The first time I went to a Broadway musical, the musicians in the pit shocked me. They had heard and seen the show thousands of times. Wonderful as it was, it no longer held any interest for them except during the moments they had to play. They could pick right up and deliver a sound like a heavenly tornado. But in their off moments, one read a thick mystery novel, another played solitaire, another ducked out for a quick smoke … you get the idea.
For some reason, I thought of this experience when I was reading St. Teresa of Avila on the spiritual life. Teresa explains how it was not until she was almost fifty that she was really converted. Until then, of course, she was not what any normal person would exactly call idle. But in the light of her later self-knowledge, she thought of herself as only an intermittent Christian—like the Broadway musicians, more than adequate at the necessary junctures, but otherwise disengaged.
As she approached fifty, she prayed that God would redeem the time she had wasted in the previous five decades and turn it to his glory. A perfectly sane thing to do—if you happen to be a great saint. At a certain point, a saint like Teresa must know in her bones that the Lord of history can quite easily perform such wonders, transmuting our idleness, cowardice, and weariness with the divine drama into something far greater than we might have made of our lives had we been more faithful.
Perhaps I am particularly sensitive to this prayer because I feel myself approaching what the French delicately call a certain age. Perhaps the manifest idleness of much of my own past life is beginning to weigh more heavily on me as I realize in the concrete that there is not an infinite time ahead, at least on this planet. Perhaps my futile attempts to do more and better make me hope that something can be redeemed from the ruins. (St. Thomas, a man who knew something about real productivity and how it can turn to straw before your eyes, puts sloth and hyperactivity in the same spiritual category: Some of us do nothing and others everything to avoid the real work to which God calls us.)
The great thing about the great saints is that they tell you truths in ways that make it clear they are not just talking or being sentimental. Teresa, the great contemplative and guide to the perfect love of God, warns early in The Interior Castle: “hearing his voice is a greater trial than not hearing it.” A little later she explains: “For the most part all the trials and disturbances come from our not understanding ourselves.” The contradiction may be more apparent than real.
Hearing his voice also gives us some true self-knowledge. Most of us think we want to know ourselves better; as any garden-variety psychologist knows, that’s just the beginning of our self-deceptions. Doing something about what we discover may be even harder than facing unflattering truths. A lot of the spiritual writers talk of the process as akin to Dante’s descent into hell, an excruciating excursion into evil before we can be ready for purgation and heaven.
There’s nothing wrong—and a good deal right—with taking the Broadway musician’s approach to life. It’s hard enough to be really good at something when the specific moment demands it. Teresa warns that the Devil loves to give us grandiose desires to tempt us from doing the little things our circumstances ask of us. But the other side of the coin is that unless we can also find our way into the Big Picture, even as we do our duty, we’re missing the whole show.
I spent part of an afternoon in Avila this summer looking for Teresan inspiration. I got lost driving out of Madrid. Avila turned out to be a lot further than I could easily fit into the time I had. When I got there, the whole town was shut down and almost every restaurant closed with private parties because, unfortunately for me, it was First Communion day. It was raining hard as I tried to find a few of the saint’s old haunts inside the massive and still intact walls of the medieval city. In human terms, miserable and wasted hours. But Teresa’s presence is still palpable there 400 years later. And to work your way through some of her rambling but penetrating words, in which she claims constantly that she doesn’t know how to convey what she wants and is only writing under obedience, steadies the inconstant heart. Someone must have done something with her wasted time.