Several years ago, I had the privilege of serving as a Eucharistic minister in a small church community in upstate New York. I had come to the Episcopal Church as an adult after a childhood spent in evangelical congregations of varying degrees of fundamentalism. My mother was a converted Catholic and preferred the emphasis these churches placed on relationship over ritual. I came to liturgy later when I could no longer conjure my faith at will. I needed a discipline that was strong enough to endure my disbelief as well as accept my ecstacies.

One morning when I was serving on the altar, I caught the sound of the priest’s voice. He was reciting liturgy in a flat monotone. Even with all my recently developed respect for ritual, I had persisted every Sunday emphatically participating in liturgy “like I meant it,” which loosely translated to reading it with varying dramatic emphasis. There would be no vain repetitions if there was anything I could do about it. With this mind set, I was shocked to hear our priest monotone his way through mass. What was wrong? Was this fatigue? Was he bored?

This particular priest had trained me as a Eucharistic minister and as he had done so, instilled in me a deep appreciation for small movements and details. He was meticulous about setting a table at which as many people as possible could comfortably eat. At that moment of doubt on the altar, my respect for him counseled me: why not? just try it. And I did.

And when I did, I was amazed. As soon I gave up my deliberate performance and dropped my voice flat, suddenly it was as if the entire congregation was speaking out of my mouth. My voice was at once washed out and flooded through by the voices of the congregation. I gave what felt like recital and received a gift of community.

Of all the attunements (or moods) addressed by Heidegger, boredom is of most interest to me. Initially, I began investigating boredom through reading Jean-Luc Marion.[1] It seems to me Marion makes use of the mechanism of boredom to achieve the perspective of vanity that is so important to his work on the saturated phenomenon. In as far as allowing access to beings-as-a-whole and manifesting Nothing, according to both Heidegger and Marion, boredom seems to do the work of attunement better than any other mood, including anxiety.[2]

To offer a simple outline, the path toward boredom consists of three steps. First, an individual assigns special privilege to an object. That object can be a concrete object (Heidegger’s famous example is that of a book). However, I believe it can equally be an activity (the more structured the better) or an abstract concept (like optimal health). This assignment is an exercise in subjective agency: I assign to it.

As expressed through the assignment, the individual holds certain expectations of the object. However, for no discernible reason, the object fails to deliver on these expectations. In this second stage, the water between subject and object become muddied: to use Heidegger’s example, I am bored and the book is boring together. The object suffers the loss of privilege and the subject suffers a crisis of agency.

The final stage involves the confrontation with beings-as-a-whole in the sense of the experience of everything being boring. Boredom is a color that paints everything the same color including the individual. As my object suffers the loss of privilege and becomes undifferentiated from beings-as-a-whole, I suffer a loss of self differentiation. It is at this crisis point, if it is endured, that profitable existential crisis occurs.[3]

Even rendered in the simplistic form above, it’s clear that boredom works some pretty neat magic in terms of preparing the conversion of subject (I am) to object (to me). This conversion is particularly important in postmodern descriptions of religious experience. And I think boredom is particularly is at play in religious ritual. I don’t mean that it can be practiced as such. Attunements are always parifferal. Also, it should be clarified that attunements are not moods in the sense of feelings. That said, religion is a set of assigned and privileged practices. As such, religious practices engaged with expectation are prone to suffer loss of privilege. No matter how faithfully we pursue our devotions, we sometimes reach a point when they seem pointless: “What’s the use?”[4] This is a rare and beneficial moment and we do ourselves a great disservice whenever we try to distract from it with immediate reassurance.

However, the real crucial point here is that Heidegger insists that attunements in general, and boredom in particular, involve not only subject and object, but community, expressed as “being with one another.” Heidegger writes, “Attunement is not some being that appears in the soul as an experience, but the way of our being there with one another.”[5] Heidegger indicates that boredom is an exceptional attunement and it is possibly therefore also superlative in its ability to invoke community.[6]

The phrase “one another” is immediately recognizable to readers of the New Testament and while the two phrases many not bear strict correlation, the both invoke a similar ideas of community. Most importantly, one another is not “one and an other.” Rather, it occurs across multiple persons. One another is not a collection of one-to-one correspondences but a relationship we have between us. It goes beyond the Self and Other dichotomy.[7]

Then, the potential of boredom is possibly to include community in a phenomenology of religious experience beyond the confrontation of Self and Other. Although I find Marion’s description of the saturated phenomenon satisfying as an account of encounter between self and advent, the absence of any necessary role for community within that description has troubled me. If boredom can be admitted as being at work within religious experience and as being at work within Marion’s account of such, then perhaps it can be spared the criticism that, caught up in the overabundance of the saturated phenomenon, l’adonné is left, more or less, a holy fool. In this way, boredom suggests itself not only as a mood pervading the picture of religious experience, but as the means by which community might be brought into the frame in a compelling way.

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, Reduction and Givenness: Investigations of Husserl, Heidegger and Phenomenology, trans. Thomas Carlson, (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 167-176

[2] Marion, Reduction and Givenness, 175-176 and Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995), 81

[3] Please see Heidegger, FCM, 82-88 for a full description without any interpretation.

[4] This phrase appears throughout The Erotic Phenomenon. Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, trans. Stephen Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[5] Heidegger, FCM, 66

[6] Heidegger, FCM, 81

[7] Heidegger, FCM, 66