What does it mean to live in “the present”? Each second? Each minute? Each hour? Being “in the present” each second takes too much concentration. Each minute works if I’m meditating and need to bring my wandering, undisciplined mind back to my breathing. Each hour when the nearby St. Edmund bells toll the relentless march through the day, heading toward the 9 p.m. wrap-up, I feel chased (and chastened). The bells remind me that time waits for no one.
Each day works best for me. Not too long, not too short. A day is a good measure of time spent. Day by day, we wake to a clean slate “with no mistakes in it” as Anne of Green Gables would say. The mistakes accumulate quickly, but that’s living, and not a good way to measure each day. Each cycle of the Earth around the Sun is unique and we — changeable, moody, aging, improving, regressing, impressionable, becoming beings — are unique within each day’s friendly (or unfriendly) confines.
The sun’s arc overhead is a better marker than elusive, slippery hours: The introduction of morning, the development of afternoon, the climax of evening, and the denouement of nightfall. Another day, another tale told.
But not a tale told by an idiot. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeping in its petty pace with poor players strutting and fretting their hours upon the stage, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing?
Hardly. Macbeth was a little depressed at that point, having just heard the news of his wife’s demise. I say our days are potentially full of meaning, signifying everything. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, coming to us as abundance from a mysterious benefactor. Greatly to be prized and used as well as energy allows.
That’s pretty much how it felt at New Melleray Abbey, the Trappist Cistercian monastery I visited each October for 20 years. Each day seemed consecrated by the prayerful presence of the monks, who were “cloistered,” i.e. voluntarily withdrawn from “the world” to live a structured life of work and contemplative prayer. “Cloister” is a much nicer term than “quarantine” or “lockdown” or “self-isolation.” Warm and wise, the monks live in community. Hospitality is one of their missions, so the world is welcome to visit, even if they rarely visit the outer world.
It’s true they practice a kind of “spiritual distancing,” but most are friendly and accessible.
I mention this because we have been “cloistered” for the past two months, and we could learn from the monks how to make the most of it. You don’t need to be a believer in a supreme being to benefit from their example. We can still experience the world around us as “holy” or “sacred” even if we use other language.
We can certainly benefit from the simplicity they practice — reducing the ego, surrendering the frills and excesses that many of us spend too much time and money on anyway.
We can also benefit from their daily structure, though more extreme than ours. When the bell tolled each morning at 3 a.m., I turned over in bed and wished them well, admiring their dedication. I joined them for Mass at 7 in the chapel, a beautiful space that resembles a spiritual “barn” and is, by far, my favorite worship space. During the daylight hours, the monks work, with occasional breaks for prayer. For 150 years they tilled the soil of generous land holdings granted in 1849 when they arrived in northeast Iowa from Ireland. A few years back, farming became too difficult for their aging community, so they began harvesting their bountiful woodlands, producing wooden caskets and urns.
Throughout the day, the monks head back to chapel at regular intervals because their minds are never far from the divine, even when they’re laboring. After dinner, they bring the day to completion in the lovely dark with Compline and head to bed by 8 p.m.
The lifestyle seems to agree with them. Most live well into their 90s. They have a firm sense of purpose and each day feels meaningful. Isn’t that what each of us seeks in our own fashion? If you substitute “mindfulness” or “reflection” for prayer, create your own helpful daily “structure,” shed as many excesses of the consumer culture as you dare, devote yourselves to meaningful work, and create a strong sense of community, then we’re only different from the monks by degrees. If we overwhelm ourselves with too much work or too many distractions, it prevents us from being mindful of each day as it passes, of understanding the day’s significance and being attuned to, for wont of a better term, its sacred qualities. As many have discovered during our current cloistered interval, each day deserves its due.
The monks are able to imbue the ordinary with a sense of the extraordinary. In their presence, it seemed to me, each day was “redeemed,” a word that covers a lot of ground — we use it for everything from coupons to saving all of humanity.
The monks would probably say God doesn’t care how we get there, just that we get there.
If only we could figure out where “there” is.
Maybe “there” is right here. Day by day, here, now, each morning, each afternoon, each evening, each nightfall. Paying attention to the world surrounding us, savoring the sunlight as it falls at different angles; steeping in the songs of birds, some of the most beautiful music ever composed; inhaling the scent of lilacs, lilies of the valley, and viburnum.
And taking our cue from Kenneth Patchen’s poem, “Love Seen as a Search for the Lost”:
Then not that we do more or stop pity, but that we be
Wider in living, that all our cities fly a clean flag …
We have been alone too long; it is terribly late
For the pierced feet on the water and we must not die now.
When this is over, I hope we remember what we learned. If nothing else, the prominent reminder posted in front of one Oak Park house recently: “Kindness is contagious, too!”
Having been cloistered like monks, I hope we can live a little wider, a little deeper, a little better, seeing things more clearly, loving each other more dearly, following our path more nearly — like the old “Godspell” song says.
Day by day.