On a recent silent retreat at a Sisters of Charity convent, I walked the beautiful labyrinth etched on the lawn. I appreciate labyrinths for their capacity to quiet me. The rhythm of walking and the discipline of noticing and then releasing thoughts still my spirit. I suspect I am quieted in part because I don’t have to worry about where I’m going — I simply follow the winding path, knowing it will lead me to the center.
About midway through this most recent walk through the labyrinth, I grew bored. I knew I had a long way to go before getting to the center, and I was tired of walking. I kept going, because I wanted to reach the center. Plus, I still had a long way to go to reach stillness of heart. I suppose I could have questioned the effectiveness of the labyrinth as a spiritual formation tool or left the path. Instead, I pondered the presence of boredom in the spiritual life. I believe spiritual disciplines more effectively shape us the more we practice them. But practices can lose their shine the more we engage them. Certainly, there is comfort in familiarity, but familiar things can also become rote and tedious. When we are bored with a spiritual practice, does that mean the practice has lost its power or meaning for us?
On the other hand, could there be value in boredom? We shy away from boredom at all costs. This spring, I spent a week with my parents while my father was in the hospital. Sitting in a hospital, waiting for someone in surgery and then in recovery, is as mind-numbing as it is anxiety provoking. But I came well prepared, with my laptop and smartphone. I did not lack work to do or entertainment to access. Even so, boredom creeped in after many hours of sitting in the same windowless waiting room or, later, sitting in my father’s hospital room. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Boredom nudged me to pay attention to my father and his needs, as opposed to focusing all my attention on my phone.
Manoush Zomorodi, in a 2017 TED talk, asserts that moments of boredom can lead to moments of brilliance. When our brains are on autopilot, they have the chance to make new neural connections. I suspect this is why some of my best ideas come while I’m in the shower or swimming. My brain has time to think!
Zomorodi’s TED talk is all about giving up smartphone time in order to be more creative. But I wonder if embracing the boring can also be fruitful for us spiritually. If we are more creative when bored, then maybe we hear God better in the boredom. Maybe there is connection with God on the other side of the tedium of consistent spiritual practices.
I was glad I stayed in the labyrinth rather than walk out when I grew bored. I finished the day of prayer more still than I’d been in weeks. Sure, I was bored, but I was also rested, more alert to hearing God’s voice… in the boredom.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.