Sunday, March 29, 2009

More Learning

At the end of February I wrote about being the Refectorian - the person who gets the refectory (dining room) set up for meals and puts the food out and all of that. It's a complicated and time-consuming job with what seems like a thousand details to be attended to, and one of the things about our life that the members of the community grumble most regularly.

So this week, there I was again, scurrying back and forth getting coffee brewed and supplying the fruit basket and making ice water, only one month from the last time. Because we each take a week in turn to do this job, it's usually more like 2 or 3 months between times, but so many people had been away in March, that the rota skipped through the community very fast this time, and only 4 weeks have gone by since my last encounter with this job.


Actually it's perfectly fair, according to our rules, it's just the way it feels. It's not rational - I understand that quite well.

I don't know where this idea came from, but somewhere in the week before I started in on the work, I decided to pull out an old concept that circulates around the Benedictine world - that of 'leisure'. Now, as it's used in the monastic life, 'leisure' is not the same thing as the modern American use of the same word: a time to relax and do nothing, or very little, or only do what you like. It's a translation of an old Latin word 'otium' (I think) and it originally means something like: 'living your life so that there's room in it for everything you do."

It's a revolutionary and counter-cultural concept, actually, this living a life of leisure (as the old texts describe the monastic life). Most people live with too much to do, and few see any hope of intervening in that situation. It's just a fact of living in this age, and maybe of living in any age. I remember a friend of our community who heard one of the brothers complaining about having too much to do and said: "Brother, get over it. Everyone has too much to do. The only people who don't have too much to do are the people who don't do anything." That comes close enough to the truth to be truly memorable; I suppose it was 30 years ago that I heard that exchange and I've never forgotten it.

It also indicates how truly extraordinary it might be to intervene in that pattern, and actually construct a life in which there was enough room for what you did, a life that is not over-full. You can see how the concept of 'leisure' got from that original meaning to its present connotation, but there isn't any reason why we couldn't go back to the original meaning and play with it and see what we can make out of it - if, of course, we had the nerve to try it.

So I decided that my project for last week was going to be doing the Refectorian's job leisurely - not meaning slowly but meaning I was going to make enough time for it so that I could do it without feeling pushed. I was going to take the time for that job. I wasn't going to rush from one part of it to another. I would have time to make the coffee, even on the mornings when we have 50 guests and they are consuming a fearful amount of coffee. I was going to have the time to do the restocking that is necessary - supplies of coffee, filters, honey, jam, fruit juice, eggs, yogurt, napkins, bread and a whole bunch of stuff besides - and to see that my containers were filled before they were needed, and I was going to have the time to do it without feeling like I was being run off my feet. I would do it leisurely - in the old sense.

Then came the horror of confronting the reality that if I did that, some other stuff was going to have to be left out. This was a barrier that I very nearly didn't get around. After all, everything I do is necessary and crucial, isn't it?

There there I was confronting some of the biggest delusions that I live with and around which I organize my time. And I know that this delusion is not just mine.

It was quite a process, this deciding what is actually crucial and what just feels that way. Coming to grips with the old concept of leisure requires a real sorting, a sorting of life. What needs to go out? What needs to be kept? And the sorting needs to be approached with the sure and certain knowledge that our minds are going to tell us that we can't possibly get rid of everything that actually needs to go.

Did I manage? Did do it completely right?. Did I get my time arranged so that I had a leisurely progress through this complex job for a whole week?. If you have read this column for a while you know the answer to that already. Of course not! I had, at best, a partial success. A life-time of addiction to having too much to do is not going to depart in one week, and it let me know that in no uncertain way.

But it was better. In fact it was a whole lot better. I made a true discovery that I could move through the days and have the time for all that the job demands, and even time to do some extra stocking, and arranging of shelves, and attending to tasks that are usually let go. I could, in fact, move leisurely through the task, at least some of the time. And it was enough so that at the end of the week, when Saturday Vespers came and it was time to lay the task down once again, I didn't feel exhausted, worn down and needing to recover. I really did feel that I had actually encountered the living of otium - the original leisure - having a good task and giving it the time that's needed. It was a whole different experience.

Now, of course, there is the call of the stuff that was put to one side while I leisured my way through the last week. And there's a call for action here. Am I truly resolved to get rid of everything that won't fit in the time I have to live my life? Can I admit to myself the dreadful reality that some things have to go, and soon? Can I actually unpack my closet?

Having had a taste of the freedom that awaits, I certainly want to try.

At one point in the past I remember that I went through a string of months when I happened to get the Refectorian's job nearly every time there was a huge crowd in the house. It happened over and over and it was so regular that other people in the community noticed and on one occasion one of the the Brothers asked me if I didn't want to arrange a switch with someone so I could have some rest. And I remember thinking: "Well, that would probably be nice, but this happens with such regularity that no matter what I do to try to escape it, it is probably going to go on happening until I have learned what I need to learn from it." So this is nothing new. I've been on the path of exploration offered by this job for many years. Being Refectorian has confronted me with a variey of things that I needed to know. It has taught me a lot.

Of such small learnings is the path to freedom composed.

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