Deeper Things under the Surface

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

We connect to each other at different levels. How we do that through words is one thing, but that isn’t the only thing or often even the most important thing. We talk and have conversations, but what’s really important is mostly growing under the surface, silent, unobserved, though solid and ultimately the glue that binds us together or the wedge that drives us apart. We have ordinary conversations about trivialities and then one day we realize that we love or hate each other, that we’re fast friends or have nothing in common. How does it happen?

Imagine you live in proximity to your mother and you make a commitment to visit her three times a week. In the course of a year, that means you will be visiting her about 150 times. How many times, among all those times, will you have a deep conversation with her? A dozen times? Five times? A couple of times?

Mostly, as we know, the conversation won’t be deep, but will revolve around the ordinary business of living: “The kids are fine!” “Steve dropped in last week!” “Mum, your food really is bland, how can you stand all that jello?” “No, we didn’t get much rain, just a sprinkle!” “Yes, I’ll be sure to pass your greetings on to Martha; she always asks about you!”

You will talk about the weather, about your siblings, about diets, about who’s moving away, and about whom you saw at the mall. And, given that you’re busy and preoccupied with many pressures in your own life, it will be natural that occasionally you will furtively glance at your watch, to see how much longer you need to stay before you can politely leave and go back to many things pressing in your own life.

But there will exceptions, perhaps five or six times a year, when something will trigger a deeper conversation and your mother will turn to you and say: “I want to tell you about when I first met your father!” “I need to tell you about something that happened when I was pregnant with you!” “I’ve always wanted to share this with you, but couldn’t!” And then, for that visit, you won’t be sneaking glances at your watch and you won’t be talking about the weather, jello, and trivialities. You will be hearing something that touches your soul and, driving home, you’ll feel that you’ve made a deeper connection and have something special (an insight, a bit of history, a token of intimacy, an expression of trust) that you can treasure. That’ll be special, but, in the end, it won’t be the real fruit of your regular visits with your mother.

The real fruit will be what was happening under the surface - unobserved, silent, but solid - all those other times when you were talking about the weather, diets, and trivialities. Simply put, if you visit your mother 150 times a year and spend an hour or so each time, you will, through all of that, develop a bond with her that goes far beyond what gets said on any given day, deep or superficial. That bond will grow because you’re having regular contact. You’ll get to know her and will be connected in a way that can only happen between people who sit down with each other three times a week.

Ordinary chitchat is not the stuff of intimacy, but regular contact is because, as the chitchat is going on, something deeper is happening (for good or for bad) under the surface.

This is also true of our prayer lives and our relationship with God. If we make a commitment to sit in private prayer every day for half an hour, how many times might we expect that we’ll feel a deep movement of soul, a stunning insight, or an affirmation that really warms us? A dozen times a year? Five or six times a year? Perhaps.

Most of the time though our prayer time will be a lot like those visits we make regularly to our mothers. We’ll be absorbed with the weather, diets, and with whom we saw at the mall, even as we sneak the occasional glance at our wristwatches. We will treasure those times when something special breaks through, but those times will not be what’s really important.

What’s really important will be what’s growing under the surface, namely, a bond and an intimacy that’s based upon a familiarity that can only develop and sustain itself by regular contact, by actually sharing life on a day-to-day basis.

In describing one of the deep movements within mature prayer, John of the Cross writes: “At this point, God does not communicate himself through the senses as he did before, by means of discursive analysis and the synthesis of ideas, but begins to communicate himself through pure spirit in an act of simple contemplation in which there is no discursive succession of thought.”

Think about that the next time you are talking trivialities with your mother - or get bored in prayer.