Searching for small rituals

Published in Movement magazine issue 114 April 2003

This has been a difficult column to write. Not because I have writer's block as such, but because I have so little time or energy left outside work. Like many people, I work long hours - an extra hour or two [or five] in the office is nothing unusual. Add to that an 80 minute commute each way through London's collapsing infrastructure, and I am collapsing too when I get home. Write on the tube? Lucky to get on, let alone find a seat. Write at home? I'm flaked. I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that there's only about an hour of waking time for my own 'life' before bed and the cycle starts again. And that precious hour is often taken up in answering emails. What was that about a 'quiet time'?

So what becomes of spirituality when you are too tired to hold a coherent thought? When you can't pray with closed eyes for fear of falling on the person next to you? When you can't pray with open eyes, for all the headlines on the newspapers around you? When the only vacant space on the train is inside your head? God of Mind The Gaps goes with us, but how do we make the connection?

Of course there's a case to be made that we are victims of structural sin here. That the whole purpose of The System is to keep us away from God. Certainly it's amazing how working long hours [to prop up The System] makes us buy more things [to prop up The System]. Spiritual life in this environment is like a weed in the pavement, often trodden on, persistent in finding the cracks, rooted in poor soil. The forms of devotion we've inherited from our agricultural forebears hardly fit. What if all the seed fell on the path?

But what I've said so far offers clues to new directions. Firstly, our devotional practice needs to be embodied - needs some physical object to focus our attention. We're already good at this - the tiny screen on a phone is somehow all it takes to shut out the world. And like the phone, any objects need to be pocketable. Ideally they'd be potentially shareable, for whenever two or three are gathered. Top Trumps anyone? If three of you have the same card you have to do the ritual on the back.

Unlike the phone, this had better be silent, or its sounds conveyed to you through headphones. Sung responses will not be popular with your fellow travellers. Spoken responses are less disturbing now that people use hands-free headsets. Dangle a wire from one ear and you can say anything to God. Remember to wait for the reply, it's not a monologue.

And we don't have much time at any one time. That hour on the tube yields only disconnected moments for purposes other than travel. Any devotion needs to be timesliced - each part taking two or three minutes [the time between stops]. Each part has to stand on its own, because you might not have chance to complete a sequence. Ritual in resealable wrappers, a loaf you don't have to eat all at once. I can't be too specific about forms, because I haven't worked this stuff out for myself yet. I wonder about creative adaptation of the gadgets that surround us. I wonder what we have in our pockets or bags that might be useful, apart from that which belongs to Caesar. I wonder what help there might be in church history.

Portability, modularity, brevity - not things high on the Church's agenda in times gone by, but then they travelled less obsessively than we do. When travel becomes our destination - the stuck train, the long-haul flight, the traffic jam - we need to work out what to do with the time. As for me, it's time for bed.