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Benedictine spirituality: John’s story

Lynne Baab • Wednesday January 20 2016

Benedictine spirituality: John’s story

John, 46, is an attorney. He has spent time at two different monasteries, ranging from a few days to a week each time. Here’s how he describes his first visit:

My first monastery experience came six or seven years ago, right before a sabbatical I was taking from my law firm. I experienced a kind of tinderbox tension leading up to the sabbatical, trying to get everything done, trying not to leave too many unfinished projects for others to complete. As I drove home from work that last day, I was still dictating letters and leaving voicemails on my car phone.

As I drove to the monastery the next day, I was revved on coffee, full of energy, and playing loud music on my car stereo. As I followed the road up the hill to the monastery through the cool woods, I could feel myself unwind. There’s an open place at the top, where the breeze was blowing. I sat in my car, feeling the quiet. Under the quiet, I could feel waves and waves of fatigue. Under the fatigue, I could feel waves and waves of emptiness.

In my week at the monastery, God showed his love to me.

In Benedict’s Rule, there is no vow of silence, but there is a presumption against speaking. Speech is reserved for necessary things only, and there is a healthy understanding of the dangers of the tongue.

During my week at the monastery, I had a few mealtime conversations, but by and large I didn’t talk to anyone for a week. In the space where words would have been, there was room for God.

The silence didn’t scare me like it might have at a younger age. As you get older, you just get worn out from the noise. Life exhausts you. The pace exhausts you. So you are drawn to a place where you perceive it might be different, where it might be quiet.

It doesn’t mean it was necessarily easy. God was working with me that week. There were tears even as I was journaling.

I noted the role work plays in a monastery. To an outsider, it’s clear that work is a minor part of the picture. It’s a way to fill time between prayer services, a way for the monks to support themselves, a way to fill in the edges between what’s important.

At the monastery I visited, the monks attend a series of seven prayer services every day, beginning at 5:30 a.m. and ending at 7:00 p.m. These prayer services created an incredible sense of rhythm for me. I knew I would be anchored in prayer continually. The services integrated God into the whole day. And it seemed that for the monks, their lives are knit together into one whole, not fragmented. They work in order to be able to pray. My life at home – work, family, PTA, church – it has God over top of it all, but it still seems fragmented. I pray in order to be able to work.

I was struck by the monks’ approach to time. It is not adversarial. While I was at the monastery, God was showing me that I always fight time, trying to manage it, buy it, control it. I have too much time or too little time. I’m always struggling with it. The monks always seem to have enough time, just the right amount of time. No one rushes. They live in a rhythm that seems unforced.

I enjoyed the sense of rhythm. The monks go back and forth between work and prayer and rest. Time is seen as rhythmical rather than linear. It was clear to me that in our everyday lives we try to control time with our schedules.

At one meal I had an interesting conversation with a monk who works in the book bindery at the monastery. I asked him, “What if you were trying meet a Fed Ex deadline, and the bells rang for the prayer service? What would you do? Would you keep on working to meet the deadline? Would you choose to miss the deadline and go to the prayer service? How would you decide?”

The monk looked at me as if I were out of my mind. They really don’t understand the drive to squeeze things in because they don’t live that way.


This is the second post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The first post was Benedictine spirituality: embracing structure. Next week focuses on Benedict, the person who lies behind the tradition.

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.

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