by Jill Altom
We recently embarked upon an ambitious task to journey with our youth up to the Cumberland Mountains to learn and practice Sabbath. The retreat had a simple plan: eat, sleep, rest, pray, and play. Despite its simplicity I couldn’t help but feel the trepidation at how our youth would respond to silence, solitude, sessions of imaginative prayer, the daily office, lectio divina, and giving up their cell phones. The five middle school girls knew the retreat was labeled for Sabbath but were unaware of what to expect as we headed up Friday night. The Sabbath concepts of the retreat are ancient ones that hold their roots in the early monastic practices. The idea of managing time is one we are all very aware of today, especially our youth. With the complex schedules of soccer practice, Boy/Girl Scout meetings, family trips, science projects, band concerts, and 6 a.m. buses to catch for school, our youth are barely getting it all done in a day. Time management is of utmost importance and there is little room left for play, rest, prayer, or church community.
Let’s look to our monastic heritage’s ordering of time in order to regain a concept of time sanctified by God which draws us into deeper rhythms of life with God so often lost for our overly busy and distracted youth.
Time to pray
The Rule of Life set by St. Benedict (Fry 1981) written around 529 is the foundational text created for the ordering of time for a life of prayer and devotion to Christ. This was written in a time where being a Christian had become synonymous with being a member of society. After Constantine’s conversion Roman society eventually traded in their pagan gods for a new God, depicted as “pantokrator” on a throne. The more intimate, sacrificial version of Christianity during persecution had changed dramatically. Smaller home gatherings grew to become large, ostentatious churches built to accommodate this new Christendom which spread throughout Rome as masses flocked in its doors for baptism. Less emphasis was placed upon catechesis and education in the faith prior to baptism with so many people to accommodate, and the flavor of worship began to resemble a more regal and stately event. As a result, many Christians fled to the desert to find a more authentic and personal representation of faith and devotion to Christ. Many individuals were drawn to the desert in Egypt to become hermits and to flee the corruption of the church which they saw as no better than ancient paganism. (Gonzalez, Monasticism: Patterns of Piety 1988)
Benedict followed a similar path. Growing up during the fall of the Roman Empire as war after war with barbarian tribes raged throughout Italy, Benedict experienced his own disillusionment with culture after time spent in Rome for school. It was then that he fled from society to seclusion in the desert. He wasn’t able to maintain seclusion long as others sought him out to learn from him. Benedict soon discovered a calling to develop a monastery where monks might pray, work, and live in community. This monastic way of life operated around two crucial elements: permanence and obedience to the Rule and the abbot. (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day 2010) Permanence refers to the commitment one makes to adhere to the monastic way of life permanently. It was an “all-in” type of commitment to join and live in that specific community for all of life that could not be made half-heartedly. This is quite a contrast from the type of commitment we make when joining a church in a culture where “church shopping” and voluntarism is the norm. Benedict’s Rule of Life emphasized the importance of communal practices defined by an ordering of time centered upon the love of Christ. This Rule “detailed guidelines for ordering each day, including time for work and time for private and communal reaching and prayers. Benedict was particularly interested in the periods of common prayer. He called for eight periods, or “hours” of prayer each day…” (Gonzalez, Monasticism: Patterns of Piety 1988, 29)
When we read about monastics of the past and present we can hardly understand or relate to why or how one could pray seven, eight, or even nine times a day. The order of this way of life is so foreign, yet we are also dissatisfied at how little time we attend to God and prayer amidst our busy lives. Our inability to prioritize and schedule time to pray means it does not happen. With so many other tasks vying for our time, prayer is the one thing that no one else is requiring or asking us to do. Often the only communal worship and prayer we experience is on the Sundays when we show up to church. The concept of a communal way of life as demonstrated in monasticism offers an example of a more embodied, daily faith with constant accountability. We are more likely to practice something that we practice in community.
We are distinctly communal in nature. Created in the image of God who exists in the form of the Trinity, we desire and need community to guide, teach, challenge, and exhort us. The example of the triune nature of God who exists in three persons yet exists in perfect unity offers us an example of distinction amidst unity that we strive for as members of the body of Christ. We exist for each other and we are created for these relationships to model the love of Christ for the world. A Christian who attempts faith by himself, alone, will not be exposed to the fullness of God’s image found in the uniqueness of the Body of Christ. Attempting to practice faith alone can be more difficult than amidst a community. The community encourages our practice of faith as we are often motivated by relationships and encouraged in our belonging to a body which practices a particular way of life. This is something the monastic way excels at and illustrates for us postmodern American Christians in our individualistic, hectic culture.
An over-stimulated society
It was clear to me from the beginning of our Sabbath retreat that the middle school girls were struggling to focus and connect with the practices of faith we shared with them. Our first exercise Friday night was to enter into a time of silence while getting ready for bed not to be broken until the morning. When asked how they felt about the exercise, many youth on the retreat declared it could not be done. We encouraged one another to give the practice a try, read prayers of the daily office of compline, and we headed off to get ready for bed. While many did not try to keep the silence, there was still a quietness and peace which lingered among the group. All settled into bed rather quickly and many fell asleep easily. It was obvious that the community created an atmosphere that encouraged us to enter into Sabbath rest together. Benedict would have been proud as he said, “Monks should diligently cultivate silence at all times, but especially at night.” (Fry 1981, 64)
The 2010 Stress in America Report states that one-third of children ages eigh to 17 experienced physical health symptoms associated with stress. 38% had trouble falling asleep while 33% experienced headaches and 31% with upset stomachs. (Stress in America 2010) I find that many of the youth in our ministry are often tired, stressed, and too busy for God and church fellowship. At the onset of our retreat we invited the participants to enter into a time of Sabbath rest by unplugging from the hectic pace of our world by giving up their cell phones. Only one out of five girls willingly surrendered her phone. The idea of disconnecting was scary for many who had obviously become dependent upon our superficial connections to society which tend to define our worth and identity.
We are over-stimulated to the point that we don’t know how to simply be still with God or each other. Technology has complicated our relationships. Andy Root asserts that our time has been sped up as we are always moving, even when sitting in front of a computer we are moving through the web. Our sense of space has liquefied as we can be in several spaces at once through phones and internet. Identity is more often defined by what we consume and who we have immediate electric closeness with. (Root 2011) Dorothy Bass also concludes that “distortions in the shape of our time foster distortions in the shape of our lives and the quality of all of our relationships. We come to believe that we, not God, are the masters of time.” (Bass 2000, 3) In order to remind ourselves of who is in control of our time and to slow down our pace, we need to step back from the pace of technology and unplug. Interestingly enough, some claimed their parents would not understand if they gave up their phone as they had to be in constant contact with them.
The idea of unplugging from the world and denial of self were basic tenants to the rule of life for most monastics. Monks entering the order were instructed to give possessions to the poor beforehand and later were stripped of all personal clothing and belongings and re-clothed in the garments of the monastery—forsaking all personal property and ownership. (Fry 1981) Monks also were not to receive letters or gifts from family without the approval of the abbot. This separation existed to allow for the unification of the community and the permanence of one’s commitment to the order. To some degree, saying no to personal possessions and familial ties was a choice made to make space to say yes to God. Dorothy Hall brings this concept closer to home as she writes that “gaining time for attention to God and to my family means figuring out where to say no on a daily basis.” (Bass 2000, 39) For our youth, saying no to our cell phones was a small step towards saying yes to the time we had set before us with God as a community seeking to step in tune to God’s rhythm. The austerity of the denial and separation of monastics may seem impossible to us but by digging deeper into the intentions, we may discover the ways we may say no to the “world” often vying for our attention away from God and choose to tune in to the presence of God in the space we create when we turn off our cell phone, wake up earlier, and let go of the often unmanageable expectations of culture.
This struggle with our time in our society is systemic and overwhelming however our history teaches us that “God came to humanity in time. Time itself is made holy by the presence of God.” (Bass 2000, 11) The incarnation of Jesus puts God firmly planted in a specific time and space which teaches us that God can and does enter our time and does understand the confines and the fullness of time. The Benedictine monks well understood this holiness of time in the practice of the Divine Office, called “the Work of God” by Benedict. This “Divine” practice includes the “strands… of penitence, supplication, and intercession, [but] its prevailing note is and must be adoration.” (Underhill 1982, 114) The Divine Office is where God is present according to Benedict:
“We believe that the Divine Presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked. (Prov 15:3) But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office.” (Fry 1981, 47)
The simplicity of remembering God
I found Benedict’s words to be true during our Saturday afternoon on retreat. After a short hike through some woods covered in fallen leaves the group made its way up the winding path to the cross at Sewanee. The Sewanee Memorial Cross stands sixty feet high on a bluff overlooking the valley below the Cumberland Plateau. The view is one that brings visitors and bikers for miles to experience the awe and wonder. Saturday afternoon was no exception but all youth were amazed by its size and the beauty of the scene. After pictures, we settled down on the lawn overlooking the valley in the shadow of the cross and rested in the glory of the place. From that moment we opened our prayer books to the noonday service to recognize, name, and return our attention to the presence of God already among us. One psalm included for the hour, 121, was particularly applicable to our context as the psalmist declares “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” (The Book of Common Prayer 1979) In speaking the simple words of prayer, a psalm, and speaking words of adoration we experienced the presence of God on the hillside together. The simplicity of remembering God in the midst of the day through fixed hour prayer had a profound impact on us as it oriented of our lives into the recognition that God was in our midst if we would allow ourselves to stop long enough to recognize it.
The way of life for monastics determined by the Rule of St. Benedict, offers a richness of understanding to how our time can be sanctified. The way of the monastics is translatable to our own contexts in youth ministry. We can and must offer our youth an alternative to the busy, distracted nature of our culture and invite them into the identity, rest, and attention of our lives to the Holy Spirit at work in our midst through the example of monastics. We need to continually encourage the concept of retreat and Sabbath where we get away and disconnect from society periodically to fully engage with God. We need to teach the varieties of practices of prayer as well as the concepts of the divine office to our youth. Tony Jones once said to me, “We teach our kids to drive a car in very specific ways, why don’t we teach our kids to pray in such a way?” We must model and instruct how to pray with regularity both individually and communally. The life of the community comes together less often than our monastics, so we must encourage our youth to come together in small groups to pray and/or to pray the hours individually. This is also a practice that may be done best among families. Also, we must offer opportunities for silence, rest and space for God in our youth ministries. Weekly gatherings can foster this contemplation through individual exercises, periods of silence, and even through a cell phone basket where youth leave their technology at the door.
Finally, we must continue to share the stories of the desert fathers and monastics who paved the way towards this discipline and way of life we inherited in the church. There are incredibly interesting lives of many saints and forefathers who were filled with passion and devotion to their faith in God through the example and teachings of Jesus and lived their lives as radical testimonies to a God who existed with them in a very real time and space. These stories must be brought back to life for our youth and examined so that they might discover new ways to grow in and add to this immense tradition of faith which calls us to remember and practice a sacred space and time in which we encounter God in our midst.
Jill Altom is the Director of Youth Ministries at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Franklin, Tenn. and a May 2013 graduate of the Center for Youth Ministry Training.
Bass, Dorothy. Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000.
Fry, Timothy. The Rule of St. Benedict in English. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1981.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Monasticism: Patterns of Piety. Nashville: Graded Press, 1988.
—. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day. Peabody: Prince Press, 2010.
Root, Andrew. “Youth Ministry, the Church, and the Melting of Identity.” Youth Specialties: National Youth Workers Convention. Atlanta, 2011.
“Stress in America.” American Psychological Association. 2010. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/key-findings.pdf (accessed November 11, 2011).
The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Oxfor University Press, 1979.
Underhill, Evelyn. Worship. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982.