Every year my wife and I visit the same place in the extreme part of West Wales. On one occasion we drove six hours there and six hours back just to stay one night. We wonder why, but we know that this repeated visit is something we would not stop by choice. The seascape and landscape, the quays and beaches are not just interwoven into our family’s thirty-year history; they have penetrated our very soul.
The experience of the place is now one of open participation and receiving. We stopped taking photographs a long time ago. There is no need to approach the place as an object; it has become part of us, and in a way we have become its object. It works on us, stimulating our imagination, our memory and our relationship with one another and with God.
I feel the same way about many aspects of my inner life. Repetition, repeated exposure, is a key to growth and engagement with reality, both physical and spiritual, in the deepest and most challenging way. Classical Christian spirituality is an exercise in repeats. The liturgy of the Church is repeats; so are the daily offices with the repetition of the Psalms. The Church’s year is a round of repeats.
Repetition need not necessarily equal boredom. If the reader just spends a moment reflecting on his or her experience of this year’s Triduum and the celebration of Easter, I am sure he or she will find that there was a new light, a new image, a new word – in fact, this year will have been a whole new experience.
I suppose one of the reasons we return to Wales is the security it gives us to enjoy ourselves – just to be. The liturgical life of the Church has the same function. Living in its rhythmic repetitions liberates the participants to live in the moment, without the anxiety of the unexpected. CS. Lewis famously said of liturgical ‘experiments’, “The Lord said to Peter, feed my sheep – not, experiment on my white rats.’
I often amuse those who come to me to talk about their experience of God by telling them to ‘just keep doing more of the same’. There is no short cut in the spiritual journey; there is just more of it, in every sense. Practising Christians are precisely that: ‘practising’. In the same way I practise my scales on the piano, I practise the spiritual exercises that draw me into relationship with the Lord.
Repetition is especially fruitful in relationship to Scripture. Lectio divina, the slow repetition of words and phrases from the Bible, was founded on the principle that repetition enables the Word to work on us, rather than making the Word the object of our work. This technique was taken a step further by St Ignatius, who developed repetition of prayer with Scripture into an art form.
There are, of course, times when repetition equals tedium and stirs up a deep frustration. This must be faced squarely and examined; often the reason is some sense of dis-ease in a key relationship in our life, or lies in some worry or anxiety. Don’t think it will go away by ‘trying something new’!