I sometimes reflect on living the monastic life – how all-consuming it can be. There is always the next thing, and it can be very demanding. But the other week I was talking to my niece Katharine. She had a baby last year and she adores him, but she was telling me what hard work it is – day and night looking after a young child, on call 24 hours a day. Many of you will have had that experience and know exactly what it is like.
I remember a remarkable woman in my parish in England. She had five young children. When I used to visit there it was a maelstrom as they all came bounding up to the front door to greet me. So much energy! So much noise! I said to her once, “Gosh, how do you manage? How do you cope?” She said, “Well, I’ll show you.” We went into the hall and she opened the walk-in cupboard under the stairs, where most people stored their vacuum cleaners. I looked in, and there was a cushion on the floor and a candle. She said, “Every morning I go in there for 20 minutes, and spend time with God.” The children all knew that that was Mum’s special time. In fact, she put a sign on the door when she was in there. The children would never disturb her for those precious 20 minutes. “And that,” she said, “is what keeps me not just sane, but actually very happy.”
This sermon is part of a Lenten preaching series on “Growing a Rule of Life.”
Rules of Life & the Rhythms of Nature – Br. James Koester
Our Relationship with God – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Our Relationship with Self – Br. Mark Brown
Our Relationship with Others – Br. David Vryhof
Our Relationship with Creation – Br. Keith Nelson
Living in Rhythm and Balance – Br. Luke Ditewig
Growing a Rule of Life: To subscribe to a daily morning email with a short video and download a PDF of the accompanying workbook enter your name and email.
More information here: SSJE.org/growrule
This Lent we’ve been reflecting on Growing a Rule of Life, a list of goals and practices of how to live well with gardening as the primary image. We have considered various relational garden plots in which to grow our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others, and with creation. Today we conclude by looking at the whole, looking to Jesus for how to balance these relationships, and for many of us reviewing the personal rule we’ve drafted with suggestions for how to live in rhythm.
Touching your neck or chest, feel your heart beat. We are rhythm at the core. Whether relaxed or stressed, the heart pulses our beat, sounds the rhythm of our life’s dance. Rhythm is the pattern of presence and absence of sound, of notes and rests, long and short, more and less, doing and refraining, ebb and flow. Rule of life may also be considered rhythm of life. What’s your beat? What’s the tempo? What are the steps or style of your dance? Where’s the emphasis? As in music, rests, the seeming absence, define notes and create the rhythm.
What was Jesus’ rhythm? How does his life inform how to live? Jesus went to the synagogue, worshiping God in community on the Sabbath. In our gospel lesson, Jesus is just leaving and he goes to the house of Simon, one of his disciples. Jesus goes to synagogue, spends time with friends, and he responds to those in needs. Many crowd the house that evening, and he heals them.
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus knew what was coming. People would gather with requests. The “to do” list would sprout. Jesus knew the pain and questions of his own human heart would be present. Jesus knew waiting with God to be primary and sustaining. Jesus stopped and went away to pray. Jesus taught in the synagogue and on the road, healed at home, and people were constantly coming to him asking more. Jesus’ rhythm has lots of activity, lots of serving, and significantly, Jesus stops to pray.
Jesus also invites us to stop and rest with him. Sometimes he sends the disciples off ahead of him while he dismisses the crowd. “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28, 30) Like animals yoked together to share the work, Jesus says he will work with us, easing the burden.
How does Jesus do this? Not simply taking over. Jesus teaches modeling that amid hard work and relating to many, stopping to rest and pray is humanity’s natural rhythm, how we were created to live well. Jesus invites us to be his companions and friends, choosing a life yoked to him, a life regulated by God, or we might say following a pattern, a rule, a rhythm of God.
Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way: “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:29-30 in The Message)
Choosing to be regulated, to grow a rule, a pattern, a rhythm of life is challenging. As with a garden, it takes planning what’s appropriate and possible, establishing boundaries, providing nutrients, tender care and pruning. It requires a lot of showing up and patience. Growing plants or a rule of life is also learning the “unforced rhythms of grace.” We cannot control what is grown. We invest but we do not produce. God gives the growth. We receive what we do not deserve and often can’t request. Keeping company with Jesus, we face again and again that we are dust, learning humility, that we are not God.
With humble honesty and gentle grace, I invite you to consider the rule of life you are planning, and perhaps review what you’ve thought or written about through this series. Here are three suggestions.
First, focus on freedom. Does what you plan feel like increasing burden? It’s supposed to be helpful. The point is becoming more fully alive. Philippians reminds us to seek what is honorable, just, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. These bring us freedom. Following Jesus is challenging and incremental. Beware of taking on too much. Be gentle with yourself. Start small, and ask for help.
Second, move and adapt. Planting the same thing in the same place depletes the soil. Changing what and where we grow enables further growth. A monastic virtue, and for some communities one of the vows, is stability, which comes from the word “to stand.” It’s hard to stand upright for long periods without moving. In the words of Br. Michael Casey, a Cistercian monk: “Stability is not immobility. It is the knack of remaining constant in the midst of change. … the important thing is to keep moving forward, to keep adapting to changed circumstances and to re-orient oneself toward the goal.”[i] A rule of life changes us, and it too will need adapting. Hold it lightly. See what emerges. Watch the weather. With the goal in mind, adapt to the life you receive.
Third, dance with others. Relationships help us stay in rhythm, help us balance. Do part of your rule with others. Share a practice. Perhaps a different person for each garden plot: relationship with God, with yourself, with creation. Notice together what you discover. Or stop to reflect with someone or some group about the experience as a whole, what it’s like living into your rhythm, your rule of life.
Every day presents many choices. A rule, a rhythm, helps us regulate and balance. What will you seek to grow or how will you dance in this season of life you’ve been given? Jesus says: Dance with me; follow my lead. “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me, and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
[i] Michael Casey, ocso (2005) Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, p191.
At Emery House, our rural monastery, numerous windows invite looking out at the meadow and fields, the vegetation and animals. Part of the glory of rural spaces is the view. They invite looking and walking or—as I did last week—snow shoeing, exploring the expansive, wondering at beauty. They invite gazing up at the sky, at clouds and birds swirling, and then stars twinkling. Expansive views, as too with the ocean, give perspective, reminding us there is so much more.
Expansive views speak like the prophet Isaiah, chiding and reminding us of the truth: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have it not been told you from the beginning? [God] is the one who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants, [we] are like grasshoppers.”