There’s a mouth-guard shortage in the city of Charlottesville. I know this because my dentist said the wear and tear on my jaw was evident but not detrimental, but if I were interested in a night guard, please put in your order sooner rather than later since it won’t be ready until next semester, the material’s always on backorder at this time of year, even though we ordered extra this year, but you know how it is, and all the small-talk timbre in the world could not disguise the weight of what she had just told me. There are so many students suddenly developing stress-induced jaw-joint disorders that they’ve actually run out of supplies to deal with it, and not because of poor prior planning.
Several of my professors like to start their lectures by leading three minutes of guided meditation. At no point did we make fun of this, but there were certainly shuffles and giggles near the beginning of the semester. Now, we ask for more. When our professor asks us to open our eyes, gives us a moment to return our attention to the room, and begins to quietly introduce the topics of discussion for the day, the collective relief and reluctance is palpable. There is a hunger for the quiet, one we didn’t know we all had.
One Lent a few years ago I realized I did not know how to stand up straight. I was trying to think of a penance that would induce mindfulness, something constant enough to prompt me to prayer without making me scrupulous and self-centered. (My friend Leah’s example of giving up jaywalking is a perfect model of this kind of Lenten penance: a practice substantial enough that you’ll pay attention, but not so much that you could mistake yourself for badass in executing it.) It wasn’t that I simply was in the habit of slouching, but that I could not figure out how to manipulate my shoulders and back muscles so that they’d align in some acceptable imitation of “straight.” I would overcompensate and turn convex, then give up entirely. I also spend my days evenly split between walking around the city with a backpack on and sitting at a table typing over a computer, so I didn’t have much practice in assuming this position. This semester, I started doing yoga exercises every night to address my shoulder and neck pain. Within thirty seconds, I learned how to stand up straight. (And then I spent a long time learning there were muscles around my spine that I’d never used before, which was wild.) This was life-changing.
I have been deeply embarrassed at all this. And by “all this” I mean being the kind of person who asks about mouth guards and meditates and does yoga and blogs about anxiety. I’ve felt like a stereotype. But then my dentist told me there’s a mouth-guard shortage in Charlottesville and now I just feel like a statistic.
In high school, we used to open each class with this prayer: My God, give me your grace. I offer you all the good that I will do in this action, and all the difficulty found in it, trusting in you and your abundant love. Amen. This is the “Direction of Intention” that Saint Francis de Sales urged people to pray, and it is the one thing that everyone who passes through that place, regardless of their relationship with Catholicism or high school, remembers. If “mindfulness” is the medicine for the maladies of the moment, “intentionality” is its goal, and that is what this prayer is for. Saint Francis de Sales oriented all of his spiritual practices toward a straightforward end: drawing our attention to the presence of God. I cannot imagine a more appropriate gift to give high school students, a better time at which to arm people with this ability. In young adulthood we are told that every one of our decisions has enormous import, that our future is ever on the line, and a slight misstep (or even just a step) feels like doomsday. Then there’s Saint Francis, saying: no matter where you are or what you’re doing, you can and ought to be holy, because God is present at all times and in all places, and he will bring holiness out of you if you just notice him and let him do his work.
That’s the hunger I see in myself and in my peers: a desire to see and be seen. There is a mouth-guard shortage in Charlottesville but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone talk about using one. Yoga memberships are sold out among cash-strapped, desperate college students but we all act like this is a function of trendy exercise. We know what we need and we are here asking for it.
So teach us how to pray.
Invite us into your quiet, into your contemplation.
Draw our attention to God.