David Steindl-Rast once commented that leisure is not the privilege of those who have time, but rather the virtue of those who give to each instant of life the time it deserves. That’s a valuable insight, especially today when everywhere life seems dominated by the constraints of time. Always, it seems, there isn’t enough time. Our lives are dominated by pressure, the rat race, demands which are all absorbing. The plant has to run and, by the time that is taken care of, there is no time or energy for anything else.
And we are conscious of our pathological busyness. We know that life is passing us by and we are so pre-occupied with the business of making a living and the duties of family and community that only rarely is there any time to actually live. It seems that there is never any unpressured time, unhurried time, undesignated time, leisure time, time to smell the flowers, to simply luxuriate in being alive. We lament about this over our coffee circles but are unable to effectively change anything. Is there something frighteningly wrong with our lives? Is there a need to drastically change our lifestyles?
Perhaps. Obviously in our lives there is too little family time, prayer time, celebration time, and simply restful time. But we are also compounding our problem through misunderstanding. Philosophies of “taking time to smell the flowers” have sometimes led us to understand leisure precisely as the privilege of the rich and unoccupied. What Steindl-Rast challenges us to do is to understand time correctly. Time is a gift. When T.S. Eliot says, “Time, not our time,” he is pointing out that there needs to be a certain detachment from time, a certain monasticism, in our lives.
In monasteries, life is regulated by a bell. Monks and nuns know that time is not their own, that when the bell rings they must drop whatever they are doing and move on to what is being asked of them next. When the bell rings, St. Benedict once said, the monk must put down his pen without crossing his “t” or dotting his “i.” He must move on, not necessarily because he feels like doing something else, but because it is time….time to eat, or pray, or work, or study, or sleep. Monks’ lives are regulated by a bell, not because they don’t have watches and alarm clocks, but to remind them, always, that time is not their own and that there is a proper time to do things. Monks don’t get to sleep, eat, pray, work or relax when they feel like it, but when it’s time to do those things.
There is an astonishing parallel between that and what happens in our own lives and we can be helped by understanding it. There is an inbuilt monasticism to our lives. We too, at least for the more active years of our lives, are called to practice a certain asceticism regarding time – to have our lives regulated by “the bell.”
In our case “the bell” takes a different form, though its demands are the same as those of the bell in a monastery. In our case the bell is an alarm clock and the dictates of our daily lives: a quick breakfast, a commute to work (carrying a bag lunch), staying home with small children, demands at work or at home, driving kids for lessons, dealing with them and their demands, household chores, cooking, laundry, taking out garbage, calling in a plumber, church on Sundays. Like monks we sleep, rise, eat, pray, and work, not necessarily when we’d like to, but when it’s time.
And this is true, not just for our daily routine, but as well for the seasons of our lives. We go to school, we prepare for a career, we enter the work force, are tied down with kids, mortgage payments, car payments, and the demands of family and work, not necessarily because we always feel like it, but because it’s that time in our lives. The play of children and the leisure of retirement come before and after that season.
During all of the most active years of our lives we are reminded daily, sometimes hourly, that time is not our own, we are monks practicing a demanding asceticism. There will not always be time to smell the flowers and we are not always poorer for that fact. Monasticism has its own spiritual payoffs. To be forced to work, to be tied down with duties, to have to get up early, to have little time to call your own, to be burdened with the responsibility of children and the demands of debts and mortgages, to go to bed exhausted after a working day is to be in touch with our humanity. It is too an opportunity to recognize that time is not our own and that any mature spirituality makes a distinction between the season of work and the Sabbath, the sabbatical, the time of unpressured time.
Most important of all recognizing in our duties and pressures the sound of the monastic bell actually helps us to smell the flowers, to give to each instant of our lives the time it deserves – and not necessarily the time I feel like giving it. We are better for the demands that the duties of state put on us, despite constant fatigue. Conversely, the privileged who have all the time in the world are worse off for that, despite their constant opportunity to smell the flowers.
Monks have secrets worth knowing…and the pedagogy of a monastic bell is one of them.