The Rule of Life
What if the most important things to be done every day were to worship and to commune with God- and everything else had to be fit in around these times of devotion?
What would it mean to live in such a way that “life” is what happens between moments of prayer, instead of the other way around?
What if “life” was prayer?
What if you were a monk?
I had a chance to explore these questions recently when two friends and I took part in a retreat at the Trappist monastery of Mepkin Abbey in Monck’s Corner, South Carolina.
The brothers at Mepkin Abbey arise at 3:00am each day. (One of the young monks we met, Brother Dismas, awakes even earlier, at 2:00am, so that he can have time to write.) At 3:20am the bell chimes and the monks, dressed in their white habits and dark gray frocks, begin to recite the Vigils Office. Slowly, rhythmically, in a serene melody that seeps into a person’s soul, they chant the Psalms back and forth amid a series of reverent bows and graceful prayers.
From 4:10 until 5:30am, the brothers devote themselves to individual silent meditation and to the study of Scripture through Lectio Divina, or sacred reading. At 5:30am the dawn is greeted through a joyous Lauds, or time of morning prayer. Breakfast is at six, eaten in silence amid the tinking rattle of silverware on plates. The morning Eucharist worship is celebrated at 7:30, the brothers all gathering in a circle around the altar to receive the body and blood of their Lord. The service ends with Terce, an additional brief time of prayer devoting the day to God.
The morning and afternoon at Mepkin are times of work. Contrary to popular belief, the lives of Trappist monks are not all contemplation and meditation: Mepkin can be, in fact, a very “busy” place. During the day, the brothers receive guests, offer spiritual direction, set up for worship, mind the store, coordinate volunteers, tend the garden, or work with their mushrooms, which they grow and sell in order to provide an income for the Abbey. All of this work and activity, however, are undergirded by a sub-structure of prayer. Bisecting the workday is the noon service of Sext, or midday prayer, followed by lunch, which is usually a simple, mostly vegetarian meal. As the others eat in silence, one of the brothers reads from a book selected for the edification of the community. Another brief prayer time, “None,” then launches the community into the afternoon.
Supper at 5:00pm marks the end of the workday. Vespers or evening prayer is held at 6:00pm. The Psalms are again chanted, the day reflected upon. After a little more free time, the day concludes with the meditative Compline service at 7:35. At Compline, the pungently spicy-sweet smell of incense fills the air as the censor-smoke wafts to the ceiling, a symbol of prayers arising to heaven. The Song of Simeon is chanted, proclaiming that now the Lord’s servants can depart in peace. Psalm 91 is sung, reminding the community that it need not fear the arrow that flies by day, or the terror and plagues of the night. The bell chimes one final time, and the lights are darkened. After a final hymn of prayer, the community files out of the Chapel with a reminder of its baptism. The Grand Silence descends, not to be broken until the end of Eucharist the next morning. The monks retire to bed just after 8:00pm: only to arise again at 3:00am the next morning, continuing the daily cycle of prayer that has existed at the center of the Abbey’s life since its founding in 1949.
The monks at Mepkin Abbey do not live this rhythm of life because they are spiritual super-men. Though the brothers are persons of great faith and spiritual depth, my friends and I were more struck by how (for lack of a better word) “normal” they seemed in our talks and interactions with them. Several of the brothers like movies, and look forward to the monthly movie night. They read the newspapers, and keep up with the happenings of the outside world. They like to laugh. They struggle with some of the same issues that all people and communities of faith struggle with. And, they rejoice in little blessings just as everyone else does. On the special Sunday feast day that occurred during our retreat, the brothers celebrated with a dessert of ice cream sundaes topped with fudge and sprinkles: a true extravagance compared to their normally spartan diet, and one that lit up their faces as if they were children on Christmas morning.
The primary difference that my friends and I found between the brothers and ourselves is that the monks have taken vows to live according to a particular “rule” of life. This Benedictine rule, or way of life, is what sets the pattern of their days – the routine and manner in which the entire community has consciously chosen to live together. The monks have intentionally dedicated themselves to pray together at the above times and to be present to each other in these mutually agreed-upon ways. The monks have decided that communion with God and with neighbor is the one thing needful: and everything else must be fit in around this.
My friends and I found the Mepkin rule of life to be a beautiful way of living into each day to the glory of God. We found that we missed little of the routines that mark our own particular rules of life: breakfast over the paper, morning talk radio, the long commute home, surfing television channels, checking the sports scores, or getting lost in the trivia of a magazine. During our time at Mepkin, we felt at peace with God and with our neighbor. We did not feel that we had given up much of anything. Instead, we were fulfilled.
My friends and I left Mepkin Abbey thinking to ourselves, “What is keeping me from living a similar rule of life in the world?” Not that we need to arise at 3:00am every day, but why don’t we structure our lives more around times of common prayer and devotion?
We agreed that the primary thing we lacked was simply a church community nearby and around us so demanding that it would inspire us, challenge us, and to join with us in living this way.
Since returning from South Carolina, I have often awoken early to chant the Psalms. Each day I think of the brothers at Mepkin, and of what they are likely doing during that same time. I feel as if I am still chanting the Psalms with them: my pew just happens to be 300 miles away.
As I pray, I think about the beautiful rule of life at the heart of the thriving (in its own way) community that is Mepkin Abbey.
I reflect upon my own rule of life, the routines and habits that order my day.
And I wonder what it would mean to be a Methodist monk in the world.