6 things I learned from living on a monastery prayer schedule
One of the most transforming aspects of this trip to Mt. Angel Abbey has been living according to the monks’ schedule of prayer. They pray the Liturgy of the Hours and have Mass every day, so every few hours the grand church bells start ringing to announce prayer time. The weekday schedule is:
5:20 AM: Office of Readings
6:30 AM: Morning Prayer
7:00 AM: Breakfast
8:00 AM: Mass
12:00 PM: Midday Prayer
12:20 PM: Lunch
5:15 PM: Evening Prayer
5:45 PM: Dinner
7:30 PM: Night Prayer
I admit that I haven’t made it to the Office of Readings, but I’ve tried to attend all the other prayer times each day. Though our household has a pretty solid schedule, it’s entirely different to have the “hard stops” of those church bells ringing. At home I can push back meal or prayer times if I’m into something, but I can’t very well call up the Abbot and tell him to hold off on Evening Prayer because I’m on Twitter. It’s been a fascinating experience. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
1. It makes it less tempting to procrastinate
The big blocks of time around here are the four hours between Mass and noon prayer, and the five hours between lunch and evening prayer. Because I know that I have a hard stop coming up in a few hours, I’m less likely to waste time on useless activities. This morning, for example, I went down to the lounge area to use the internet and check email, and started meandering aimlessly around the internet, as I often do when I get online. But then I remembered that when those prayer bells ring in a few hours, I’m done — I have to put away what I’m doing, whether I want to or not. The first couple days we were here I got caught completely off guard by prayer time and had to stop right in the middle of something I was interested in, which was painful. After that experience I’m much less tempted to procrastinate.
2. You use your time more purposefully
Similar to #1, because I know that I only have a finite number of minutes until I’ll be back in the church for the next prayer time, I approach each chunk of time much more purposefully than when I’m at home. Here’s an example of the way I might approach my morning in my normal routine at my house:
Before lunch I guess I should sweep the floor, and at some point I’ll take the kids to the park. I’ll try to get around to decluttering those toys, and maybe make those two phone calls. But maybe I’ll get online for a second and surf the web first…
…And all of that would be thought with a blasé attitude that if I don’t get that stuff done by 12:30, our usual lunch time, I’ll just push lunch back to accommodate whatever procrastinating I did. For contrast, here’s the way I approached my block of time this morning between Mass and noon prayer:
I only have a few hours until the bells start ringing to announce noon prayer, so I’d better make sure I get the highest priority things done first. As soon as I get back to the retreat house, I will:
- Take an hour for private prayer in the guest house chapel
- Do online check-in for our flights tomorrow
- Return my friend’s voicemail and let her know I’m out of town
- Buy a few souvenirs for our parents and my grandfather
And I’ll use whatever time I have after that for relaxation.
What’s amazing is how much less stressed I am when I approach each block of time with clarity and purpose — and it’s not just because I’m naturally more relaxed because I’m on vacation. It’s such a good feeling to examine the possibilities of what I could do, prioritize them, and then push through to get them taken care of. It really helps me enjoy my free time and live in the moment without lingering stress that there are other things I need to be doing.
3. It gives you a new appreciation for meals
This is an odd one, but I’ve noticed that mealtime is really special here, and not just because of the fantastic food and great company. Eating meals at the exact same time every day involves sacrifice: the meal takes precedence over whatever else you may have wanted to do with that time — i.e. lunch isn’t pushed back by 20 minutes because I wasn’t finished writing a blog post. The result has been that I approach the table each day with a renewed sense of gratitude, my small sacrifice reminding me that this is something special.
4. It makes you surrender your life to God at the micro level
I always try to better surrender my life to God, but I often think of it at the macro level alone: e.g. I’ll work on trusting him with what I’ll be doing 10 years from now, my children’s vocations, my writing projects, etc. But living according to a rule of prayer involves even deeper surrender. There have been quite a few times since I’ve been here that I was really into whatever I was doing, and the last thing I wanted to do was set it aside and go back to the church to pray. To let go of my activities requires an act of trust: trust that God will give me the grace to pick up where I left off if whatever I was doing was important in his eyes, that this “interruption” won’t irreparably derail whatever I was doing, etc. I find myself taking these little leaps of trust at almost every prayer time, whereas back at home I simply push back my prayer or meal times to accommodate whatever it was I was doing — no trust necessary.
5. It helps you put your plans in perspective
I do not handle being interrupted well. I have this tendency to hyper-focus on whatever it is I’m doing, and if something arises that tears me away from it, my reaction is something along the lines of, “If I step away from this project THE FABRIC OF THE UNIVERSE WILL TEAR ASUNDER AND ALL CREATION WILL CEASE TO EXIST!” I keep thinking that’s going to happen every time I hear those bells: I can’t go to prayer now! I think. I should just skip this one and finish what I was doing, you know, so that the world doesn’t fall apart.
Surprisingly enough, I keep setting aside my plans in order to go to prayer, and so far the earth still seems to be spinning, the planets seem pretty steady in their orbits — I’m even calm and happy. By living according to the monastery’s prayer schedule, I get five reminders per day that my little projects aren’t the center of the universe.
6. It helps you put God at the center of your life
Back at home, I do feel close to God much of the time: simply by being surrounded by the blessings of my husband and children I get regular reminders of God’s goodness. But I’ve also noticed that having regular blocks of time set aside specifically for focusing on him with 100% of my attention is incredibly helpful for keeping my priorities in proper order and putting God at the center of it all. It’s made me think even more about how I can include small pockets of silence into my weeks.
I haven’t put much thought into what, if any, elements I can incorporate into my life when I get back home tomorrow. Obviously my vocation is quite different than that of the brothers up here, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect to life a monastic life with four young children. The overarching themes I see in all these lessons is that the monastic schedule naturally brings order and obedience to daily life, so I’ll be thinking and praying about what I can do to increase those elements in my daily schedule. If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them!