During the winter season, that is, from the first of November until Easter, it seems reasonable to arise at the eighth hour of the night. By sleeping until a little past the middle of the night, the community can arise with their food fully digested. In the time remaining after Vigils, those who need to learn some of the psalter or readings should study them.
Between Easter and the first of November mentioned above, the time for Vigils should be adjusted so that a very short interval after Vigils will give the members opportunity to care for nature’s needs. Then, at daybreak, Lauds should follow immediately.
Chapter’s eight through twenty of the Rule deal with the nature and structure of communal prayer. This prayer has the psalms as a backbone, with other scripture and readings accompanying. A meditating community that uses the Rule as a guide to communal prayer will be in some way faithful to what Benedict lays out in these chapters, as well as being faithful to shared times of meditating together. Our oratory, where the Office is said, is also our meditation room. Finding a balance between oratory and meditation room as the same place is the challenge and legacy of a community meditating and living in the spirit of the Rule.
Benedict’s use of time here is not our modern clock-time, it is more fluid, using the setting of the sun as its reference point. Sunset, at whatever time, was bedtime. Here, rising at the eighth hour is eight hours after the sun has set. In a European winter, if the sun is setting at say 5pm, then the community of Benedict is rising during winter to pray together their night prayer (Vigils) at around 1am. In our time of artificial light, rising at 1am is considered decidedly unreasonable.
Wintertime sleep leaves spare time between the conclusion of Vigils and the beginning of morning prayer (Lauds), which always begins when the sun rises. Benedict allows for this spare time and recommends that the community use this time wisely. He asks that those who need to learn the words of prayer do so. Knowing the words, without reference to them during prayer, frees attention so that prayer is more a conscious, rather than a self-conscious, act. Words are there to carry us deeper until they are forgotten. The less we think about words during prayer the better.
What do we do, today, with ‘spare time’? Do we even have it? Is spare time considered time wasted, proof that we are not productive enough? If there is spare time, do we use it sensibly, or see it more as a gap to fill with ‘mindless’ stuff like binge watching TV, excessive social media, or playing games on our phones? In activities like these, rather than growing roots in the moment of consciousness, attention can be lost to fantasy and distraction. The art of conscious living can be lost to Facebook and Candy Crush.
What, practically, is this art of conscious living and why bother with it? Conscious living is anything done that is not fantasy and distraction. It is living as we truly are and being available to the movements of love within and around us. Therefore, the Rule uses communal prayer as consciousness practiced; at the time of prayer, stay here with God and each other. A meditating community of the Rule places meditation at the centre of this communal prayer. Everything during communal prayer is consciousness practiced, whether this be attention thoughtlessly on the words of a psalm or on the mantra. Each one serves the communal journey into silence.
What else can we do to be conscious? We might recall something of the psalms during the day. We could repeat these words, consciously over and over in the heart (without thought or analysis) as a kind of prayer phrase during a spare moment, maybe while in a queue or waiting at traffic lights. We could use the manta itself in this way.
Perhaps during spare moments, we could simply be aware of the people around us – look at them without thought, as the unique gifts they are, be they our fellow community, or people in the street. Maybe we could contact a friend, a son, a daughter, a lover – letting them know that we love them (that is, that we are conscious of them).
Staying awake to the people and things around us is consciousness as a way of life. This is what Benedict wants of us. And conscious living is what the consciousness of Jesus heals us for and draws us into; the loving way of the heart in all its forgotten fullness. This is living the kingdom of Heaven. Living in a state of fantasy and distraction is to fall asleep.
‘Then the kingdom of Heaven will be like this: Ten wedding attendants took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were sensible: the foolish ones, though they took their lamps, took no oil with them, whereas the sensible ones took flasks of oil as well as their lamps. The bridegroom was late, and they all grew drowsy and fell asleep. But at midnight there was a cry, “Look! The bridegroom! Go out and meet him.” Then all those wedding attendants woke up and trimmed their lamps, and the foolish ones said to the sensible ones, “Give us some of your oil: our lamps are going out.” But they replied, “There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves.” They had gone off to buy it when the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went in with him to the wedding hall and the door was closed. The other attendants arrived later. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us.” But he replied, “In truth I tell you, I do not know you.” So stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13, NJB)