Abbot Philip: Being on ‘Monk Time’

“The only thing that makes monastic life possible is keeping one’s eyes on the Lord and not on one’s brothers or even on the life itself. Saint Benedict knew that he was setting up a life that would not be easy, even though he calls it only a Rule for beginners. One of the big challenges today is about the use of time. Modern people want hours of personal time for their own enjoyment and relaxation. Our Rule does not have that kind of time. Contemplative life is not about sitting around doing nothing. It is not about just thinking of God and good things.

Serious monastic life is about being on the go all day long: from prayer to work to reading to eating to sleeping. We have no large expanses of time in which we just sit and do nothing. We actually have some personal time. Saint Benedict would never have dreamed of such a thing. He does talk about writing letters and so perhaps there were some personal moment from time to time. Because a monk is always on the go and always has things to do, the life of prayer is picked up in that way. We must learn how to pray while we are singing our prayers. Singing itself is a discipline. We must learn how to pray while we are working, and we must concentrate on the work. We must learn to pray while we are reading Scripture and other spiritual books.

On good days, after spending the first hour of the day in common prayer, called Vigils, then I go to my cell and meditate for 45 minutes until the next common prayer. After Lauds and Mass, I have another opportunity of about 45 minutes that I can also use for meditation. Then we have the work meeting. Most often after that I teach a class to the men in formation. Then we pray Terce in the Church and I begin our normal work period and work until 12:40 pm. Then there is a short break before praying Sext in the Church. Then there is the main meal of the day, which ends about 1:50 pm. That means that from rising at 3:30 am until 1:50 pm, there has been no personal time at all.

After the main meal there is time for a siesta or exercise or some personal reading. This is a period of about an hour and a half. After that there is prayer again at 3:30 pm, the Office of None. Then there is Holy Reading until 5:20 pm, when we have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for a half hour and then Vespers for a half hour. So at 6:20 pm there is an optional supper, which I don’t normally take. I usually come to my room again and work or read for the 50 minutes until the evening Chapter meeting at 7:10 pm, which is followed by Compline at 7:30 pm. The day ends about 7:55 pm. I am usually in bed by 8:15 pm and asleep by 8:30 pm.

This is a life of leisure? No! And it is not supposed to be. It is a life that can focus all of one’s energies on seeking God. There is very little time to do anything else. Monks who try to live some other kind of life here simply don’t manage to persevere. Even those of us who do persevere have to keep working at it. It would be very easy to stop praying and find ways to do other things. For myself, during all of these years, I have fluctuated from being really serious about seeking God to periods of not caring much, one way or the other. Somehow, I have always been brought back to seeking God. I know that is a grace of God. My own witness is that this is a truly wonderful life when I strive to live it well. The older I get, the more this life appeals to me and the more I strive to live it well. In so many ways, it is not different from the life of anyone who is serious about looking for God.”–Abbot Philip, OSB

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