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The gift of the blue bottle

The gift of the blue bottle

It is prayer hour in the convent chapel on a sunny summer morning. Dust motes swirl idly in the sun’s rays streaming through the high windows. The chapel is still. Most of the community choose to pray earlier or in their cells, so there are only one or two of us in this holy space.

I take my prayer mat to the sanctuary step, where there is a seat and prie dieu facing across the chapel. I place the mat on the tiles, and settle down cross-legged to wait out the hour. I like to sit with my back to the prie dieu, hidden from the chapel behind me and facing the panel in the east window that to my mind represents the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. (I have never asked about this, in case it doesn’t.) It helps me when I am struggling with boredom and distractions.

Externally the chapel is still. Internally, my mind as is often the case refuses to settle. But I am not aware of this.

Twenty minutes in to the hour, all I am aware of is that a blue bottle has awoken from its torpor and is beating against the windows, desperately seeking the sun and its freedom. It is driving me mad and there is nothing I can do about it.

Until I suddenly realise that my mind is a blue bottle, buzzing restlessly around the caverns of my cranium. And the blue bottle battering the glass is a signal to make me aware of my inner distraction and a call to me to return to silence and to God. And furthermore that there is something I can ‘do’ about it.

This brief experience occurred some 25 years ago, when I was testing a vocation to the religious life at the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage. But the blue bottle’s gift has remained with me, the gift of a changed attitude or a lens through which to view any exterior distraction.

It is still a reminder that potentially annoying external distractions may be a pointer to internal distractions. Because external noise need not result in interior noise, and while external silence is helpful, it does not guarantee interior silence. It is possible to live in interior noise while surrounded by exterior silence, and also possible to dwell with God in the depths of prayer and inner silence and be entirely unaware of exterior noise.

So whenever I become aware of a noise, I might take note of it, but try not to follow it. Then I take note of whether I am already distracted on the inside, give thanks for lesson of the noise, and simply turn my focus back to my prayer and attentiveness to God.

One comment

  1. TS Eliot wrote of “the strained time-ridden faces / Distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning” (Burnt Norton, Four Quartets). This is often true, when hiding from reality in distraction is the intention. It is my experience that exterior distraction can help identify and move beyond interior distraction, but it must always start with that intention to move beyond.

    In the Turning to the Mystics podcast series on the Cloud of Unknowing, Jim Finley says that through prayer “you are consciously aware of how unaware you tend to be. We’re always wandering around, but we’re unaware of how our mind wanders around… We were distraction. We don’t even know we’re distracted. But having tasted the undistracted mind… you know that every time you renew the effort, you take your word [that the author of the Cloud advises you use to focus your prayer], you’re really regrounding yourself in God sustaining you in the midst of your distraction. Because God’s never distracted.”

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