all). We are not expected to come away with a profound spiritual insight. He writes, “It is not necessary, therefore , that we should be concerned in our meditation to express our thought and prayer in words…. It is not necessary that we should discover new ideas in our meditation…. Above all, it is not necessary that we should have any unexpected, extraordinary experiences in meditation. This can happen, but if it does not, it is not a sign that the mediation period has been useless [as in without intrinsic value, frivolous]” (LT, 83).

The weekend was, in many ways, an experience of solitude in the midst of Christian community. It was a weekend of giving myself permission to be useless and to let my prayer and my silence be useless to me. By this, I do not mean “meaningless.” But something does not need to be necessary or productive according to standards of work to be meaningful. In this sense, though my prayer was deeply meaningful, I gave myself permission for it to be without “purpose." When we prayed, when we received silence, and even when I read Bonhoeffer, I tried to give myself permission not to “learn” anything, but to simply enjoy what I was doing. “Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification” (LT, 30). So I tried to refrain from the frenetic anxiety of making sure I was doing it right and progressing in the right direction. “…The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature” (LT, 30).

 So I remember specifically, when we were doing Ignatian imaginative prayer together and we were invited to imagine a scene in scripture. I found myself unable to enter it. I found myself unable to imagine much at all. And where I would normally have felt anxious and might have tried to force myself to be imaginative, instead I just sat and listened and said to myself, “it’s ok.” And it was a wonderfully meaningful time for me. I didn’t imagine myself having conversations—though that would certainly have been a welcome experience—I just listened and was blessed by the Word of God. This, in the end, is appropriate for, in the spirit of Bonhoeffer, the real “purpose” of Christian life is communion with the Word.


Thanks Wesley. I find it almost inescapable to define my identity in terms of my career, this being the largest portion of my daily life. So I come to prayer with the same mindset: I think I'm implicitly looking for some form of transactionality (do x, receive y) between myself and God. But by clearly fixing on what I want from my prayers, I'm excluding God from what is outside my expectations.

The God of grace is bigger than this. God made us to love and be loved, to give and receive joy. That's the opposite of transactionality.

So, thanks for reminding me that the most valuable things in life are -- at least from a utilitarian perspective -- useless.