In early 2014, I realized something needed to change in my life.
I was regularly working twelve to fourteen hours a day, sometimes going a month without taking a single day off. I had a moment of clarity while sitting in my office at 2 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. At first, I felt proud of myself for being such a hard worker, but then I thought, “Wait a minute, this is insane. Who does this?”
After returning from my second trip to the emergency room with stress-related illness, I decided that I needed to find a better sense of balance in my life. I thought, “Who understands balance and rhythm? Monks! I wonder if there’s a monastery somewhere near me?”
A Google search revealed that I lived a mere forty-minute drive away from St. Gregory’s Abbey, an Episcopal Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. Without even calling home to check with my wife, I called and booked a week-long retreat in April.
That week changed my life. Sitting in the abbey church, I felt quiet on the inside for the first time ever. I had long felt an attraction to contemplative Christian spirituality, but had never given myself permission to stop long enough to try it.
The first insight I gleaned from the Benedictines is a different conception of time than I had previously held. To quote the British sci-fi series Doctor Who:
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”
I had presumed that time is a line, progressing inexorably from Point A to Point B. As one who exists on this timeline, my goal was success: asserting my powers of will to make the timeline go in the direction I wanted.
What I learned from the monks is that time is actually a circle, or perhaps a spiral. Making the daily rounds of the Divine Office and the Mass, we keep going around and around, returning to the same point in the liturgy again and again. It wouldn’t be all that far-off to say that the Eucharist itself is a form of “time-travel”, wherein the Church in finds herself gathered around the table with Christ and his Apostles at the Last Supper. Saints and angels from all of time and space gather with us in the Paschal mystery. Likewise, the hours of the Divine Office are often called “the sanctification of time.”
The goal of history in this circular vision of time is not success, but faithfulness. We return to the same points again and again. We cannot go forward without going around. This is very much in-tune with the circular rhythms of the natural world. Day follows night as the planet rotates. We pass through the lunar and seasonal phases as we go around the sun, year after year. The monks mark the passage of time with prayer, pausing to feel the earth twisting and turning beneath their feet. They return to the hours of the Office and the Mass in order to renew their conscious contact with the Source of motion. It is their faithfulness to this daily rhythm that makes them monks.
Between the hours, the earth continues rotating and revolving. There are periods of work and rest: guests need attending to, meals need to be prepared and eaten, dishes need to be washed, buildings need repair, books need to be written and read, library shelves need to be dusted, leaves need to be raked, snow needs to be shoveled, but the spiral rhythm remains constant. A symphony is just a jumbled mess of noise without the pauses and rests between the notes.
This is the first insight I learned from my time with the monks at St. Gregory’s. It has changed the way I approach my life at work and at home. Time is not a line, but a spiral. The goal is not success, but faithfulness. One can only move forward by going around.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to step away from this computer screen and go recite one of the Hours.