An Oasis for the Soul | Where Astronauts and Novices Sound Alike
By Br Francesco Lorenzon, O.P. | This Lent, the student brothers invite you to discover those places that have become ‘oases’ in their spiritual journey, significant places in their lives where they withdraw to encounter God. Today, Br Francesco asks, ‘what do astronauts going to Mars have in common with novices?’
One of the most curious projects recently funded by Nasa is a system to detect if astronauts have a meltdown in space, by checking their vitals with a “psychosocial sensing badge”. One of the difficulties of being in space is in fact the stress imposed on them due to isolation and distance from home. There is some similarity between this and our situation during lockdown, and an ex-astronaut even launched a support kit for those in self-isolation, on the basis of his experiences in space! This is particularly important for an expedition to Mars that could take seven months. Far from home, with distances measured in millions of kilometres, you could not rely on the Internet to communicate with your family and friends, since you would be too far to have a talk in real-time with them. I am not an astronaut, but I lived under a similar environment too in my life, and that was during my year of novitiate in St. Anastasia, a city near Naples. Well, maybe not too similar, but there are some similarities. I had to stay in my small room for six days a week, and apart from recreational time after meals, the “outing” day of Wednesday and the apostolate in the Spanish Neighbourhoods on Friday, we were required to be silent and quiet.
This kind of time in the life of a friar is not only fruitful for spiritual nourishment or to discern whether you are truly called to be a Dominican, but it is also useful as a [kind of] ‘stress testing’. Before joining the Order, I worked as a web developer, and in some projects I purposefully overloaded some computers to see if they could operate well, even under some significant and unexpected burdens. Something similar happened in our small environment. Precisely because it was a small and very “compressed” community, you could not avoid relational problems. When they happened, you had to face them. This is important for someone who is going to live his entire life in a community with other people, and in a way, it manifests a similar stressful condition as that envisaged for those going to Mars.
How did I cope with that situation? We obviously didn’t have the possibility to get those hi-tech badges to check the vitals of the Novices with an app for the Novice Master to alert him when problems arose! We had many other ways, but the one that I want to present you is one that is available to almost anyone, not just friars.
Inside our Novitiate in the Priory, we could access another space, other than our cell. It was a small room, at the end of our long corridor where we lived. Inside it, there was a stereo with lots of different CDs. I had managed to burn a small cd of my own with just one song, an old recording, very moving, of Trappist French monks singing Rorate Coeli. But you can listen to it too, since it is on YouTube:
I really loved this song, and chants like these are extraordinary in helping us to pray not only with our mind, but also with all our heart, feelings included. Music is generally very powerful in this: just think of a horror movie without an eerie soundtrack. It would be like a thriller movie of a shark with human teeth (if you wonder what it would look like, just search on Google; they look much friendlier, but still a bit unsettling).
And I do not think this form of prayer should be looked down on, just because it engages our feelings. St. Dominic greatly enjoyed singing “Ave Maris Stella” when on route on his frequent trips across Europe. It is also known that he used to pray differently with his body according to the type of prayer he was doing. For example, when he was asking something of God, he folded his hands in prayer, like an arrow shot into the heart of God. Or he was completely prone to the ground in adoration to the Cross. This seems to me a real life expression of the Thomistic principle “Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit” (Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it). You do not have to exclude feelings from your prayer, but you have to lead them towards a good direction. They are like fuel: with petrol you can give power to an ambulance to save human lives, or you could use it to drive a car in a bank robbery.
But what kind of music? I think you could use any type of musical genre, as long as it is really conducive to meditation. I personally find very fitting the songs of Taizé, since they usually involve the repeated chanting of phrases taken from the Sacred Scripture. This is similar to what the Desert fathers did without using music: they took a phrase from the Scripture and they meditated on it all the day long. This is the song that I have been listening to recently, during this lent:
But there are many others available: Gregorian chants, classical, even Christian rock. Instrumental versions are good as well. As a general rule of thumb: the more appropriate the music is, the more it should lead you towards a personal dialogue with God.
Image: Small Planet, by Alexander Gerst (via Flickr)
All the posts from the series An Oasis for the Soul:
- Introduction, by Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P.
- Refreshment, light and peace, by Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P.
- A Place in the Sky, by Br Bede Mullens, O.P.
- Praying in a Museum, Reclaiming Sacred Art, by Br Albert Elias Robertson, O.P.
- Where Astronauts and Novices Sound Alike, by Br Francesco Lorenzon, O.P.