Beloved St. John’s community,
Years ago when I was in college, I was lucky enough to spend four months in the Middle East studying the Arab-Israeli conflict. During part of that time, a group of us spent a few weeks on an Israeli kibbutz within sight of the Dead Sea, in the vast heat of the desert. The kibbutz was a farm, and there was manual work to be done by everyone, including us volunteer guests—all of which really needed to be complete before the sun was in its full strength. So the entire community operated by a simple daily rhythm. The first work began in the dark at 5am and continued until 9am, when the entire community gathered for the first robust meal of the day. The second period of work occurred from 10am – 2pm, and then we had our second great meal of the day, at 2pm. When that meal concluded, we were free to rest, because what else could one do in that vast heat? The final meal happened at 6pm, and it was a lighter affair. Bedtime was early, because how else could you get up every day at 4:30? We slept in very simple dorm rooms. Everyone had enough—just enough—and it felt like an abundance.
During this regular rhythm of rising and working in the fields, changing out irrigation drains in the date palm groves, pruning olive trees, planting potatoes, clearing weeds, I came to a sense of physical and spiritual well-being I have rarely felt before or since. There was something deeply right about the cadence of that rhythm, that felt as if my being were being aligned and healed in the simplicity and honesty of the work and the food, and the surrender of the individual to the community.
In her book The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, Episcopal priest and Wisdom teacher Cynthia Bourgeault shares the story of a small group of retreatants who gathered on Eagle Island off the coast of Maine shortly after 9/11. The smoke was still heavy in the air around what had been the Twin Towers when this group gathered for a retreat in which they lived by a similar simple rhythm—arising early, spending time in silent meditation and prayer, learning, and doing some heavy manual labor, too—pouring concrete, piling lobster traps, stacking firewood. During that time they too felt their hearts, souls, bodies and minds align. They felt a deep union and the power of praying for the world after the intense tragedy of that terrible day in September.
The ancient Benedictines, and before them the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and indeed practitioners of wisdom schools from many traditions, have long known that there is something about the steady rhythm of manual work, prayerful or meditative silence, learning, and communal living that seems to awaken the heart and align the human spirit with its divine purpose and with God. There is something so very significant and needed about this way of integrating heart, mind and body in community with others that it has been noticed and codified over and over again. In our own Anglican tradition, a part of this rhythm has been put into practice through the regular rhythm of the Daily Office—the monastic rhythm of prayer that has been distilled into four times of daily prayer, beginning with Morning Prayer and ending with Compline just before bed. But what is needed is more than words on a page being recited: it is the engagement of our bodies and hearts, of working together, of living simply.
As the pandemic seems to be tapering somewhat, and we all are looking at our way of life as families and as a church community, we have an opportunity to be intentional about seeking this kind of ancient rhythm that offers healing and purpose. It already exists in our lives in the mundane activities of washing the dishes and vacuuming the carpet, helping at First Nations Kitchen and with the altar guild and gardening crew. But there is also much in our lives that adds chaos and toxicity, that is deeply wounded and that fragments us. And without the intention of silence and listening, the intention of yielding our hearts and wills to the care of God, these duties and even rhythms of prayer can just be rote ways of sleep-walking through life.
This very day, what is the soonest you could set aside 20 minutes to sit quietly with God, with the simple intention to let go of any and all of your habitual ways of thinking and instead to consent to the presence and action of God through a practice like centering prayer or meditation? What might come up for you? Where might the Spirit lead you to take a next step? How might your labor become infused with the beautiful intention of allowing the Spirit of God to align and heal your entire being?
As you finish reading this reflection, look around you. Are you at your work desk taking a break from your email? Are there empty coffee cups next to you? Are you standing in line somewhere or sitting in your armchair? Wherever you are, consider taking a deep breath, a breath ancient as time, and make the subtle but powerful inner movement of softening, opening, relaxing, and yielding to the presence of God. Then ask yourself what small shifts you might make in your life or your inner awareness to allow the rhythm of work and silence, community and prayer to heal you, make you whole, and help you see your unique part in the divine orchestra that God is playing for the restoration of the world.
With love and trust in God’s invitation,