“I won’t get anything done this weekend!”, I lamented to a friend over lunch the day before I took a group of students to Regina Laudis, a women’s Benedictine monastery, for the weekend. Then I listed for her all the work I felt I could have been doing that weekend: class preparation, grading, my academic writing, my grant writing, scheduling more events on campus or away from campus. I also pointed out that I wouldn’t have time for any personal things, like cooking or exercise or calling friends and family.
But as soon as we got to the monastery, it wasn’t hard to forget everything, as the rhythms of prayer, work, and meals pull you in with its beauty and harmony. After one day at the monastery, it dawned on me that there was nothing better I could have done with my time than accompany my students on their first visit to Regina Laudis. I had chosen to spend my time in this beautiful setting with my students because, time and time again, a change of context opens up new questions for discussion, gives me insights on their vocational journeys, and allows me to share so much more of what I know, what I’ve experienced, and what I long for in my own vocation.
We spent Saturday morning with four of the nuns, hearing them share with us their own journeys into the monastery and specifically their understanding of lectio divina and Marian devotion (some of them were not raised Catholic); singing psalms and hymns in Latin. My students, all of them studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, shared their own faith backgrounds, views on Mary, scripture, nature, and reflected on where they hoped their theological education would lead them—into church ministry, into a Ph.D., or into chaplaincy with the mental ill.
After our morning together, I stopped in the beautiful church for a time of silent prayer. “They are never going to forget this weekend. Our friendships will be so much deeper as a result of this time together,” I thought.
At Sunday morning Mass, my mind drifted back to the list of tasks awaiting me, and I thought with chagrin, “I got nothing done this weekend!”
But then it was like a voice popped into my head, asking me, what did you spend your time doing this weekend? Was it really “nothing”?
I reviewed how I had spent my time at the monastery: cooking together at the guest house with others, cleaning up together after a meal; praying together with the nuns and all the guests four times a day; walking in nature; sharing and listening to personal stories about faith, vocation, family, and relationships; and discussing the major political, cultural, social, scientific, and theological issues of the day. I particularly enjoyed riding the back of a pick-up truck, helping a nun move a grill in need of repair to the blacksmith’s shop. My students did farm work in the afternoon but I had to miss it so I could meet with one of the sisters to talk about future visits. But the students’ favorite part of the whole trip was doing farm work together, as it showed them how the contemplative side of monasticism integrates with the manual labor and agricultural science it takes to run a farm of 400 acres.
Doing so many varied things together required spontaneous cooperation, and often led to jokes and laughter. When we burned our first round of quesadillas, we decided to just call our dish, “smoky toasted quesadillas.”
I met with Sister Noella (aka the “Cheese Nun”) about ways to keep bringing my students in touch with the Benedictine way of life—a respect for nature as God’s creation, and creating an educational context where relationships and communities are central to our exploration, scientific discovery and prudential use of knowledge.
It dawned on me that what I thought of as “nothing”—building close relationships and community bonds—is the foundation for everything else, for without those relationships and communities, the rest of our busy, productive days full of tasks we accomplish just seem to be empty and joyless. Building authentic relationships takes time—a scarce commodity in my circles. It requires a context conducive to sharing and cooperation, something that seems alien in our anxiety-ridden and competitive academic institutions. It requires a commitment to intellectual and personal growth, which means being challenged to encounter ideas and traditions other than our own, a close reading of texts, and careful listening to each other.
Monasticism is often equated with escapism. But it’s far from that. In fact, I think the ways we in the world spend our time doing “nothing” often amounts to escapism. It’s easy to get caught up following social media trends, or create fantasy games with fantasy names, or maybe complain how hard our lives are and how bad people are. It’s easy to let our “nothing” time actually become sowing despair about our individual and communal futures.
We need more true leisure, and a contemplative outlook on our lives. In our own days outside the monastery, what would it take to put aside our task list and be present to others, admire nature as we walk around, hearing the birds chirp and ponder the arrival of spring, and listen to our own inner voices? Too often when the productivity cycle feels like rat race, all we do is collapse in place. Our souls are crying out to be renewed by using our minds and bodies in an integrated way. Why do I so often feel guilty for even having that desire for renewal, such that I just hide from the world, ashamed to admit to God, myself and others that I am a mortal human who gets tired mentally, physically and spiritually?
Monasticism as I’ve participated in it at Regina Laudis is about sowing seeds, with the full expectation of a harvest, but also the knowledge that the harvest takes time, patience, planning and teamwork. As one of the students commented, interacting with the nuns you can feel how deeply they live their interior life, and how committed they are to each other and their way of life. Our lives seem shallow and fragmented compared to their contemplative immersion in prayer and nature.
But how can we take the seeds they’ve planted in us back to our own environments? At the very least, when I got back Sunday afternoon, rather than rush back to my solitude in my work cave, I picked up my task list and began to work peacefully, setting aside two times that Sunday to stop and share tea and a meal with friends.
My own intellectual and spiritual growth often does not feel linear. I think I’ve made progress one day and the next day I’m back to my old habits. But such is the life of any person who aspires to high ideals. Rather than lament my failings, I will continue to make time to do “nothing” that really amounts to renewing myself and building the relationships with students and educational communities I so desire. And I will stop calling that time well spent “nothing.”