This story is included in these collections
Courtesy of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

On the edge of Harvard Square, there is an Anglican monastery. The brothers go to church, five times a day. In between “offices,” they cultivate as much silence as they can. That doesn’t mean they always come across as holy. I once heard a brother mutter to himself, “All right, what’s next?… Probably more church. It’s always more church.”

Ten minutes before office, the monastery bell rings. Monks, dressed all in black, trickle in. The chapel sits on a busy parkway along the Charles River, but inside—perhaps due to the thick granite stones of the chapel walls—it seems quieter than possible in a city, just the movement of air or a footstep on the stone floor. One monk lights candles and prepares the simple wood and cloth lectern. No one speaks: the monks who have finished preparing books and music sit quietly in assigned places, legs uncrossed, hands on thighs, eyes closed; and the visitors settle in with their prayer binders.

I am not good at waiting. There’s no clock, and I don’t wear a watch. Eventually, I will learn how many monks there are, where they sit, what tasks have to be done before starting, and signs that the office is about to start. Sometimes I close my eyes so I can’t mark time.

The brothers begin to chant.

“Oh, God, make speed to save us,” one intones.

“Oh, Lord, make haste to help us,” the others respond.

The monks sing back and forth, versicle and response, one side and then the other. 

Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause.

You set me free when I am hard pressed,

Have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

Whoever it is these men believe in and talk to several times a day, their prayers are simultaneously pissed-off and supplicating. In my depths, I’m pretty pissed off and constantly waiting to feel “better.” I want to ask someone to make my depression end.

For in death no one remembers you;

and who will give thanks to you in the grave?

I grow weary because of my groaning;

…My eyes are wasted with grief

and worn away because of all my enemies. (Psalm 6)

I feel dead already—unremembered, tired, grieving. If life is just waiting and then the end, why keep waiting? The psalm does not answer that question.

Many prayers and readings are about waiting, whether for God, oneself, other people, or the order of the world. We all have to do much waiting, short and long. Waiting in silence isn’t like waiting in time. Waiting in time occurs when we fill, spend, pass, or try to move through some period as quickly as possible. It has no character of its own, only what we bring to it.

For me, depression feels like the time Vladimir and Estragon pass in Waiting for Godot: eternal and unchanging, full of anger and despair. So much of my experience of depression has been about waiting to feel better, since it seems there is no way to will wellness. Waiting while depressed is like being anywhere but the present, pulled toward the past and future by regret and anxiety. This is a waiting of loneliness and isolation.

Silent waiting tries to do something different—to get off the careening rides of our lives, to stop everyday voices. Waiting in monastic silence is waiting with others; the silence isn’t about you, and it’s more bearable. Waiting in that chapel pushed me into the now. Past and future seemed irrelevant, even out of order.

The brothers finish chanting. They process slowly across the chapel, double-file. They stop to bow before the altar, turn right, and exit. One returns to snuff out the candles. Some of the guests are staying at the monastery, and they follow to eat dinner. I pick up my bag and make my way back through the gate and into a world that isn’t waiting—least of all for me. For a few minutes, I haven’t been waiting to feel better or for anything else. I’ve just been waiting.

Published in the July 8, 2016 issue: 

Nathan A. Paxton is a professorial lecturer at the American University School of International Service.

This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections