It’s an ancient way of living. Our bodies are unsure of what to do with time when it is offered quietly and fully. Silence leaves everything too open. I’m used to my time being defined by the amount of quiet I have in the mornings before August’s first cries. On a good day I have twenty minutes to pray before he wakes. I define my day by the news on the radio while we eat our breakfast, by the dishes done and the laundry begun. I define the day by the period of getting ready and playing before it’s time to leave the house for the playground. I define the day by August’s nap time, my writing time, by errands and dinner and time with my husband. I define the day by a list of tasks that are slowly checked off or ignored, depending on my mood.
My life is defined by periods of time. And those periods of time are never enough. I will never organize my life enough to make it look as pretty as the magazines say it should look. I will never catch up on all the email I owe. I will never be a good enough friend to all the people I care about.
Monastic life is defined by periods of time as well. But its very nature is repetition. The “Work of God” is same work every day. Prayer, the reading of scripture, the movement to physical labor and then back to spiritual labor. There’s something to this rhythm that soothes as much as it brings unease.
The monks are gathering in the common room to head upstairs for lunch. There are quiet conversations, but as soon as we walk into the dining room, all talking will cease. We will eat in quiet, look in each other’s eyes and point to the salt. And when it is passed, the only thank you we’ll offer one another will be a head nod.
I think how we all start like the tiny fluttering baby inside me: without order, without time, in the darkness living and growing parts and being fed without any sense of awareness. My six-week-old pre-born baby has no idea it exists right now. Its brain isn’t developed enough to explain existence to itself. But he or she exists (is it even a he or she yet?) and my stomach is churning over the spike in hormones rushing within me, heading straight for my uterus. None of us wants to go back into the womb, into the darkness, into life without order. But there is something I do want, something I’m not sure how to get my mind around, something I’m experiencing here in all its discomfort and relief.
My unborn child is living in the chaos of the pre-world. The Genesis creation story says God spoke and brought light. He divided light from dark. He categorized. He created time. He ordered the parts of day, brought alertness and sleep. He introduced the concept of work and rest.
It is God’s nature to bring order out of chaos, especially within us if we allow it. Perhaps our sin nature constantly leads us into disorder, into chaos? We don’t know where the lines should be. We don’t know how to be aware and alert or how to rest. So we try to be aware all the time and we become too tired to ever truly pay attention. We think that more order is the answer to the chaos of our lives so we idolize organization. We buy more in order to help hem in our excess. We lament that there’s never enough time but we spend our time doing everything but what is most important.
We like to be told what to think about and how. So the Internet tells us. The TV tells us. The people around us tell us: Here is what to think about. Here is who to be. Here is what to value. And we’re used to that noise, that distraction. That’s why we change the song when conversation gets slow in the car, why we run on the treadmill with buds in our ears, why we distract our minds with any noisemaker we can find.
Tonight I lie on my bed at 10 pm, in a hallway that has been silent since we finished the Compline service at 8 this evening. No one speaks again until dawn. In a building of silence, I take a deep breath, feel the fear in me calm, and realize, surprisingly, that I’m settling into this. I’m accepting the quiet.
If I were a real monk, it would take me decades to smooth out the part of me that needs to talk so I’ll be heard, so I’ll be seen, appreciated. It would take decades to work through those kinks in me that scream for entertainment, that longing to sit on the couch and be amused by the talking screen. I’ve seen depth in those old monks, bent over their walkers. They’ve learned slowly, deliberately, how to live at peace with the sound their brains make when everything else is turned off. They know how to work and how to rest and they’ve learned it through silence.
It seems to me, lying here in this monastery bed at 10 pm, that my lack of ease with time and the noise in my life are interconnected, like somehow, if I quieted the noise, I would see time as it really is. Time would stop being my enemy and it would be a gift. Maybe that’s what it means to live with awareness, to live in constant prayer? To see the people whose faces walk past yours with gratitude, to see their beauty, to hold them up to God as you pass them on the streets.
How do I foster silence in my life? It’s not going to be quiet when I return home to San Francisco with my little boy. He’ll wake crying at 5:00 am, still adjusting to Pacific Time. He’ll get frustrated building train tracks and throw them at my head and I’ll take him to time out and deal with his angry response. August will make Percy and Thomas talk to each other in toddler language and those wooden trains will crash and zoom. I’ll listen to NPR while I spread peanut butter and jelly. I’ll talk on the phone. I’ll watch Dinosaur Train. I’ll play in the sand at the park. I’ll catch up with my husband when he gets home. My life will not stay quiet.
But that’s what I want. That’s been my goal this whole time as I’ve read St. Benedict and entered this strange season of monasticism. Can I make my life deep and steady? Can I listen to NPR while I spread the peanut butter and maintain a quiet heart? Can I view time as a gift? Can I look strangers in the eye and hold them up in prayer? Can I move toward my son with a constant flow of compassion and love and awareness of the gift he is in my life? Can I see myself as a Stay at Home Mom and have compassion towards myself, not judgment?
And in all of this, can I view time as a friend, offering me another moment in this beautiful world? Can I work to become like the old monks shuffling down the hall toward prayer, at peace with the mundane, at peace with the daily work of coming to God again and again, at peace with one another, ordered?
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