There’s not enough time and too much to do, with one thing after another and demands at every turn. Monks may seem serenely slow or easily well-balanced, but we, too, struggle with busy, full lives. It takes constant intention to strive for a healthy rhythm. Here are some suggestions from what I’ve been learning about balancing time for what matters most, both inside and outside the Monastery.
Most important and most difficult: I’m learning to stop. Rest. Period. Like periods in a sentence. Like rests among notes of music, we need to stop regularly. Without punctuation, words pile up one after another, unending, becoming meaningless. Punctuation creates limits, necessary space to separate and define coherent thoughts. Stops define clauses and sentences so one can make meaning of the words. Together, notes and rests create rhythm, making music.
We Brothers stop a few times a day to pray together. We stop all manner of necessary and important work to be still, to listen and praise, and to pray for the world. The ringing bell which calls us to Chapel can feel inconvenient, unappealing, or annoying. Still, we show up, again and again. I’m finding it’s also important to stop and give space at other points, to not fill up natural gaps, but to take a short walk, have a cup of tea, or sit quietly and gaze.
Whether we feel like it or not, stopping at both set and spontaneous moments brings focus and balance. Stopping to rest gives definition, lets one make meaning of so much action, input, and emotion. Stopping to rest daily, weekly, monthly, and annually helps puts us in rhythm, arranges jumbled activity into a song we can sing, transforms tumbling words into living poetry.
No matter how you stop or how you pray, develop a rhythm. Make breaks amid your work; plan pauses. Get your cup of tea or coffee. Rather than drinking it on the run, stop and savor. Let your body and soul breathe. Perhaps you create a place with a special chair or nook. Perhaps you take a walk or use your commute or lunch break. Perhaps you stop alone or with others. Perhaps it’s two minutes or twenty. Adopt practices that work for you to begin the day, to sustain you through the day, and to end the day.
When introducing guests to retreat, I invite them to sleep: sleep in, take a nap, and go to bed early. The body needs more sleep than we often give it. Both Brothers and guests often begin a retreat surprised at how much they are exhausted. We’re used to pushing through, existing on less. Nights when I stay up later because I’m behind or I’m trying to fit in one more thing or something grabs my attention, I pay for it the next day. I can’t be as fully alert and present.
To balance our time and be rested, to be fully engaged, it’s important to stop and give our bodies their natural rhythm; stop for enough sleep. Try going to bed about the same time each night. Wind down rather than crash. We can flip off the lights, but we can’t simply switch off the mind and body to sleep. Lullabies are good for all of us, not just children. Compline, from “to complete,” is monastic bedtime prayer. Most of it is the same every night. We gently sing this service, our lullaby, to wind down, entrusting the night to God, slowing down to sleep.
A guest told me how he works long hours at the office, and then works further at home until he crashes into bed when he can do no more. Like many, he slept better here than he had in a long time. When the retreat was ending, he said the one thing he most wanted to take back into his daily life was stopping to be quiet before bed, preparing for sleep.
Stopping and sleeping are forms of surrender, letting go. Stopping to pray, we admit we can’t do it all. Stopping to settle, we say no to many good and many distracting things. Today it is all too easy and encouraged to be always available, perpetually plugged-in. Surrender by getting offline and unplugging your devices. Power-down your mind and soul with silence and stillness.
One way I do this is stopping to review the day and journaling about these questions: What am I most thankful for today? When was I most fully alive? The answers show where God was active. Recalling these prompts means trusting God will show up for tomorrow’s concerns. Remembering love received today builds trust for more love tomorrow. Trust helps surrender to sleep.
As with any practice, accept failure. Reviewing the day, acknowledge it. I didn’t stop to journal yesterday, but this is what I want, so I will try again. Accept imperfection. Surrender to the One who sees us fully, loves us dearly, and holds us always. As we say in a Compline prayer: “Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in your presence. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Help us let it be.” Give yourself grace, go to sleep, and try again. The prayer concludes: “The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Life is busy inside and outside the Monastery. We all need practice stopping. Stop to rest and be still. Give thanks. Pray. Unplug and power-down. Settle into sleep. Surrender to what is. Ask for help to let it be. Stopping and resting creates a healthy rhythm, making sense of our life’s song, shaping life’s poetry. Stop. Rest. Period.