08 December 2012

Sanctifying the Night

[Written in the spring of 2010 as a writing sample for my application to take a fiction writing class.  This was shortly before my admission into the Catholic Church.]

The standard Roman Catholic Psalter consists of four weeks, each of seven days, with seven sections in each day. The day begins at 3 A.M. and ends at around 9 P.M. Every four weeks the Psalter covers all one hundred fifty psalms, a variety of hymns, sermons, and readings, and many repeated prayers. I discovered the Psalter some time this past fall, wandering through the internet trying to find out what holy people do with their free time, trying to dispose of some of mine.

We begin with Matins, the prayers said before dawn, the office of readings. I have only said Matins twice, and never upon waking up. I was up at three for different reasons than thecloistered monks and nuns who have developed and maintain this tradition. I read somewhere that our selves shut down at night, like shops in suburbs and lonely Midwestern farming towns, but it seems untrue for me. When I’m alone, things tend to come alive in a particularly aggressive way, and I think that if my life has shut down, then somehow I’m stuck in the dark interior, stumbling down aisles of shaded apples and anonymous boxes through the night in which all cows are black. Matins is the longest of the seven hours that make up a day’s prayer. I suppose if I were more exciting, I would compare myself to Allen Ginsberg and talk about some “angry itch” I have. But it’s not an itch, and I’m not crazy. Only disconnected and self-conscious.

I lied a little bit. I’m up past three most nights, not working but sitting alone, not reading or writing or thinking, but persisting in this strange limbo. Time passes slowly and I think that monotony does not speed things by, though I can never seem to remember where it all went. Life moves like a draining bathtub. You sit there watching for a water funnel and it’s only when you’re perfectly still that all the tension and anxiety of the falling water can focus itself into a little hole. That’s what happens in the early morning hours. It’s almost that time now, and I begin to feel it.

The second of the seven hours is Lauds, said around dawn. Lauds is a pleasant set of prayers; the ritual combines with the weak morning light to suggest a tenuous renewal of reality. Sometimes reality reveals itself in the form of regret for failures, mistakes and sins, for the desolation of the passing darkness. The shame and bitterness can be overwhelming. But this morning the gray cloudy skies and construction workers seem to sing a more jubilant song. Lauds is the hour of praise, the hour when we celebrate the sun’s rising again for a new day. We have been baptized in night, have been cleansed through a spiritual death in the cold waters of solitude, and now we emerge from the darkness of the soul to see the world again and hear the stones proclaim their eternal message.

This morning I have a conversation with a friend. We have spent the long hours together, and it is now six o’clock when we part. We play a game, back and forth, talking through problems of knowing people and thinking about ourselves, digging up grave matters and sitting at the table with them, livening them up with coffee, seeing something hilarious in their stiff forms. This morning there is dancing at Lauds and we feel so surprised by the simple perfection of life that when we part we can barely help but join the stones in crying out.

Midmorning passes in sleep and I rejoin the day around noon. It is time for work and plodding. Terce, Sext, and None slip by unsaid, lost to pillows and classrooms, lectures and lunches. Most days I cannot remember what transpires during these three hours, but soon enough None has past, it is four o’clock, and I am wandering through some book or another, looking for a development or distraction which will give the day value as it wanes. The evening meal is taken in company, and there is laughter of a different sort. The smiling faces around me seem confidently embalmed most days: eerie replacements for the laughing corpses of dawn. As the sun returns again into his grave, I make absurd jokes and feel the morbidity of this shared life, sense that our communal body is not far from the tomb.

Vespers comes at dusk, when the candles are lit or the lights switched on. I mutter the Magnificat while kneeling in front of my window. This time the prayer seems much more present than usual. At Vespers I commit myself to living out the day even though the sunlight is gone. I will be awake for a long while yet, and keep my own lights on in vague expectation of the dawn. The dawn is so distant, though, and I busy myself with books, studying earnestly or working out, feeling the potential in myself for a million ever-uninitiated tasks. My lights brighten the night and I am cheerful.

Tonight after vespers I take out my Vulgate and try to master the Latin, or I read a Borges story and think about Kant. I remember what I have seen in the day and let all the people and details crystallize into simple forms and types. The world eases toward an aesthetic unity, threatening to teeter over the edge into mere fantasy. Faces are blurred by facts and formulae. I mull things over.

By Compline I have reached an extreme. The final hour should be said just before bed, but if I ever get around to it, it comes at midnight. The lights have gone out everywhere and I am alone. My solitude hits me and I write a letter or retreat into the internet. I read Rilke and know that this is the hour when loneliness “flows with the rivers.”

As I lie face down on my bedroom floor to groan, I make no effort to remember the approach of dawn, or my covenants from dusk. Dawn is no consolation now when all promises are broken, when the fragments of a faith that nourished me huddle behind closed doors, frightened of the world. If the sun rises again, I think, it will be to my shame. I dive deeper into the night, glad to forget the resurrection, magnifying only my own sorrow and shame in the face of an imaginary world.