The Slow Regard of Silent Things

[Week 2 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series. Theme this week: Prayer]

“The Slow Regard of Silent Things” by Patrick Rothfuss is admittedly a strange short story. He himself begins the foreword by writing, “You might not want to buy this book.” It is a poetic, bittersweet tale written from the perspective of a young woman (Auri) who lives by herself in a forgotten and ruined set of rooms beneath a university (this story is set in the same world as his book “The Name of the Wind”). Although I agree with his assessment that this book is an odd one, I am very thankful that I came across it! I believe it paints a powerful picture of the practice of contemplative prayer.

For many people I think prayer comes across like a burden. Living a life dedicated to prayer sounds about as interesting as living a life dedicated to completing homework assignments. We undertake the task because we believe it can bring some benefit, but we don’t find the experience pleasant or life-giving. I think it is fair to acknowledge that there is indeed an aspect of what the desert fathers saw as “the spiritual combat” in prayer, particularly in prayers of petition. It is not always easy and requires discipline. However, this is far from the only aspect of prayer, and it is not the end goal. The end goal of prayer is union with God. Prayer draws out expressions of petition and contrition, but should also draw us to thanksgiving and praise. Prayer can give illumination to the mind and fire to the heart. It can become the lifeblood of our day when we realize its deeper potential.

I see a vision of this in Rothfuss’ short story. Auri has been led to live in this desolate place by some past tragedy (the exact details are only hinted at). Rather than finding mere isolation she has encountered a mission: setting the ruins in order. She has come to appreciate the “slow regard of silent things.” She describes this mission as being someone that “tended to the proper turning of the world.” For example, in the story she finds a gear from a broken machine and dedicates herself to finding its right place. She likewise seeks to discern how to arrange the things in her room and whether objects are for her use or to save for gifts. In all of this we begin to get the sense that this is not just the manifestation of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that Auri really has the ability to see the significance of things that others miss. Her patient dedication to observing the world has given her a clarity about life that few possess. The Spanish translation of this story calls it “La Música del Silencio” (“The Music of Silence”) – something Auri can hear that others cannot. She gains strength by working with the nature of the world rather than trying to force it to conform to her whims.

In this way, I think the story paints a picture of contemplative prayer. Her life in many ways is like that of a religious sister in a convent. However, this life isn’t limited only to one who has a similar amount of time available. It isn’t just a matter of the quantity of time we can dedicate to prayer (which may be much more limited in our own circumstances), but of the quality of our prayer time. It concerns carving out some space (whenever and however we are able) to allow this transformation to take place. There are many aids to entering into this experience – e.g. praying in the Liturgy, with Scripture, Eucharistic Adoration, the rosary, listening to music, or looking at religious artwork. Our goal is to discern how to apply it to our circumstances.

How can we re-imagine the way that we view prayer in our life? How can we re-imagine our parish as a better school for prayer? Prayer is something that we should look forward to with hope, instead of dread. May the Lord bless us in our own efforts to practice this “slow regard,” and to encounter the grace prepared within!

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