The first time I read Franny and Zooey, I was captivated by Franny Glass’s (admittedly unhinged) plan to repeat “The Jesus Prayer” until it became as natural as a heartbeat. I was less impressed by her brother Zooey’s admonishment, later in the story, that Franny should stop using the prayer “as a substitute for doing whatever the hell your duty is in life, or just your daily duty.”
Upon a second reading, it dawned on me the reader’s sympathies ought to lie with Zooey (if the reader was the type of reader who could ever really sympathize with a Salinger character) and that Franny’s approach to the divine was a little precious, a little selfish.
Franny’s been on my mind lately, as I’ve started attending a weekly Taizé service. Taizé is a distinct style of worship, based out of a monastic community in France. The service is a series of repetitive chants interspersed with prayers and readings.
We meet weekly in the front corner of a beautiful, cathedral-like sanctuary. A circle of chairs surrounds a large wooden cross. The chants are simple — one line is sung 15, 20 times. One is even a Kyrie — the same words as Franny’s Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
It is a beautiful, sacred hour. The repetition is soothing and calming. Like all meditation, the chants open a space for mindfulness of my breath, of my heartbeat. Of all my chaotic worries that swirl up to cloud the quiet.
That hour focusing on repetition has made me more aware of the many less-sacred patterns in my weeks. I drive one route to work, morning and evening. I teach the same class to five periods of students. I put on the same make-up in the morning, and take it off every evening. I cook; I do the dishes.
Tallying up the hours I devote to these repetitive tasks gets discouraging. Oppressive, even. Zooey hones in on this feeling, describing a particular moment when the mundane hit him hard:
Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady.
Later, he clarifies this rather bizarre image by telling Franny, “Don’t you know who the Fat Lady is? Ah, Buddy. It’s Christ himself.”
My favorite lines from the Taizé prayers come near the end, after most of the chants have been sung:
Waiting for you, by night and by day, means letting our hearts grow so open to all, that as the years pass, we wish more and more to burn with one and the same love — ours and Yours.
This is followed by a chant:
Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name Bless the Lord my soul, who leads me into life.
The words acknowledge the circular nature of life: “waiting for you by night and by day.” Yet they also give hope of growth and expansion with the lines “so that we may turn to what lies ahead” and “our hearts grow so open.”
As Rilke says in The Book of Hours, “I live my life in widening circles.”
The Taizé service is another circle in my week now. Each Thursday, I sit in the darkened church and quiet my heart and blend my voice with the others and watch the stained glass blaze and fade into evening. And I draw strength from the beauty of it. Then I leave, and I do my best to bring that beauty with me into the less-lovely patterns in my week, that they might also lead me into life.
Both Glass siblings have a point — we should pray unceasingly for mercy, but we should do it while we “polish our shoes.” This, I believe, is how the circles of our lives begin to widen.