Ruminating on Repetition

“Right now, this seems to be a period of time when we’re almost caught in this sense of repetition, each day not knowing where we’re going. There’s not the sense of forward momentum in our lives,” concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein said recently, speaking with an NPR reporter about her new album, “A Character of Quiet.” Recording at her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the pandemic, she chose music with “a kind of ruminative quality…reflective and introspective, and also painful.”

Every day, three times a day, the Sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery meet communally to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, also called the Opus Dei, the work of God. Every three weeks, the liturgical cycle repeats the same sequence of Psalms. Seventeen times a year, they pray—chant and recite—the same cycle. The same words, over and over.

This year, when the world slowed down to shelter in place, my husband and I were able to enter more fully into the Opus Dei. At home, at the same time as the sisters, we pray the same cycle of psalms, timeless cries of the soul to God, in words that are “reflective and introspective, and also painful.” Every three weeks, we repeat the cycle.

About the repetition of notes in Etude No. 16 by Robert Glass, Simone Dinnerstein says, “Even though the notes sometimes just remain the same, the playing evolves…[the] music forces you to listen in the moment, while you’re playing it. Because although it seems at first glance that it’s about repetition, actually, it’s about constant change.”

The liturgical cycle of praying the psalms and listening to scripture readings may seem to be about repetition, but actually it’s about change. We don’t pray to change God. We pray that we might be constantly changing.

The pianist plays the same pattern over and over, and yet, as she repeats that pattern, the music is not static. It is moving, transforming.

In prayer, in the salty-sweet sound of our voices, in meditating on and speaking/singing words scented with the beauty and pain of life, our minds and hearts marinate in truth. We are infused with despair and joy, need and fulfillment, longing and hope, loneliness and connection—the entirety of human experience. As we repeat the cycle of prayers and readings, something is happening. Repetition is bringing our thoughts and feelings into harmony with our speech and actions.

“But you have to be open to it,” the pianist says. “You have to be listening while you’re playing…you have to be open to hearing those changes.”

Bringing our present situations and needs to the prayers, listening to hear changes, we hope that who we are—what we do—will be more and more in harmony with the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts.

Every day to close the midday prayer at the monastery, the leader recites, “May Christ dwell in our hearts through faith.”

And we respond, “May charity be the root and foundation of our lives.”

May we be open to hearing the eternal music of our prayers, repeating, evolving. May we listen in the moment, as we are praying, while the pattern is transforming us.

Tracy Rittmueller, OblSB

Photo: Sisters praying Liturgy of the Hours in the Oratory