Quietly and steadily, a movement has been growing throughout the world called “New Monasticism.” Everyday people feel drawn to making the sacred a continuous thread through their days and their lives. Many of us, myself included, yearn for a life suffused with God in everything we do. New Monasticism seeks to move these activities from the cloister out into the world. Christine Paintner’s Abbey of the Arts and her “Monk Manifesto” (http://abbeyofthearts.com/about/monk-manifesto/) were my introduction to being a “monk in the world.”
One method of bringing the sacred into each day is to follow a “rule of life.” The Rule of St. Benedict, written in about 530 C.E., describes a daily balance of work, study, and prayer in the lives of Benedictine monks and nuns. The day’s rhythm is punctuated by what is called the “Liturgy of the Hours” or the “Divine Office,” beginning first thing in the morning and ending before going to bed. It imbues the day with grace and holiness.
“The purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify the day and all human activity.” – Apostolic Constitution, Canticum Laudis
This brief overview of the practice of the Divine Office from Universalis.com encapsulates well its rhythm:
Morning Prayer – at the start of the day’s work and the coming of the light.
Daytime Prayer – at mid-morning, noon and in the afternoon, to unite us with the one for whom and through whom we are working.
Evening Prayer – at the end of the day’s work, to offer up what we have done.
Night Prayer – last thing at night, to commend our souls to God.
Many people are recognizing that you do not have to become a monk or nun to participate in the observance of what is called “the hours.” You don’t have to be Catholic or Episcopalian. You don’t have to be a Christian. All that is needed is a little bit of time and a desire to experience the sacred.
Our society’s work schedules do not lend themselves well to this practice, but it can be done. Many people practice four periods of prayer a day instead of seven: morning, noon, evening, and night. When you are working, you spend a few minutes in the morning, take a very brief pause during your lunch break, do evening prayers before supper, and night prayers before going to bed. Each period of prayer and reading can last as long or be as short as you need it to be.
Resources for this practice include the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Shorter Christian Prayer (Catholic Book Pub.), and other editions called “breviaries.” If you go to a bookseller’s web site and type any of these terms into the search box, you will find a plethora of resources for finding out more about this practice. In addition, there are online versions of the hours such as the one from Mission St. Clare (http://www.missionstclare.com/english/).
When you practice at home, you can choose to set aside a chair or cushion somewhere quiet and can make your space as simple or as elaborate as you choose. Furnish it with whatever makes it more conducive to prayer and contemplation. You might like some images, candles, incense, music or other items that soothe you. At work, you can find a place to sit or walk that gives you a little bit of private time.
The discipline of a rule of life is a tangible way to express gratitude to God for this life. We can go through our days feeling grateful on a subconscious level, but the structure of the rule, the observance of the hours, makes it conscious. Through daily, hourly practices that engage not only the mind but also the senses and body, awareness of the grace of God becomes embodied. You sense it in the aromas of incense and candle wax, you see it in colors and imagery, you hear it in music and psalms, and you feel it in creaky knees and touching palms.
Why is embodying grace so important? Selfishly, who wouldn’t want to live out their days suffused with grace? But grace is just a given, some would say. You don’t have to follow a rule or participate in rituals to receive it. True. But for me, following a rule of life and participating in liturgy amplifies it. You listen for God’s “still, small voice,” the voice of love, the voice of grace, while in prayer, while lighting candles, and then that voice, received and carried bodily, becomes a beacon that guides the activities of the rest of your day. Awareness of grace through the liturgy of the hours becomes awareness of grace while grocery shopping, while eating, while working, while loving.
This is an ancient practice of stopping at points during the day to pray, read scripture, and meditate going back into Jewish prehistory. “Seven times a day I praise you” (Ps. 119:164). It’s a turning away from the temporal and a turning toward the eternal. Like looking up at the Milky Way on a moonless summer night, you are reminded of the vastness and infinity of God. This practice then enlarges your perspective, and passing moods, difficulties, and irritations no longer hold such sway over you. You understand their transience against the backdrop of eternity.
Why would this practice matter to the world? Because it changes your perception of the world. Where you perceive differently, you behave differently. Your enlarged perceptions result in an openness, a kindness, indeed a largesse, toward others because you want them to experience this grace as well. Embodiment becomes precisely the point. Christ resides in you, your hands, your feet. You take your embodying of God’s grace out where you walk, shop, work, and play and give it to others by way of your very being. You’ve seen how Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama beam with joy and kindness, and people are drawn to it, for it is deeply nourishing and healing. You too will radiate such joy in your own unique way. And it’s all coming from God. You practice daily, thereby filling your “tank” with love. You go out daily and give it all away, knowing that there will be more, a manna that never runs out.
“Monks in the world” may or may not wear robes or habits. (Some do. More about that in another post!) Most will be hidden in plain sight as librarians, nurses, accounting executives, teachers, store clerks, retired people, and others that you encounter every day. Won’t you join them?