How quickly my time has gone at the Monastery of St. Gertrude.
I leave early next Saturday morning for four days in Boise, then down through Nevada to the Bristlecone Forest in the Eastern Sierras, a night in Independence, CA (home of Mary Austin, author of Land of Little Rain), then home.
The schedule here, which I’m free to follow or not, except if I want to eat, is roughly as follows: breakfast 7:30 to 8, Morning Prayer 8:30, Mass 11:30, Lunch 12:10, Evening Prayer 5:00, Supper 6:00.
One thing I’ve discovered is that minus the urban noise, and driving the freeways, my days here are pretty much the way they are at home. I wake early; spend an hour or two in prayer, spiritual reading, and gazing out the window; shower, eat a bowl of cereal, and for the rest of the morning work (have been editing a book I want to call HARROWED: The Misadventures of An Urban Gardener, plus working on columns for Magnificat and Angelus, plus mapping out my arts and culture schedule for the fall, plus contemplating revamping my website/blog, reading, and watching movies).
Then Mass, lunch, help with dishes (the month-long artist’s residency is free; the sisters ask only that I help put away dishes after lunch and supper). Then I’ll take a nap if did not get enough sleep, which is usually, and/or work for an hour or two more, answer emails, maybe call or answer a call from a family member or friend (I can get cell reception in my studio but not outside).
Then generally I join the sisters for Evening Prayer, then supper, dishes, and an hour-long, fairly strenuous walk up the hill behind the monastery to the cemetery and on up to a lovely clearing where you can survey the valley below and the setting sun.
En route I’ll pray a Rosary, pick some wildflowers for a glass on my desk, and upon returning, read or watch a movie. There is plenty in between of reading the NYT, longform.org, and aldaily.com.
A few readers, with whom I sympathize completely, commented recently about the difficulty many of us have in settling down, quitting ourselves of distractions, feeling guilty for reading or listening to podcasts or watching TV or movies.
One thing I see out here is how even though I pride myself on working hard, the fact is I work, I mean really work, as in sitting down, focusing, and doing the beast-of-burden, insufferably slow toil of, say, writing a column for maybe two hours a day, three if I’m lucky.
On the other hand, that’s not bad. It’s pretty much what I’m capable of: mentally, emotionally, and even physically. A certain kind of stamina is required consistently to write–and I do think that diminishes a bit as we age.
But the real stamina and toil for me consists in forever “remembering” that my work–and everything that goes into it–is the way I’ve been given to love God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength. That doesn’t mean, I realize, that my work is any good. It doesn’t mean it’s going to bring me worldly success, security or attention. It means I’m called to be faithful to it.
I also need to remember I have a chronic mental-emotional illness–alcoholism–and that my main job, even before writing, is to treat it on a daily basis. Also, I’m an extreme introvert. Not “having” to talk to people here for more than an hour a day has been heaven, and a breeze.
If I can stay straight on all that, I find I’m way less bothered by feelings of guilt, the urge to second-guess myself, and/or resentment at others who are “doing” more, seemingly getting more attention and love, and are clearly more “holy.” I don’t have to be quite so quick to justify or defend myself and my life in my head.
Early in my stay, a visual artist who was passing through remarked at dinner: “I’m so torn. With all the horrible things going on in the world, I’m really starting to question whether it’s okay for me to spend all my time making art.”
I kept my big mouth shut, especially since she’d hardly asked my opinion, but I did think: Of course art helps alleviate the suffering of the world. Of course our desire for, and efforts toward, goodness, truth and beauty matter absolutely. If I did not think art basically holds the world together, I wouldn’t have devoted my life to it.
Also of course I need only hear, for example, that, say, a friend of a friend is entering his 16th month in jail, awaiting trial for trespassing at a nuclear weapons facility, to be thrown into an abyss of self-doubt. If I had faith the size of a mustard seed, I, too, would be in prison! I, too, would be doing something noble and self-sacrificing and important!
If I’ve made any progress at all, it may be that now it takes hours instead of days to remember that I am doing something important–for me, the most important thing in the world. I remember the Flannery O’Connor quote that gave me “permission” to quit my job as a lawyer almost 25 years ago now: “We are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness.”
Every time I think I have the cross down, I discover all over again that I don’t. Suffering, for love of Christ, helps heal the world. But so, under the right circumstances (which only we can discern, which is why that hour or two of prayer in the morning is ESSENTIAL) do watching films, gabbing with our friends, listening to podcasts, buying a new pair of shoes. If joy, fun, and praise don’t do honor to Christ, we’re left with masochism, and a competition to see who can suffer most.
Whereas once we’re grounded in him, and more or less clear on what we were put on earth for–as St. Augustine said, “Love, and do what thou wilt.”
Plus it’s summer already! Or was…
Plus the less I think about myself and my “progress,” in any way and on any level, the way better for me and everyone else in this vale of tears.
“Living a full and overflowing life does not rest in bodily health, in circumstances, nor in seeing God’s work succeed, but in the perfect understanding of God, and in the same fellowship and oneness with him that Jesus Himself enjoyed. But the first thing that will hinder this joy is the subtle irritability caused by giving too much thought to our circumstances.”
–Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, August 31
“Reading a book, visiting a museum, wandering out to people-watch at the park. Though we purport to value artists and romanticize their muses, the aforementioned activities aren’t often recognized as work.”
–Bonnie Tsui, from a June 19, 2019 NYT op-ed piece called “You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything”
“How beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterward.”
Happy Labor Day!