Here Benedict is encouraging a balanced day. A balanced day does not have in it too much inactivity. Too much inactivity can lead to boredom. Boredom can be a good thing in that it can be a sign that we need to be more creative with time and our energy. Boredom that is not heeded, however, can lead to an idleness that runs counter to the expression of energy in life.
A life growing in balance, in harmony, is a life that has energy more available for living and less available for the fears and anxieties that can cause energy to implode. Spirituality is about growing in a loving, faithful, and stable expression of energy in each day. This is what the Rule would have us grow in. This is what this chapter is emphasising.
Prayer, labour, reading, rest. This is the daily round we commit to as we live a Christian spirituality guided by the Rule. We will not always be faithful to this because the realities of life ‘in the world’ can ask of us patterns that run counter to this balance. As life goes on, however, perhaps this Benedictine cycle can grow to become the default of our lives – the one we naturally return to when we can. And perhaps in time we may see that an abundance of grace can still be active in us even when it seems we are living off scraps of time and energy. God is in everything and nothing is wasted.
Each day at Meditatio House can shift and change, depending on what is happening. Housework needs to be done; meals prepared; guests given time; seminars and retreats organised; things to go to; time spent with fellow community members. Although we have set times for prayer and meditation, times for reading are our own to create. And the temptation to do at the expense of rest is often present. If we are not careful reading and rest can be overlooked.
The regular practice of attention on a mantra, a mantra sounding in the heart, means that the energy of divinity and the energy of our humanity can each be in the other with increasing self-forgetfulness. In these moments a certain harmony with the divine life (whether we are aware of it or not) can renew us for what is to come for the rest of the day. We can forget to worry. We can forget to fear. The stillness that a balanced day encourages is what we find ourselves in – if but even for a moment.
In this chapter Benedict insists that the true monastic – someone seeking God through prayer and work in a community supporting this seeking – is someone who is also living “by the work of their hands.” Most of us do not gather harvests (Benedict’s example); we go to the market for food. What is our harvest? What is the work of our hands? The monastic, an oblate, who is a mother or father; the contemplative ‘out the back’ in the shed working on fixing that chair for a neighbour; a meal lovingly prepared for family and friends; a days work at our employment – all these things, are they not the work of our hands?
But everything should be done in moderation to allow for the weaker brothers [and sisters].*
It may be that someone’s 100% is another’s 50%. The Rule makes allowances for this reality, asking that all be included in a balanced day according to their capacity. Differing capacities and abilities are an occasion to lovingly value diversity and uniqueness. The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu once wrote:
Fine horses can travel a hundred miles a day,
But they cannot catch mice
Like terriers or weasels:
All creatures have gifts of their own.
The white horned owl can catch fleas at midnight
And distinguish the tip of a hair,
But in bright day it stares, helpless,
And cannot even see a mountain.
All things have varying capacities.
Gifts and capacities. In a way similar to St. Paul’s analogy of the Body of Christ (1Cor12:12-30), Chuang Tzu emphasises the value that can be found in the uniqueness of gift and capacity. This emphasis is consistent with the spirit of the Rule and Christian life in general.
*Other translations use the word ‘fainthearted’ rather than ‘weaker’.
* ‘Great and Small’ in Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New Directions, 1997, 87-8).