A friend from the Long Retreat told me the story of the bishop and the eggtimers at the train station, and then sent me the little book: Do Nothing to Change Your Life. That, the signs on the lawns and this post by the prior of Holy Cross Monaster, Br. Bede Thomas Mudge prompted me to write this column, which appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 23 April 2009. If you want to try a three minute breath of prayer, give this a fly:
Be still and know that I am God.
The yellow signs are planted on lawns all over Haverford Township: “Slow Down!” I’m seeing them as I drive to pick up the kids after theater rehearsal, on my walk to the grocery store, as I ride my bike back from Morning Prayer. Slow down. The signs are meant to slow traffic, I’m certain. Still, each time I encounter one, I find myself looking not at the speedometer of my car but at the pace of my life.
I’m midway through a nine-month sabbatical leave from teaching. Recently, I encountered a colleague at the grocery store who asked what I’d been doing with this gift of time, prefacing her question with “I know you must be very busy.” Well, yes and no.
I have a fellowship in contemplative practices this year and am busy talking and writing about what the Catholic monastic tradition can bring to the teaching and practice of science. On occasion, I am also busy doing nothing, or rather practicing what the Fathers of the Church called otium sanctum — holy leisure.
In his City of God, St. Augustine distinguishes between holy leisure and idle inactivity by the end to which the time is put, “thus it is the love of truth which seeks a holy leisure.”
Leisure in the monastic sense is not time to do nothing, or to do what you like, but a time to slow down, to be still, to make room in your life to look toward God.
“Be still and know that I am God.” A translation of this verse from Psalm 46 that hews more closely to the original Hebrew is “Let go, and know that I am God.” The sense is that of unclenching your fist, even of releasing an enemy from your grasp. In my life, time often seems like the enemy, or at least my lack of it squeezes the life out of me. I hold tight to watch and calendar, hoarding time.
While contemplation might seem the business of the cloistered monastic, it is an indispensable part of the Christian life, perhaps even more so these days when we are tightly bound into a noisy network of communication, reachable by someone across the world even while we are out for a walk in the woods. “Reflection, meditation, contemplation are as necessary as breathing,” suggested Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi recently. “Time for silence [is] … a premise and an indispensable condition for it.”
If we were Carthusian monks, silence would be in the very air, and contemplation might be as easy as breathing. There would be no ringing phones, kitchen timers or teenagers chasing the cat, herself in hot pursuit of a mouse, through my study. Finding the necessary breathing room for my soul is a bit more of a challenge under these conditions.
What might it take? A few years ago, Stephen Cottrell, the Anglican bishop of Reading, startled commuters by handing out egg timers at the local train station, along with the suggestion to begin a contemplative practice just by being still for three minutes.
In his book, “Do Nothing to Change Your Life,” Cottrell offers some advice for finding silent time amidst the noise of daily life: “Observe the little rituals that reward you with two or three minutes of having to wait.” Make a pot of tea, but warm the pot first. Don’t empty the dishwasher while you wait; instead be still, and wait upon the Lord.
In a fourth century treatise on the contemplative life, desert Father Evagrius Ponticus tells us, “The practice of stillness is full of joy and beauty.” Monastic or mother, we are all called to let go of the clock on occasion and sit still outside of time, that we might know God is with us. It just takes practice and the merest breath of time.
To those who love you, Lord, you promise to come with your Son and make your home within them. Come then with your purifying grace and make our hearts a place where you can dwell. Amen.— Concluding prayer from Morning Prayer, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time