By SARAH OTTO, M.Div. | Published July 12, 2022
“I’m sooooo bored.” This has become a common summer phrase in our house, one I imagine other parents can relate to. My initial response is to roll my eyes, but a secret part of me delights in the spiritual significance of this uncomfortable state.
This month we celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a saint whose conversion I often attribute to the grace of boredom. Ignatius was gravely injured in the Battle of Pamplona on May 20, 1521. This injury led to forced bedrest for a number of months. The romance and adventure stories he wanted to read to help pass the time were unavailable, and so he was offered two books: one on the life of Christ, and one on the lives of the saints. A mixture of boredom, repetitive reading and daydreaming prompted a grace-filled interior journey. A man previously in love with the vanities of life became madly in love with following Jesus.
In our over-connected world today, we rarely have the chance to be bored. We pull out our phones when waiting in line for more than a minute. We binge watch TV shows and stay connected with friends around the world through texts. Our boundaries between work and rest have disappeared. We are not bored; but we are exhausted.
I often tell the story of Ignatius’ conversion at the beginning of a silent retreat at Ignatius House, as a gentle encouragement for retreatants to have the courage to turn off their cell phones, put aside the stack of books they brought, and allow themselves to experience the anomaly of boredom. Because when we do, something happens. Our sensitivities are heightened; a creativity emerges; the real mystery and beauty of life is revealed.
On my own retreat recently, as I challenged myself to go for a walk without my phone, I was more attentive to the way the sunlight hit the leaves, revealing the countless shades within creation. I heard the symphony of birds, the rush of the river current, the gust of wind. I woke up early in the morning and went for a walk, and a full moon nearly stopped me in my tracks.
Ignatius’ own journey through boredom ultimately led him to create a global organization recognized by the Vatican as the Society of Jesus, or “Jesuits.” He is celebrated annually on July 31. Today there are more than 800 Jesuit schools, plus parishes, missions and retreat centers worldwide. All because of boredom.
Repetition is an important concept in Ignatian spirituality, a concept that might come across initially as boring in a world that relies on constant entertainment. GK Chesterton once wrote, “perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. God seems to favor a sea of seemingly identical daisies, rather than a carefully arranged bouquet. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
I think this is what Ignatius encountered during his convalescence; it is what I am so often reminded of when I make a retreat; what I encourage others to consider, and what I long for my daughter to discover in her own “boredom.” Our devices and distractions have dulled our senses, making us in fact the boring ones. But when we put aside distractions and pause long enough to listen in silence, we realize that life with God is never boring. In fact, it can lead us to adventures greater than any we ever could imagine alone.
Sarah Otto, M.Div., is a Jesuit-trained retreat director and spiritual director at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta. She will lead a weekend retreat July 29-31 in honor of the Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Loyola.