Keeping Awake

Keeping Awake

August 13, 2014

"The Spiritual life is, then, first of all a matter of keeping awake." -Thomas Merton

I’ve been looking for structure, something to push back the chaotic hustle, busyness, and multitasking that can be so wearing. Somewhere I read a quote from a monastic who said multitasking was a kind of violence against the soul, and I remember being shocked by the severity of those words—especially in a world, okay my world, that honors efficiency and productivity—but I also remember feeling the truth of those words.

Grasping for straws, I started with the tangibles: I made lots of lists; I tried out a new day- planner; I hung a calendar on our kitchen wall to mark all the appointments and soccer practices and snack duties (in case the one in our hallway wasn’t enough); I searched for a magical app that would tell me what to do each day via my phone; I even bought a pretty clock, thinking it might help.

Annie Dillard writes: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends us from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.” Yes, a clock and a calendar are helpful and practical tools, but they are not the end. My search for structure was and is a spiritual search, a search for how I am to spend my days.

I first became acquainted with the Rule of St. Benedict through Robert Benson’s work on praying the daily office, which is how Benedictines order their days—pausing throughout the day to meet together and pray. The Rule acknowledges our deep need for structure and invites us to plan for times of rest, community, work, and prayer each day. And then begin again the next day. Saint Benedict writes in the prologue to the Rule: “The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings.” This idea of balance and structure alongside the grace of daily beginning again was like a balm for my weary heart.

Our theme for this issue is “Always, we begin again,” a phrase that is often attributed to Saint Benedict, but it is actually more a reflection on the spirit of the Rule than a direct quote. Saint Benedict calls the Rule a “little rule that we have written for beginners.” I love this embracing of both the “little” and the “beginners,” and it seems fitting that a little magazine like ours could give space and attention to what it means to begin again. The talented contributors gathered here will give you plenty to mull over, but first, let me tell you what I’ve found.

First, repetition—that always and again part. The weight of repetition can sometimes feel like a burden or boring, but repetition reminds us of the beauty in our mundane tasks—like tucking the kids in at night, taking a shower, saying our prayers, saying I love you. Just as repetition in lifting weights shapes our muscles, repetition with our families and our work and our prayer life has the power to shape our hearts and strengthen our minds.

Starting over also reminds us we will fall. In the preface to the 1998 edition of the Rule, author Thomas Moore writes: “We make mistakes, misspeak and misjudge, fail, fall down, and fall apart . . . Inferiority is only part of the picture, but to deny it is to set ourselves up for a lifetime of trying not to make mistakes and denying our faults.” When we fall apart, as we all do, there is so much grace in beginning again.

I also love how beginning again defends us from the “not enough” lies—not enough time, not enough talent, not enough faith. Inhabiting a beginner’s spirit means we must remain vulnerable; we must trust. If always we are beginners, then the focus shifts from our achievements, and we are reminded there is enough and our pilgrimage will continue.

In Zen Buddhism there is a practice called “Shoshin” or “Beginner’s Mind,” which is an attitude of mindful openness, curiosity, and a willingness to embrace the beginner as opposed to the expert. In a literature class in my undergrad program, I actually got to practice this by keeping a “Beginner’s Mind” journal. We were asked to do things like walk the dog slowly and playfully, pausing over things we would normally rush past. During these exercises, I found myself being much more attentive, playful, and curious, and I also found that having a beginner’s mind was a deep practice in humility, as it stretches you away from winning and being the expert and toward seeking and beginning.

Another treasure I found on this journey is the book Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris. Among other things, Norris writes about what she’s learned from the Benedictine community. In a section on beginnings, she writes:

Because it impedes my illusory forward movement, having to begin again can feel like failure. It reminds me that work I thought finished must be redone, and I resent being reminded of the transitory nature of all things, including myself . . . As a writer I must begin, again and again, at that most terrifying of places, the blank page. And as a person of faith I am always beginning again with prayer. I can never learn these things, once and for all, and master them. I can only perform them, set them aside, and then start over.

I’m grateful for Kathleen Norris’s insights, and I’m grateful for the structure and grace I’ve found in Saint Benedict’s little Rule. And I’m grateful that on this day I get to practice one of the core elements of the Benedictine community—hospitality. I get to welcome you, our dear readers, dear guests, to the lovely work gathered in these pages. I think you’ll find many little moments to continue pondering the gifts of beginning again.


Brianna Van Dyke

From the editor's note in Issue 31

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