Sunday, April 19, 2009

Working - and not working

I've been musing this week on the rhythm that's set up by times of work and times of not-work. This alternation is a regular part of the rhythm here.

A Sunny Morning
Originally uploaded by Randy OHC

Now, one needs to say at the beginning that this is a different practice than that of a lot of monastic communities. In many communities, especially those that lean towards the contemplative side of things as this one does, each day is pretty much the same. The offices go on as usual, the Eucharist is celebrated, the framework of the life is largely unchanging, though there may be some adjustments made for Sundays and feast days. I know that there is provision made, in some places, for "time off", but that seems to be more a private arrangement than a community thing.

Here we have chosen a different route. We have community non-work time. Each Monday is what we refer to as "sabbath" time. Prayer is private on Mondays, and according to one's own rhythm. The guesthouse is closed, as are all of our offices. We're free to do what we like. There's a lot of quiet, and people relax, by themselves or in small groups.

We also have longer periods from time to time. This week the Guesthouse was closed until Friday. After New Year we are usually closed for 2 weeks, and we are closed for a month from late July to late August. We have picked these times from the times of the year that few people would be coming to the guesthouse anyway. These times are not free in the same sense that our Mondays are, but the schedule is more relaxed and just the fact that the house isn't full of guests provides an automatic amount of quiet and rest.

From time to time I notice how much this rhythm is part of the living of my life and the life of this community. It all begins with Sunday afternoons: by and large the guests leave after the noon meal - though the Guesthouse is officially open until after Vespers - and napping or doing quiet personal stuff is very much the order of the day for Sunday afternoons. Towards the end of the afternoon we meet for a social time which we call "Tea" (being Anglicans, of course), and we actually do serve tea most of the time. But this time is more of a time just to relax with each other, and it leads into the Sabbath day very nicely. Especially lately the afternoon gathering has been a fun and relaxed time that we seem to be enjoying.

Then comes Vespers. Most weeks there is just us. Occasionally a guest or two from the neighborhood will be there, and sometimes someone who has spent the weekend with us will linger for this last office, but usually it's just us. It's a time when my body is slowing down enough that I'm aware of fatigue, and also aware of how much I need the time that is coming. One of the things I also notice is that Sunday Vespers is one of the most beautifully sung offices of the entire week. Our singing standard is pretty high, and the beauty of our offices is something that people comment on regularly, but Sunday Vespers can be ethereal - the sound (and the smell! - remember our incense) of heaven.

The evening is social time for many of us - a time for pizza or sushi at a local place, or for phone calls to friends we want to be in touch with, and sometimes for a movie in the TV room. And then to bed- usually not too late.

Monday is for a whole bunch of things: quiet in one's room, reading, walks, going to one of the local towns for movies or shopping or eating, either by oneself or with brothers or with friends outside of the community.

By Tuesday we're moving back towards the usual pattern of things, but slowly. The morning office is later than usual, and then we're back in the work mode, though the Guesthouse doesn't actually open until early afternoon. And then we're into the week.

Usually this takes place pretty automatically, but from time to time I do actually notice how much this rhythm is part of my life, and how much even my body lives this rhythm. If we have to move the Monday sabbath, for instance, even by as little as one day, I really feel it, physically as well as emotionally. And on occasions, once or twice a year, when we have to miss it altogether, the stress is considerable. On those occasions we often have what the community refers to as "rolling days off", meaning that we take a day off by ones or twos. That helps, of course, but it definitely isn't the same, nor does it give the same feeling of rest and refreshment. Our work and our sabbath has wormed its way into our lives, our prayer, and our bodies.

I also notice something else. I usually hide one deep and pretty important thing from my conscious living of this time, but occasionally I open up and let myself see how I (and I'm not the only one) will fill up my sabbath with stuff to do. I have to be very conscious and very careful to avoid this one. Laundry is a favorite. Incense making is another. And even more insidiously, I have a tendency to describe even the relaxing things I'm doing in terms of work. I "have to" walk the labyrinth. I "must get exercise" (describing a good long walk). I "really have to get to" email messages or letters to friends. And there's always the long-neglected area of study, not to mention the computer, can be used for communication, but which often just fills my time and does nothing for either my sense of productivity or relaxation.

If I don't watch it, I will pile these evasions and work-substitutes end on end so that they fill all the day and the time for genuinely free and relaxed space disappears. I really resist having a genuine sabbath. And of course that dilutes the relaxation and joy that I could be having. Something in me really fights having the sabbath time that I need.

I'm not alone in this, of course. It's pretty universal to feel the stress of not having enough free time, and then to fill up all the free time there is with stuff to do. If you know anything about Jewish spirituality, you know how fierce they can be about doing no work on the Sabbath - like not pushing a button to call an elevator or turning on a stove. No Work, that's the rule for the sabbath in Orthodox Jewish homes, and they can be very insistent on the smallest signs of labor creeping back in to their beloved shabbos. They know what we will do if given even the tiniest opportunity.

Of course, my reaction is to say: "I have to work on that." Oh, lamentable tendency! When will I learn? Tomorrow? I could start then, couldn't I? And that might make the value of this rhythm even deeper.

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