Trellis of the spiritual life
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
I just built a few raised beds in our back yard. The soil is in, all loose and black and airy. There’s nothing planted yet but possibility. Already I anticipate the particular smell of the tomato plants. And the basil!
It may sound like a strange leap, but the sight of the tomato cages and the plants threading in and out of the wire structure has become, for me, an icon of the spiritual life. Like a tomato plant, I find I need some kind of structure to my life. In my experience, if the plant is allow to just grow along the ground, the fruit gets moldy and mushy. The same is true for us as individuals and communities. We make choices to eat moderately, get adequate sleep and exercise, to keep proper borders around one’s work. These choices, after a time, don’t seem like choices anymore, but are just how one lives one’s days. How we live our days is how we live our lives.
Now, there’s an intimidating thought! Without some structure, some architecture, to the day, I would tend to allow the forces of inertia, gravity, sloth, indulgence, or distraction (just to name a few) to take hold of me and keep me from becoming the one whom God intends.
The tomato cage, or trellis, that the Church has given us to support our growing into the full stature of Christ —to quote that baptismal promise — is called a Rule of Life. It is said that St. Benedict and his sister, Scholastica, saved western civilization from total collapse into chaos after the fall of the Roman Empire by creating his Regula, or Rule. By it the monastic community at Monte Cassino was ordered by a schedule of prayer, work, recreation, service, and rest. According to Holy Women, Holy Men, the Rule’s “average day provided for a little over four hours to be spend in liturgical prayer, a little over five hours in spiritual reading, about six hours of work, one hour for eating, and about eight hours of sleep. The entire Psalter is to be recited in the Divine Office once every week.”
I already hear the groan rising over the White Mountains as the readers of New Hampshire Episcopal News read this! Four hours in prayer? Every day?! Really? But how do you spend your day? Sadly, many of our young (and not so young) people could easily be found for this amount of time before a video screen. Again, how we live our days is how we spend our lives. I find that if I miss reading the Daily Office (that cycle of prayer and scripture reading appointed for Morning and Evening Prayer), I begin to lose a sense of spiritual and emotional stability. Without immersing myself in the stories of the Bible, I lose a capacity to see how the present stories being spun in our churches’ experiences have anything to do with God’s promise. If I don’t take time daily to connect with Polly and our children, we all suffer and get cranky. Without exercise and proper diet…well, there’s the image of the rotting and mushy tomato. If I neglect to see my spiritual director regularly, and if I don’t practice asking for God’s forgiveness and amendment of life in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I would tend to be even more myopic and self-absorbed than I already am. The fact is that we all have a “Rule of Life” in our patterns of daily living that keeps us stable. The question is, how does that daily schedule either build up or diminish our life in Christ?
Summer is a splendid time to find time with a spiritual companion or perhaps with a journal in prayer and to ask, “What daily habits are working for us? Are there ways we are squandering our time or life-energy? Can we commit to prayer, spiritual reading, even if just for a small portion of the day?” If you are going to make changes to your own Rule of Life, it helps to do so with a partner, perhaps a small group at church, with whom you can find support. Jesus always works with the disciples in pairs or small groups. Don’t be too lax, or too rigorous. Allow time for your own nourishment, and allow time to reach out to others.
The beauty of the tomato cage is that those wires are strong and stable, but there are large openings between them so the vine can grow and stretch in freedom toward the light and water that nourish it into fullness. May your Summer exploration in the spiritual life be fruitful.
Your brother in Christ,