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Posts Tagged ‘Strangers to the City’

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Summer:  Take Time to Dawdle

Memorial Day marks something of a new beginning for people.  For a few who are tradition-bound it’s time to put on seersucker and whites with nothing to fear from the fashion police.  For others it’s time to rehabilitate the local version of Minnesota’s cabin up north.  And for most everyone with residual memories of school days, Memorial Day rekindles the primal thrill of liberation from the classroom.

The onset of summer does seem to offer something for everybody, and at the very least it hints that the hectic pace of life is about to tone down a notch or two.  That’s the promise of the opening line of George Gerschwin’s song in Porgy and Bess, which asserts that it’s “summer time, and the livin’ is easy.”  For a few that tranquility actually materializes, and life really is wonderful.  But for many, including Porgy and Bess, the summer will bring mixed blessings.  Moments of leisure will punctuate the days and weeks of summer, but if anything the relentless toil and challenge of life will go on.  The “easy livin'” will be just beyond their reach, as it always has been.

IMG_6303In his book Strangers to the City, the Cistercian monk Father Michael Casey writes about the need to slow down and open ourselves to the wonders around us.  Of course the leisure for that might seem to be a luxury that we can ill-afford, but for the monk it is a sine qua non in the search for wisdom.  To his credit Casey points out that this search for wisdom ought not be the sole purview of monks, because all of us need to get a grip on ourselves and stop and smell the roses.

Casey encourages his readers to “dawdle along the way” of life, and only then might we shed the blinders that filter out wisdom.  “I suppose it was easier in a world not dominated by calendars and clocks simply to take each day as it comes,” he writes.  “On the other hand, making the effort to overthrow the tyranny of time yields proportionately higher profits to those of us who try it sometimes.  It is like a liberation.  We have to realize, however, that the tyrant is inside us, not outside.”

I’m not about to disparage work or productivity, but all too often we distill the essence of our lives down to our work.  We are what we do, and introductions these days go directly from the name of the person to the issue of occupation.  And if truth be told, we’ve probably always done it that way, as the story of Moses’ first encounter with God suggests.  Moses asked God for a name, and to God’s credit God gave Moses a succinct answer:  “I am who I am.”  There was none of this “I do this for a living.”  Nope, God is being, not doing, and that is a nugget of wisdom that we can all live with.  Our personal value derives from the fact that we are the image of the divine.  Our daily work flows out of that belief, but work is not who we are.

IMG_6291One of my favorite cartoons appeared several years ago in The New Yorker Magazine.  It shows a well-dressed couple about to go out to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and the husband presents to his wife a handsome leather-bound volume as a token of gratitude for another year together.  “Oh Stephen, how thoughtful — an annual report on our marriage!”  Obviously it’s not what she had always wanted.

Summer starts in a few days, and it offers us lots of possibilities.  If we tackle it in the same way that we do the other seasons, then we may very well compile an impressive list of what we accomplished during our summer vacation.  If we yield to moments of leisure, however, and use the eyes and ears that the good Lord has given to each of us, then we may end the summer with a few nuggets of wisdom that we picked up along the way.

This approach seems to me to be worth the risk.  On the one hand, come Labor Day the chapter on summer in our annual report might be a bit thin, but life itself might very well be full.  Some would dare to say that’s exactly what God has in mind for us this summer.  Who am I to argue with that?

IMG_6251Notes

+On May 20th I gave a conference at the day of reflection for members of the Order of Malta in the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo.  The gathering took place in Menlo Park, CA.  In our cycle of activity we do a three-day retreat in the fall and a one-day gathering in the spring.

+Last week nineteen spring graduates of Saint John’s University began a two-week orientation and retreat in anticipation of their year as Benedictine Volunteers.  Later this summer they will head out to Benedictine houses literally around the world, where they will be for a year of service.

+On May 20th Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud came to the Abbey and ordained to the priesthood our confrere Father Efrain Rosado.  On Sunday Father Efrain presided at the Abbey Mass.

+Last week we had tons of rain, and it has spurred on the growth around us.  In particular, the scent of lilac has pervaded the campus, and it’s been just wonderful — provided you like the scent of lilac.  We have lots of it planted all over the place.

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imageSummer Time and Holy Leisure

Among the few serious complaints I have about monastic life, there’s this:  the schedule is horribly inefficient.  Consider that we drop what we’re doing, several times a day, to go and pray.  Consider that, depending on our jobs, we change into and out of our habits several times a day.  Consider that, during some of the most productive stretches of the day, we stop everything so that we can dine together, recreate together, and squeeze in spiritual reading and reflection.  What was Saint Benedict thinking when he organized this life?  How did he expect anyone to get anything done?

I’ve always cherished the strong work ethic that I inherited from my parents.  I’ve derived a lot of personal satisfaction from it, and because of it I’ve compiled a decent record of modest accomplishment.  Still, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of balance, even if it does eat into productive work time.  I’ve even accepted the possibility that there may be more to life than a full schedule — as much as I hate to admit it.

imageAs you might expect, of all the alternatives to work, it’s leisure that troubles me most.  I know I’m not alone in this.  I know too that I’m not the only one who is driven to cram activity into each and every moment of my day.   And I know I’m not unique in my suspicion that leisure is a personal indulgence, especially when there’s so much to be done.

You can imagine my unease, then, when I read this:  “The Benedictine vocation includes within its integrity an attraction to leisure….”  Who says so?   So writes Michael Casey, a Trappist from an abbey in the wilds of Australia.  He’s widely revered for his wisdom and insight into life, and not just monastic life.  Despite that, quite naturally my first impulse was to dismiss out of hand his comment on leisure.  After all, what else is there to do in the Australian wilderness anyway, other than to wait for the next sunrise?  But of course life there is much like life everywhere, and Casey is as busy as the rest of us.  So I have to give his words their due, even if I prefer to imagine monastic life as one long work period.

imageActually, Casey’s chapter on leisure in his book Strangers to the City makes a lot of sense, whether you’re a monk or not.  He argues, for starters, that leisure is not idleness.  Nor is it escapism.  Nor is it an indifference to the world around us.  Rather, leisure is a conversation with life.  Leisure involves climbing out of our self-enclosed existence so that we can listen to what people have to say, and be open to the lessons that life has to teach.  True leisure, in other words, is an activity in which we learn that we are not the measure of all things, nor are we the center of the universe.  Believe it or not, there are other people out there.

imageCasey goes on to note that leisure, in and of itself, is value-neutral.  But when we make time for leisure and use it well, it opens us up to growth.  Perhaps that’s why Saint Benedict begins his Rule with the invitation to Listen.  Listen thoughtfully to our brothers and sisters.  Listen to the sacred reading we do.  Listen and pay attention to God as God appears regularly in the people around us.  But the only way in which we can listen is to make room for leisure in our lives.  So it is that in the monastic tradition we speak of Holy Leisure, because it’s sacred and it’s transformative.

Given all that, it helps to explain why Saint Benedict breaks up our day so inefficiently. Left to my own devices, I’d keep my nose to the grindstone morning, noon and night — and I’d call it good.  But I’d likely live in oblivion to what’s going on around me.  I’d miss God present in the people and events around me.  At best, life would be white noise or muzak as I meandered on about my own business.  No wonder that Saint Benedict deliberately yanks us from this self-absorbed little world.

imageNow that we’ve reached Memorial Day, what are my summer resolutions?  For one thing, I’m going to listen intently to some music, for the sole purpose of hearing what the composer and musicians have to say.  I’m going to visit an art gallery or two, just to see how a few artists view life.  I’m going to make more time for reading, just to find out if there are people out there who see life differently than I.  I’m going to pay attention to my confreres and friends, if for no other reason than to savor the wisdom that God has imparted to them.

In short, I’ve decided that this summer I will try to experience life as more than one extended stretch of white noise.  And who knows?  If it works out, and I do hear something  useful, then I might very well engage in some holy leisure even after Labor Day lowers the curtain on summer.

imageNotes

+On May 19th-20th I took part in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  On the evening of the 19th the Trustees joined the monastic community for dinner in the abbey refectory.

+On May 19th, between sessions of the meetings of the Trustees, I rushed to the other side of campus to speak to a group of faculty and staff from Concordia University in Saint Paul.  They were at Saint John’s to participate in a day-long workshop on The Saint John’s Bible.

+On May 21st I attended the dedication of the new entry hall at Visitation School in Mendota Heights, MN.

+On May 22nd I spoke on “Leisure in the Monastic Tradition” to the members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John’s.  For two weeks the twenty-two members are on retreat before heading off to year-long assignments at Benedictine abbeys across the world.  All are 2014 graduates of Saint John’s University, and this is the largest such group of volunteers that we’ve ever sponsored.

image+This last week, and for a while to come, the monks have moved out of the refectory, while its ceiling is being repaired and a few of the frescoes are being retouched.  In the interim, we are taking our meals in the basement recreation room of the monastery.  It’s tight, but the confined space builds community!

+While I was in Paris recently I had the chance to visit several churches that were new to me, if not to the Parisians.  Among the most impressive was that of Saint Eustace.  Built in the 16th and 17th centuries, it served the center of Paris, including Les Halles, for long the chief market of the city.  One is oblivious to the huge Metro station below; while the church itself is an island of tranquility.  Inside of the church is a wonderful sculpture that depicts the former market.

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