The rhythm of life is a powerful thing

Can a Rule of Life written in the 16th century really help us organise our increasingly busy lives today? Raylia Chadwick says it has certainly changed her life

It all started when I was ill with a severe bout of pleurisy. As the pain lessened, it was sheer bliss to have a proper excuse to lie in bed and be fussed over – even with the pandemonium going on downstairs and the smell of burning toast!

When I was well enough to take up the reigns of husband, young family, a full time teaching job, and church and community life again, I could see how stressed out I had allowed myself to become – which probably contributed greatly to going down with pleurisy in the first place!

It was during that period in between being seriously ill and getting back to normal that I had time to read.  A friend loaned me a book by Will Derkse on the Benedictine way of life and, once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.  Was this measured, rhythmic lifestyle with its ‘full agenda’ moving gracefully and sweetly through all the ups and downs of daily life really possible for me?

Will Derkse is himself an ‘oblate monk’, that is, he lives outside the monastery in what we might call ordinary life. He was married with a young family and in full time work – just like me! I reckoned this oblature, with his practical understanding and experience of busy family life, earning a living and working in the community must know what he was talking about.

At the time of writing his book (2000), he was director and professor of the Radboud Foundation with the Technical University of Eindhoven and held the Andreas Van Melsen Chair in Science, Society and Worldview at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

On the other hand, busy mothers cannot organise a division of the day into what Derske calls a “wholesome rhythm” – can they?  Surely it isn’t relevant to modern life and I didn’t need another stick to hit myself over the head with!

However, as I began to think about my own life, I realised that there was already some division of the day – some rhythm and pattern to it – despite its apparent chaos and frenetic activity.

It went something like this: Rise at 6.30am to briefly dedicate the day to God, prepare breakfast and help get the children ready for school, take my turn on the school run, drop my youngest off at his grandmothers, go to my own school where I taught amid its built in system of bells and regulated day (assembly, lessons, break, lessons, lunch and so on) and so the day proceeded. 

A glimmer of possibility arose. All I had to do, as Derske points out, is to take practical, do-able, realistic steps in the right direction. It’s about finding a rhythm which suits my lifestyle and that of my family and moving towards what Jesus calls a “fullness of life”, by adding in time, however brief, for prayer and study of the scriptures.

In all this I was fortunate enough to find friends (Sarah, who loaned me the book, and my next door neighbour, Joan) to join me in this exciting possibility of drawing nearer to God in the fullness of life, which is promised to us. The whole thing became an exciting adventure.

To begin with, we expected far too much from ourselves and became inpatient when life threw up what we saw as interruptions: the unexpected visitors, parents falling ill and needing attention, the many demands of children needing a ‘taxi’ service, parents’ evenings and unexpected visits to the dentists . . . you know the sort of thing!

Then there’s one’s own postponement behaviour (as I used to point out to my GCSE students) – too many needless cups of coffee, the long, gossipy phone call, the ‘interesting bits in the newspaper . . .

Sarah and Joan faced different challenges. Sarah was seven months pregnant with her first baby and had just taken extended maternity leave from a responsible job in marketing.  Joan had teenage children and was a part time nurse in the local hospital.

As we discussed our progress together, we found the benefit of the Benedictine way of life and pattern of the day lay in its flexibility.  The key is simply to give your full attention to what is in front of you  and to move calmly through the day.  The small things and the attention to detail matter.

Benedict himself was not an ordained priest, but a layman and so his teaching is very much down to earth and directed towards the growth of a person living in the ‘world’. He believed that everything – even the simplest, most mundane act, can sing God’s praises and be sanctified.

In addition to the hugely satisfying rhythm of the day, Benedict points us to an inspiring and uplifting appreciation of beauty, of the Divine underlying creation and the interconnectedness of all things.  Wasn’t it Gerard Manley Hopkins, poet and Jesuit priest, who saw the face of Christ in a bluebell? I found myself noticing the beauty of autumn leaves and the fragility of falling snow.

Over time, the three of us began to experience a sense of profound well-being which transmitted itself to those around us. My relationship with my husband, Leonard, became softer, more generous and loving in attitude.  Sarah and Joan said the same about their own husbands - although Joan admitted she didn’t find this easy. Her husband was reluctant to “lay down the law” as she put it with their teenage boys and it was not easy for her to feel calm and happy at these times.

Inevitably, there are moments of self doubt and negativity – days when nothing seems to go right.  I think the secret is to recognise that this will happen and it’s normal. Of course it did help being able to meet with Sarah and Joan to chat and discuss things over coffee – for even what Derske calls ‘play’ and ‘doing nothing’ are an essential part of life’s rhythm.

These days, it might seem that life is less hectic as the children have grown and ‘flown the nest’.  However,  there is a grandchild who now frequently comes to visit and so once more we have the patter of small feet in the middle of the night and the dreaded cry, “I’ve been sick!”  It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry as they say!

All this is not the full picture of Benedictine daily life, but I am grateful for what I have discovered.  I am making my own spiritual pilgrimage and, as the hymn goes, “Just as I am, without one plea, O Lamb of God, I come . . .”

Take it further

* Read The Rule of St Benedict for Beginners: Spirituality for Daily Life, by Will Derkse.  The Order of St Benedict 2003, The Liturgical Press, Minnesota USA  ISBN 0 8146 2802 8 

* Visit www.Benedictinemonks.co.uk

*  Look at the schedule of your life now and identify the set times in your day - for example, the school run, your job etc. What are the areas of flexibility, eg shopping, laundry etc.  Can you spot any gaps in between (however brief) for ‘play’ and ‘doing nothing’? Is there some time for prayer and study? Write everything down and be prepared to adjust and monitor as you go along.  Remember to be flexible and to be kind to yourself!

* Make sure you do one thing at a time – this is the Benedictine hallmark and promotes well-being. The division of the day into work, lunch, recreation etc around the daily office means there is no loading the washing machine whilst eating  a sandwich – the kind of thing I used to do!  There is time for everything.