“When the time comes for one of the divine offices to begin, as soon as the signal is heard, everyone must set aside whatever they may have in hand and hurry as fast as possible to the oratory, but of course they should do so in a dignified way which avoids giving rise to any boisterous behaviours. The essential point is that nothing should be accounted more important than the work of God” (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 43).
As much as I read about monks and write about monks and want to practice monkish habits, most days I’m reminded very quickly of my non-monk status. There’s a reason monks can stop whatever they’re doing (their daily jobs and chores) when they hear the calling of the bell. They can set down the plunger, wash those hands, and walk the length of the monastery to the place of worship. They can do it succinctly; they can do it with purpose.
Those of us in the land of jobs and children and commitments find this Benedictine practice a bit more challenging. I’ve been struggling for almost three years now to know what it means for me to be summoned to prayer by the hours of the day.
For a while, I imagined my days as carved out into a liturgy of sorts, separated into meals and playtimes and snack times and bedtimes, each moment from one to another was supposed to be a sort of bell chime, calling me to “the work of God.” Doesn’t that sound beautiful? Snack time is not just snack time, it’s a time to stop, readjust my heart, remind myself that i have love to offer my children only because I am loved by my Creator.
That idea has slowly evolved as I have. At first I was strict with myself. Being called to the work of God demanded my opening the Bible or my prayer book, directing myself to specific types of prayers at specific times. Then it became a burden, another task I couldn’t complete, another way to forgo grace.
See, snack time is rarely a moment when I sit my children at the table and they patiently wait their turns for cheese and grapes. Usually, Brooksie is scooting around the living room with his snack trap full of cheerios, leaving his own little Hansel and Gretel trail. Usually, I’m throwing a bag of goldfish at August in the backseat of the car, on the way home from school, in hopes that carb-loaded, fake cheddar crackers will keep him from a premature (and unsuccessful) nap.
Usually playtime is outside at the park or in the driveway and I’m engaged in drawing terrible chalk drawings (worst mom-artist ever!) or cheering for the boy on his bike or chasing the baby who’s heading for the street.
There are no bells chiming. There is no one calling me to prayer.
But what I want to say is this: I’ve never really “succeeded” in what I pictured would be my practice of the hours, but that doesn’t make me a failure. It just means it’s taken me some time to realize what I was missing in the gift of the work of God. (What I was missing was grace.)
Maybe I became so fixated on the “setting things aside” part or the doing away with “boisterous behaviors” (ha!). I wanted to be the woman who could really stop. Who could see the day swinging into its next sacred space and walk with it into the Holy. I wanted to be able to set down the construction paper and glitter and hold up my hands to receive. I wanted to push my kids in the stroller on the way to the park and stop on the sidewalk just long enough to hear God speak goodness to me.
Those things are possible. But not because we tell ourselves to work harder at “hurry[ing] as fast as possible to the oratory.” They are possible because we receive the good news that we are just as much a part of the work of God as the monk in his midday chants, as the pastor who sits in the afternoon with the sick. We do not become a part of the work of God because we can get there fast or because we can focus our entire mind on the scripture.
We join in the work of God when we choose to receive the good news that God loves us in this moment: this snack time in the car, full of unhealthy cheddar bites, this play time in the driveway, this wiping of the counter. St. Benedict describes the greatest work of his monks as being the calling they have to worship: the chanting and reading of the scripture, the praying of the Psalms.
Can we not receive that calling as well? The work of God is not a calling to do more and struggle more and feel ourselves buried under the weight of our prayerlessness. The work of God is a calling to respond to the God who offers grace in all things in every moment. It is the calling to respond to the God who loves us and redeems what our hands are doing and our mouth is saying and mind is thinking. So that, yes, snack time is a reminder to pray, to offer thanks to the Holy God for this holy moment of red lights and goldfish and tired bodies on the way home from school.
So if your kids are sitting pleasantly at the table to receive their grapes and cheese, by all means, open your Bible to the Psalms. And if you are in sitting in a meeting with your boss who has never appreciated an hour of the time you’ve given to your job, by all means open your hands under the conference table to receive from the Savior who loved more than a human is capable of loving, who understands the ache of being unappreciated. I will join you both–oh mother with the pleasant children, oh employee at the conference table. I’ll be at the red light with my hands open too, receiving from the Savior who knows what it is to live with less sleep than a body demands.
Hurry! Hurry to the work of God, friends. Hurry, even though there’s no where we must go. We only receive. See, that’s the secret: me at the stop light, you at your conference table, you at the park, you behind the counter steaming lattes, you folding sweaters and stacking. Open your hands and we will receive.
Hurry. We trust the grace that’s waiting. We long for the arms we’re running into.
Every Wednesday I write about my practice of St. Benedict’s Rule
The Sacred Vessels of the Altar, The greatest possible concern, On rising immediately, It should normally be short, Seven Times a Day, Lord open my lips, Humility, When it is best not to speak, When love is obedience, A reputation for holiness