Wasting Time with God

Yesterday one of the older monks had to pick up a printing job, and so he needed a ride into town to the print shop. He could have asked a novice or a monastic guest to drive him in, but he chose me. I was delighted at the thought of spending an hour with this monk, whose loving personality and palpable holiness I have admired for a long time. It turned out to be almost two hours — the print shop was further away that I realized. Little did I know how the conversation would go. I’m not sure if he planned on this or not. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

After a bit of small-talk chatting, we got onto the subject of the challenges facing monasticism, between declining vocations, aging communities, and the difficulties of adapting to the economic realities of the postmodern world. A frequent theme for this monk was his concern over the decline in contemplative practice, even among those who have given their lives to the cloister. As a layman, I supposed myself to be beyond his astute critique. But I was mistaken.

Before I fully realized what was happening, my companion had stopped talking about monks and monasticism, and began a litany of complaint against the many authors and teachers of contemplation and Christian spirituality who, in his opinion, do not live the life they are teaching. I won’t name names here, but everyone he spoke of he knew personally, and more than one person he mentioned was someone whose work I admired. Slowly the noose was tightening around me, and still I hadn’t caught on.

The monk spoke about how writers and teachers get so caught up in their message, and their audience, and the “business” end of the work they are doing, that they either stop praying altogether or maybe only give ten minutes a day to their practice. As he said this, I grimaced a little, for I caught a glimmer of recognition there. Then, finally, he sprung the trap.

“I think a mature contemplative needs to be devoting two hours a day to their practice. And while normally lay people simply cannot embrace such a discipline given the challenges of work and family, I would think that anyone who is writing about the contemplative life probably needs that level of commitment, whether inside or outside of the cloister.”

I gulped.

“Well, father, I’m nowhere near that level of practice.”

“I know,” he said gently. “Carl, you are very sincere, and I admire that about you. And you’ve written a wonderful book. But now you face a difficult question. Are you going to live the life, or are you just going to talk and write about it?”

“I don’t know that I have two hours a day to give, father.”

“Maybe you need to be reading fewer books.”

Ouch again. He knew right where to poke, didn’t he? By now I made no pretense of hiding my defensiveness. “But I love the reading I do. Are you saying I need to give all that up?”

“Of course you’re going to read. The question is, how much? Are you so committed to staying ‘current’ that your contemplative life gets sacrificed? What good does that do — you, or anyone else? Which comes first, reading or prayer?”

As we pulled back onto the monastery grounds, he paid me a wonderful compliment, especially since he is one of the brothers who has already read my book. “Carl, you have written your masterpiece. Don’t throw away your spiritual life trying to write another one.”

Back in the store, I needed to call my wife to make plans for the evening, and I told her about this conversation. As I expected, she just laughed, and said she would have to be sure to give this particular monk a hug the next time she saw him. “But honey, how can we devote two hours a day to prayer?” I said, hoping desperately that she would commiserate with me. But no such luck. “Yes, I know we’re not there yet,” she replied, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be working toward it.”

At one point during the conversation the monk defined contemplation as “wasting time with God.” If I am bluntly honest with myself, I know I waste a good two hours a day, between reading silly stuff online (do I really need to know about iPhone prototypes that get lost in California bars?), watching TV (I don’t do a lot of that, but I do some), playing games on my iPhone (ditto), shopping for books online (just because I have a house full of the things doesn’t mean I don’t want more), and — dare I say it? — Facebook. Okay, okay. If I can waste time all these other ways, why not waste more time with God?

I’m not suggesting to my readers that everyone needs to be suddenly devoting two hours a day to contemplation, just because that’s how my monastic friend challenged me. In fact, I believe most people probably shouldn’t attempt more than an hour a day, without competent spiritual guidance. And if you’re not meditating/contemplating an hour a day, twenty minutes or even ten minutes a day is better than nothing. But perhaps all of us can consider how much time we waste every day, doing stuff for no other reason than it’s silly or fun. I don’t think we have to eliminate silly or fun from our lives, but that’s like saying we don’t have to eliminate chocolate or potato chips, either. A healthy diet means lots of fruits and vegetables and only the occasional candy bar. Likewise, a healthy contemplative life means more silence and less Facebook. I have a long way to go on this one myself, so I offer these words not in a spirit of judgment, but rather with an open-ended sense of possibility: if we want to waste time with God, just how far can we take it?

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Mary


  • http://www.healthyspirituality.org Jean wise

    wow, this hit me where it hurt and you and your monk friend are so right. Thanks for the reminder. I also waste time on the unimportant and skim the Important.

  • http://odysseusjak.blogspot.com Jack

    Ouch. Just what I neede to hear. How can I be asking God for more of Her presense in my life, if I am not giving up my life? Good words here, Carl. Thank you for your honesty.

  • Al Jordan

    Sounds like your time with the venerable monk was a “Divine appointment.” I find myself spending less time splitting theological hairs and reading now, although I would never stop all-together and more time just wanting to sit and gaze and be open to presence and attentive to the work of God within me. It seems to make me less distanced from others and judgmental and more accepting of all life and better able to say like the characters in Avatar, “I see you.”


  • Dana


    A wonderful post, thank you.

    And truth is, this is an issue with many spiritual writers, experts. (i.e., we talk and study about evangelism… but how many of us actually share our deepest faith and longings with our friends and family?)

  • http://www.yearningforgod.blogspot.com Jan

    Hits me, too. Fr. Kelly Nemeck, author and founder of Lebh Shomea Prayer Center, advises one hour to begin with. I’ve never managed that either. Tow 1/2 hour sits a day. . . . commitment?

  • http://www.yearningforgod.blogspot.com Jan

    (“two” for the misspelling)

    Writing on my blog, I was reminded that my priest Sandy Casey-Martus, who is also an author and teacher of Christ Centered Prayer, advises twice a day sits, no matter how long. She suggests 20 minutes, but says that less is still adequate as long as we pay attention to the Holy One drawing us into longer prayer times. Prayer is God’s not ours.

  • http://meadowsweet-myrrh.blogspot.com/ Ali

    Thank you for writing this! It must have been difficult, but it’s so good to hear. I think something in me really needed this kind of reminder about priorities right about now. As someone just beginning to get into the “business side” of the writing life, getting more deeply involved in various commitments to column-writing and blogging and book reviewing while at the same time facing down daily this dread of even trying to “write my masterpiece”… I can feel a different kind of noose tightening, and I have some definite anxieties about losing my center, becoming too distracted from the utter importance of actually living the life (whether its Christian contemplative life, or Pagan meditative/ritual life). So thank you, for this reminder that it’s never too late to re-center, re-ground and re-shape your life around the love and gratitude of Spirit.

  • imagebearer

    Amen, my wife just said to me two days ago, we’re not praying together like we should. Wow, God has spoken to me through your work. Thank you.

  • Tana

    This is a good message come at a good time.

  • Phil Soucheray


    I find myself asking what constitutes the kind of time with God that your monk friend describes? I’m sitting here reading your blog (some might say wasting time focused in some measure on God) on a morning after celebrating two thought-filled, joy-filled hours in the company last night of seven Visitation sisters and a slew of fellow lay journers – focused on God.

    I grant that there is a significant difference in the nature of these times as compared to what your friend is suggesting is needed. But I think there is reason to acknowledge that wasting time with God sometimes can be achieved just by being intentional in welcoming him into whatever moments we happen to be in.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      You’re right Phil, although the monk I was speaking yesterday was specifically concerned with the practice of non-discursive contemplative prayer, and probably would say that the kind of joyful “wasting time” as you describe should be, in most cases, above and beyond a disciplined practice.

  • http://www.gracecommunitychurch.org.uk Giles

    I’m squirming. All too true. Thanks … I think :-)

  • Jeff

    Jesus got up early to be with the Father. Yipes, I’m reminded of the scripture “the love of the Father is not in him” from I John speaking of the believer who prefers hanging out with other things, I have much time to be with the Father if I look at my life honestly, my love is weak but there and I’m inspired to fan the flame by your post. Thank you.

  • George

    Carl, thank you again for a wonderful post and the thoughtful comments that are posted here. It is a perennial question, especially for those of us with a busy family life (two young children, work, volunteering, youth sports, etc). This is something that I’ve struggled with as I’ve attempted to live a contemplative christian life. As much as I can I spend time at a Camaldolese monastery here in Berekely, CA trying to incorporate a contemplative dimension to my life. Carl, perhaps in a future post you can post what an ideal schedule of prayer would look like or looks like now? As I started spiritual direction with one of the monks and I spoke of my frustration of trying to schedule, fit in contemplative practices, this monk cautioned me not to look at spiritual practices (meditation, prayer) as yet another activity to add to my all ready busy life. He was very gentle in his admonition to try to infuse all of my activities with a contemplative, aware dimension. David Stendl Rast speaks of this to great length in Gratefulness: The heart of prayer where he distinguishes between “prayerfulness” and “prayers” admitting the necessity of both. I am a little leary of your monk’s dialectical approach to “prayer”, is it so “either, or” and not “both, and”? Thank you again for much to ponder.

  • James O’Rourke

    Thank you Carl!

  • Steven Waldman

    Carl, what I find beautifully significant and so amusing is the way you approached your wife: “But honey, how can we devote two hours a day to prayer?” What’s this “we?” Did the wise monk say anything about your wife? What he said was: ” I would think that anyone who is writing about the contemplative life probably needs that level of commitment, whether inside or outside of the cloister.” Is your wife’s name on the cover of the book as co-writer?

    Carl, from the little that I have read of your posts, you are all heart. All sharing. All openness. You get a wise word specifically directed to you – and you want to immediately share it. But I doubt you are unaware of the other side of that wonderful coin : it is easier to share than to change. It is easier to lovingly spread the words of insight and wisdom than to add another hour of meditation/contemplation to your life. We thrive on the positive feedback, the human communication. Rich human interaction offers more immediate and tangible satisfaction than the solitude of contemplation, and that’s why we rush to tell our friends of our new plan to contemplate more, and that’s why advice given specifically to you becomes a “we” when you speak with your wife.

    Having noted that tendency in myself, and therefore in you, I want to approach the topic in a contrary/complementary way. Contemplation is one aspect of your practice. The sharing and wisdom you offer on this blog is another. And your offer of “we” to your wife is a third. I don’t feel that when you are not meditating, you are not practicing your spiritual life. Every moment can be a practice when awareness is brought to it – but in this forum there is no need to further expand upon that.

    Meditation/contemplation/prayer need to be emphasized, no doubt, and the other “practices” don’t take their place, but every time you write a message that touches hearts and souls, every time you read a book that brings new connections and insights to you, you are “wasting you time with God.” And it seems to me that you are wasting quite a bit of your time in that direction.

    Jerusalem, Israel

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks, Steven. Your astute observation of my marital dynamics brought a smile to my face! My wife, you see, is the more natural contemplative of the two of us (hence her wanting to give father a hug after he lectured me yesterday!)… we sit together most days, and we both want to deepen and increase our practice. So when I think of sitting for two hours a day, it is part of my joy to contemplate (pardon the pun) doing that with my wife.

  • pelicann

    Not only is the monk right, there also needs to be two hours of lectio divina or similar slow contemplative study if one doesn’t have the internal concordance from singing the Office.

  • http://dennisbarr.blogspot.com Dennis Barr

    Thank you for this post, Carl. “Wasting time with God” is exactly what I have been trying to do as I grow deeper into my own contemplative practice.

    When the Lenten season began, I resolved to train myself to do the full seven hours of the Daily Office. After having been to over half a dozen contemplative retreats at Conception Abbey in Missouri over the last couple of years, I had a pretty good idea what that would mean.

    It took me a few weeks to work into the rhythm. For the last month and a half, though, seven times a day with few exceptions, I am able to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I’ve used a couple of different breviaries, and have now begun using a piece of software called Universalis.

    Something has been happening to me as I’ve eased into this pattern. I can’t yet articulate it. Clear description eludes me. What I’m finding is that the time I’ve sacrificed on the altar of prayer is not missed. I don’t have time to surf the web aimlessly, or to watch TV without purpose. I don’t have time for pointless activity any more. If I’m to get a good night’s sleep, and still be able to do my day job, I have to focus my attention on the important things. I’m still discovering what those important things are – time with my wife, time spent with family and friends, time in reading and contemplation. Wasting time with God…

    A few weeks ago, a fellow student of contemplation and retreat-mate was talking to somebody at our church as I walked by. He pointed to me and said that I had gone “full monk,” that I was doing the Daily Office two hours a day. I stammered out that I was committed to doing the full Office, and then I had to pause. A quick mental calculation verified just that – I was spending about two hours a day in prayer. I departed from my friend feeling both humbled and exhilarated. Two hours a day was not my goal; my goal was to do the Office with intention and determination. What I gained, though, was something worth more – a twelfth of my day is spent with my Maker. That’s time that is no longer available for things not worth much.

    I am not some contemplative master. I am a student, and I am more than aware that I have much yet to learn. But I am in training, and it has to be done with dedication. “Trying” will not do. To quote the Sage of Dagobah, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

  • http://www.wanderingtree.wordpress.com Greg

    I’m a bit of a bibliophile myself, and there is some wonderful irony in my previous thoughts for the afternoon (after I’m home from work, I will surf the net a bit, then settle down to read ____x’s____ new book) and my thoughts after reading this post (is there something ELSE you could be doing). Cheers to monks for realignment!

  • lightbearer

    there is also the danger of creating segregation in a life that perhaps is christ centred albeit not monastic
    if we are aware that we are easter people and our voice and our countenance is joy and hallel ujah god who makes his home in us will find us at home
    and we are children of god being children of god
    so let us be content to “be”
    maybe we could focus on making all our actions more prayerful
    but thanks for a great post carl
    today i “wasted” about 30 minutes really looking deeply at a dandelion in a young forest

  • Jason Miller

    A book that is not about prayer or contemplation but which changed my life and gave me time for serious commitments to both even amidst having 10 month old twins is The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. Between that book and Getting Things Done by David Allen I was able to manage my time to the fullest and fit in more than I ever have in my life.

    Time management is key for householders who have serious spiritual commitments.

  • Gary

    Great. I think you struck a symphony, not just a chord, with quite a few of us. I would speculate that the monk is, intentionally or by resonance with Truth, living Brother Lawrence’s lifestyle. My pastor quoted him in this week’s sermon (quoting from Max Lucado’s quotes of Brother Lawrence), and he was mentioned in ‘Our Daily Bread’ this past week. Bader Meinhoff effect or spirit-led serendipity? You decide.

  • http://www.songsofpeace.net Br. Stefan

    a friend sent me this message of yours. I am grateful, indeed. Kepp reminding us of who we are called to be. And rather than take any more time…I’m off to prayer.

  • http://desertfishing.wordpress.com dFish

    I’m teary-eyed reading this moving conversation. I don’t know why. I guess this touches on my deepest desire – to spend more time praying and discovering the fire within…Thank you Carl…

  • http://tmason47.typepad.com Tim

    This is one of those ‘hit you in the breadbasket’ kind of posts. First it changed the paradigm of prayer a bit for me introducing the “wasting time with God” idea as opposed to the more rigid concept that I have been operating under. This has been food for thought on a day that has been more than normally given over to thought on God and all things eternal.
    Next looking internally, I have to admit the incredible inadequacy of my practice. The few, and I do mean few, minutes that I spend in prayer every day leave me incredibly anemic. Compare that to the idea of two hours, and I start to feel overwhelmed pretty quickly. Do I need to pray more? Yes, and I have the usual suspects taking up my time. Facebook (until this week when I deleted it!) Google reader, too many good books that I want to read in a stack that never gets shorter, Studying (albeit, important, but with regulation of my schedule, I would be more effective) are all things that eat up my attention.

    It is a question of priorities. I am not well suited to rigid schedules for the long term, but that isn’t to say that I couldn’t or shouldn’t adapt. How much can I let myself get away with for lack of discipline, something that saps my effectiveness and is detrimental to my development.

  • Gerard

    ouch! ouch! – for both of us and i guess a whole lot of people out there. Thanks for the honesty!

  • http://TheContemplativeCrisisatwww.robculhane.com rob culhane

    Dear Carl, I left Facebook because of the time it stole from my life and the way it interferred with my ability to have a settled heart from contemplative prayer. My first blog post was on this very theme. See http://robculhane.com/?cat=3
    I like your blog and only came across it via someone else’s yesterday, but was so excited that I immediately listed you on my blogroll.

  • Steven Waldman

    Carl, the terms “prayer,” “contemplation,” “meditation,” “non-discursive contemplation,” have been used in this conversation. I would very much like to understand how you would distinguish between them. Furthermore, I am trying to come to a deeper appreciation of the meaning and purpose of prayer. When I was younger and my thinking was more fundamentalist, my prayer – for personal health, for world peace, for His return to Zion and Jerusalem, for the end of our “galut,” – diaspora, was passionate, for I “knew” that my heartfelt words were falling on receptive divine ears. I’ve long since moved beyond understanding God in that way as my attitude in general became more universalistic, and my attitude towards the meaning of the term God became less theistic. I feel that I have gained in subtlety of thinking, but as the air gets thinner as one climbs, I have certainly lost the easy passion of a concrete communication with God.
    What can prayer mean now? How can prayer mature hand in hand with one’s theology? Can the psalms, and the other words in the prayer book, be reinterpreted to fit each level of God consciousness?
    Do contemplation, meditation, come to take its place?
    I would love to enter into open and honest dialogue with you and this group to come to a deeper understanding of these issues, and to find a path that would be meaningful for me. Is there a place in this website for such a discussion? Is this the venue or would you suggest another?

  • Maggie Daly

    Oh, boy. That hit hard. Had to get up from the computer, walk around and pour myself a cup of coffee. Took some very deep breaths. I don’t write or teach about the spiritual life although I hope to do something along those lines in the future. I view this as a time of prayer and preparation. Most days I do have two hours to “waste with God” but I succumb to books, computer games and computer news, chitchatting with friends etc. I thought I was taking spiritual development seriously but your comments (or those of your monastic friend) struck home. I could easily being doing more — perhaps not so easily as wasting an hour playing a computer game, but easily enough. And which choice, which “waste” of time will be more profitable in the end. And prbably more enjoyable. I like the idea of wasting time with God. Sometimes my prayers get so serious, focusing on oil spills, genocide, violence, hunger and the like that I feel that I, not God, have the weight of the world on my shoulders. Other times, time spent with God just flies away and may include serious talk, silly talk, silence and God only knows what. You know, kind of like when good friends get together and talk on the phone and conversation goes on and on but never loses interest and ranges over topics intimate to universal and time flies.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. (I really get your comment about having so many books and still wanting more. Oh, yeah. C’est moi aussi.) Forgive my presumption for replying at such length but your post struck a nerve and I feel a calling and a desire to make a change as a result. Please give that monk a hug from an older woman in Wisconsin who is taking his words to heart. You will both be in my prayers.


  • http://www.snacksfromthecruisebuffet.blogspot.com/ Annie

    Oh, amen.