Nearly five years ago, I started oboe lessons. This was something I wanted to do since I was in elementary school. When the time came in fifth grade to start learning a band or orchestral instrument, I really wanted to play something with flashy, silver keys and that had a cool instrument case. Instead, I was given my father’s violin. Needless to say, with such a lack of enthusiasm, my violin playing days were limited.
As I got older and looked toward retirement, I set two goals for myself for when I turned 65 – (1) to become eccentric and (2) to learn to play the oboe. The first goal was accomplished long before age 65, but I began my oboe-quest as age 66. At my first lesson, my teacher asked if I was patient and willing to learn slowly, step by step, repetition by repetition. I hedged the truth and replied that I was. When I told my husband about the conversation and my assertion that patience was one of my virtues, he couldn’t stop laughing.
We live in a culture in which we are bombarded with claims that new is better, that variety is the spice of life, and that knowledge can be gained quickly by using the newest app or learning approach. We no longer need to be patient to accomplish a goal. Repetition and routine are viewed as old school at best but more likely as being antithetical to creativity. The old ways are just that – old and either in need of a major updating like on HGTV or being relegated to the dust bin (an antiquated term in itself.)
In religious lives, the same questioning goes on about the need to repeat what we’ve done and the desire to find something new. Several years ago, Rabbi Dusty Klass wrote a short piece about her frustration one year in preparing for Yom Kippur. She didn’t want to do “that prayer” again – yet she quickly realized that it was important to repeat the ancient words once again. She stated:
For fifty years, wife and husband team May Ann and Frederic Brussat headed up the Center for Spirituality and Practice. In an article published by the Center, the Brussats emphasized that “variety is actually not the spice of the spiritual life; it flourishes when we do the same things over and over again.” They cited the movie “Karate Kid”, noting that while the young student rebelled against “wax on, wax off”, he finally realized that this boring, tedious motion was focusing his mind. The repetition transformed him and taught him in a way that flitting from thought to thought could not. In the last few days, as we noted Punxsutawney Phil’s emergence from his cozy, warm burrow, we were reminded of the now-classic film, “Groundhog Day.” It was only in repeating and repeating a single day in his life that weathercaster Phil was able to slowly become aware of where he had fallen short.
In a few days, we will begin the season of Lent, a quiet time of reflection. Once again, we will have ashes placed on our foreheads to remind us that we came from dust and to dust we shall return. All too often we think that we are invincible, but this simple act using simple elements is a powerful reminder that our lives on this earth are fleeting. As we move through Lent, whether or not we choose to give up a less than healthy habit or take on a new and meaningful spiritual practice, we will pray the ancient prayers and sing many of the same reflective hymns that we have sung for years.
Particularly when the time comes to enter Holy Week, our practices are more likely to remind us of how often we, and those before us, have repeated the same actions. We wave and carry palms; we wash each other’s feet; we join in a holy meal – so much of this based on millennia-old practices of our Jewish forbears. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, we and our ancestors in faith repeat the same rituals, say the same words, pray the same prayers. We could become bored – or we could let this repetition get into our bones and become an intrinsic and transformative part of our lives. Through this remembering, we can become even more assured of God’s love for each of God’s children. We are reminded of who we really are.
So, am I still taking oboe lesson? Yes. Have I become more patient? Not really. But maybe, just maybe, something important has happened recently. Last week, I was assigned a scale that involved fingering I had not encountered before. In the past, I would have practiced but if unsuccessful after a short time, I would have moved on to something I found more interesting. Not this week. Although the constant repetition drove my husband to another part of the house, to my surprise I found solace, purpose – and delight – in getting my brain, fingers and breathing to cooperate. Perhaps I am starting to get it – that it is in the patient joy of repetition we can be truly transformed.
Let us pray...
Dear Lord, we ask that you help us to find joy in repetition, whether in our conversations with you or in our daily lives. As we begin the season of Lent, help us to find new meaning the ancient rituals that help us focus our attention on you and your love for each of us, your dear children. Amen.