Four tips for a better life during coronatide
By Matt Luby
I spent the whole year of 2017 discerning the Catholic priesthood. I lived in communities of formation. I shadowed missionaries. Something was always missing. I started to think that maybe I was looking at the priesthood the wrong way. Maybe I was called to be a monk.
There is a monastery near where I live in Seattle. The monks invited me to join for prayer at sunrise. I listened to them read the psalms so deliberately that it was jarring. I had always wanted to enjoy praying the psalms, but never did until I was there. In the next few months, I visited that monastery and several others. Eventually, I gave up the idea of being a Benedictine or a priest, but not before I discovered a beautiful way of life, one which can help us flourish during this trying season.
I offer four lessons in particular to help us negotiate coronatide.
- Feed on the sacred
Benedictines are devoted to the universal prayer of Church, the Office – “the Liturgy of the Hours.” The Office consists of small prayer services, always including psalms and other Bible readings, often a song and elements of petitionary prayer, and maybe a reflection or meditation. In St. Benedict’s day, there were eight “hours” scattered throughout the day. Now, in most monasteries, the schedule has been reduced to four or five hours, usually taking 15–30 minutes.
In addition to the hours, Benedictines are called to daily lectio divina, or “holy reading.” There are many ways to practice lectio, but for many of the monks, it involves a meditative reading of a small section of the Bible. Either during or after the reading, the monk will also meditate, pray, and contemplate.
The effect of all this prayer and reading is that the monk is sustained by constant infusions of the Word of God. Every few hours, a monk is called to reset his rhythm and enter back into prayer, not primarily in his own words but through the words of God. Rather than stewing over a bad meeting for a whole day, the monk has a chance to relax with God and emerge refreshed.
Many of us Christians can modify some version of the hours to fit our lives. We may not have 30 minutes to sing psalms between meetings, but even just a two-minute break to read a chapter of the Gospels can help us enter back into God’s presence. Rather than letting a torrent of stress push us through the day, out of our own control, we, the laboring and heavy-laden, get a chance to reset and renew our relationship with Christ.
- Let your work be a form of prayer
The Benedictine motto is Ora et labora – “Pray and work.” Benedictines aren’t hermits living in caves in the desert and spending days lost between prayer and levitation. St. Benedict valued work, and his monks continue to do so today. Benedictines do every kind of job you could imagine.
In addition to his primary job, each of the monks also does some service to the monastic community. These tasks rotate so that the monk who is setting the table one week finds himself watering the garden the next.
St. Benedict called his monks to work because it is an imitation of Christ. Most of Jesus’s life is lost to us in the obscurity of what he did as a carpenter. Though we do not have a rocking chair of Christ to contemplate today, we know that he spent more than half his earthly life at his craft.
We can emulate Christ the carpenter in our work. Rather than making yet another PowerPoint presentation that looks slapdash, we can consider our audience and tailor the deck for them. There is beauty even in the right font choice.
Many people are now unemployed. Unemployment is a tragedy, but to have lost your job does not mean you have lost your work. You are still called to improve the world. Spend a little extra time making your oatmeal beautiful today. What you choose to do matters much less than that you choose to do it at all and that you choose to do it well.
- Embrace quiet
Though Benedictines do not live in silence, they do live in quiet. Most monasteries enforce strict silence from the final liturgical hour at night until after the first liturgical hour of the next morning. During the day, one of the most striking forms of quiet comes at meals. The monks eat in community, but even as they sit cheek by jowl at the same tables, some meals are taken in full silence. More commonly, the monks remain silent while one monk reads.
Just like feeding on the sacred, intentional periods of silence help us recharge. Even if you are an extrovert and love to talk, the occasional period of silence gives you time to think about what to say. When the time comes to talk, you find yourself with more to say.
For the introvert, these periods of silence are a gift. We are expected to talk with those around us, even when we do not feel like it. The Benedictine way of punctuated periods of silence means we never have to ask for a break. Silence is always just a few hours away for the introverts. A stressful morning of conference calls might be that much easier to endure if we know it will be ended by a silent lunch of recharging.
“Quiet” does not have to mean a lunch without words or an hour of silence before bedtime. You might wake up an hour early to read, rather than jumping right from bed to conference call. Be as silent and as quiet as you need to be to give yourself the room to think.
- Keep a regular schedule
These first three tips lead directly to the fourth, which is the value of keeping a regular schedule. Every Benedictine monastery has an horarium, or schedule for the day. The horarium will be slightly different for different days, and monks will also bend it as needed to accommodate their work.
The horarium helps create balance. No Benedictine is tempted to weeks of radical solitude in meditation because they are called to pray with their community several times per day. The horarium makes it easy to say no to the people and things that might distract us.
One of the commonest complaints during the lockdown is that every day feels the same. It seems counter-intuitive, but I contend that embracing a regimented and fairly “same” schedule like the Benedictines would stand to help us.
If we dedicated 30 minutes for breakfast each morning, we might allow ourselves to enjoy the food more. Just like the Benedictines, we can deviate from our schedules as needed, but to have some sort of regimented order should help us to make sense of what seem like senseless days.
When I first learned of Christian monasticism, I read of Orthodox monks on Mt. Athos synchronizing their hearts to beat to the rhythm of the Jesus Prayer. There is no doubt those disciplines have formed great saints and still offer great enlightenment today, but to most, they are unapproachable.
The Benedictine way of life is like a good diet. It’s approachable and realistic. There are all kinds of tough diets that work for a lot of people for a period of time, but they are nearly impossible to sustain. A good diet is one that is forgiving and flexible, yet still nutritious. The Benedictine way of life helps us avoid over-consumption of things that bring anxiety while inviting us to dine on the eternal things.
Matt Luby is a parishioner at St. Ambrose Anglican Church in Seattle, where he works in business.