Tomorrow is Too Late

There are times when the athleticism of the Rule of St Benedict exhausts me. We are constantly being urged to hasten, run, be quick and so on. One sentence above all comes to haunt me whenever I feel a little folding of the arms would be nice: ‘Let us make haste to do now what may profit us for ever’ — currendum et agendum est modo quod in perpetuo nobis expediat (Prologue 44). There is no getting away from it. A life of ease is not for us who have vowed to follow Christ as monks or nuns, but do we have anything useful to offer those outside the cloister?

In the West the concept of leisure has become highly developed, so much so that it is even called ‘the leisure industry’. We recognize that all work and no play make Jack and Jill not only dull but ill, too. Accordingly, millions of pounds are spent on holidays and leisure activities, but these often seem to produce their own kind of stress. Is my holiday as good as yours (checks Facebook or Instagram); am I doing enough running/gym work (checks fitness bracelet), and so on. Along with the expectation of having a holiday or time off from work, there is also an element of competitiveness, of comparing ourselves with others even when we are relaxing, that fundamentally undermines the whole idea of lessening the tension or busyness we experience at other times. What is worse, we are actually so busy being leisured that we have no time for activities that make different demands on us, such as prayer, charity, service of others and so on.

If we have the opportunity of doing good, of being kind, of making the world a better place for even just one person, then tomorrow is indeed too late. We must do it now. We have a tendency to put off what what we find difficult or disagreeable. Our intentions are usually good. We are always going to do such and such — pray, donate to the Food Bank, visit that curmudgeonly neighbour down the road — but somehow this is never the right moment. We have too much to do or we need a rest or . . . The excuses are endless. St Benedict is not very good at making allowances for that kind of procrastination. He is kindly, sympathetic, but quite insistent. We must do now what will profit us for ever. Our acts of kindness and generosity will never appear on Facebook or Instagram, but I daresay they register on the heavenly fitness bracelet. Our spiritual health is as important as our physical or mental health, and it has a direct impact on others.

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A Quiet Sunday

For many, the sixth Sunday of Easter is less important than the fact that this is the first May Bank Holiday week-end and the weather is glorious. It would be silly, as well as churlish, not to rejoice in both. The extra leisure that the Bank Holiday gives, the sunshine, and the richness of the Eastertide liturgy transform the quietness of Sunday into something more, something immensely attractive and creative.

We have the gospel of John 15.9-17 to electrify us with its promise of friendship with Christ IF we do as he commands, and a whole day in which to live in his presence, rejoicing that the world contains so much beauty. Here in the monastery that means the regular round of prayer and reading is maintained, out of sight of everyone except God and ourselves; the monastic dinner is rather better, and the monastery dog indulged a little more, than on other days of the week; and there is a total ban on anything that might lead to arguments and disputes — no ‘fraternal corrections’ of any kind! This is not absence or emptiness or constraint; it is trying to live as we are meant to live every day of the week. As today’s reading from the Rule reminds us, our lives are lengthened so that we may amend our evil ways. (RB Prol. 33-38) Our ways may not seem very evil to us, but we all fall short of the glory of God and have something more to learn until our very last breath. Today is a day of boundless possibility. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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Vacare Deo

With the week-end approaching, it is worth spending a few moments thinking about the old monastic injunction vacare Deo, to make space for God. The Cistercian equivalent is the otium sanctum, holy leisure, which St Bernard characterised as otium negotissimum, very busy leisure. How do we make space for God in our lives? What kind of sacred leisure should our lives contain?

The first thing to note is that making space is not the same as doing nothing. Doing nothing worried St Benedict, for example, who saw it as idleness and the enemy of the soul. Making space for God, by contrast, is more a change of gear, adopting a slightly different focus. We make space for God by attending to him. That may mean we have to think about what we do, but it doesn’t mean that we necessarily stop doing things. Have you ever thought of inviting God into your week-end activities, for instance? Of course prayer and reading the scriptures matter, but so do the other activities in which we engage. Time spent with others is not time stolen from God unless we are selfish and self-indulgent about it.

I sometimes think that one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to create a God in our own image and likeness: exacting, a bit of a policeman, rather a killjoy, if truth be told. Yet in Jesus we see a much more attractive image of God, one who taught us to expect miracles at parties and holiness among the outcasts of society. The whole week-end, not just Sunday, can be filled with God. We just have to make space for him.

 

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The Problem of the Week-End

A chance remark by a friend made me think about what we mean by a week-end. In monasteries week-ends tend to be busy. There are often visitors, both individuals and groups, and Sunday, of course, is liturgically the high-spot of the week, a day we try to mark with special joy. By Monday we can be feeling a little limp, but that is when the working week begins again so we must move into another gear. Yet I still look forward to the week-end. Despite the busyness, there is a sense of winding-down, of a different quality to the days. I am not sure what it consists in but it is not a figment of my imagination. Time is a human construct, so maybe it is at base a philosophical problem. That’s too much like hard work. Just enjoy your week-end.

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The Importance of Sabbath

Sundays are very busy days for monks, nuns and clergy. That doesn’t mean that they lose everything we mean by ‘sabbath’: sacred leisure, silence, joy in the Lord. We have the custom of saving the best of what we have for Sundays, so even the food we eat marks out this day as special; and because Benedictines often work in solitude at their appointed tasks, we try to make this day one on which we share something as a community — a walk, perhaps, or that most British of institutions, tea at four o’clock.

I wonder whether many Christians have lost the sense of the importance of sabbath. We are so busy with all the multitudinous activities that fill the week-end that Sunday can end up being just another day with church on top. If so, it would be a good idea to think again about how we keep the Lord’s day holy. ‘The sabbath was made for man’: we are meant to have time to enjoy it.

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