I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
-Ranier Maria Rilke
Round and Round the earth is turning
Turning always round to morning
And from morning round to night.
-Song Lyrics (source unknown)
The rain I am in is not like the rain of the cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.
I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!
-Thomas Merton, Rain and the Rhinoceros (with credit to Bryan Sherwood for reminding me of it)
I have been thinking about rhythms a lot lately. An essential part of monastic spirituality for me, is the commitment to live one’s life in sacred rhythms. In the monastery, the monk lives a life of balance, ora et labora, work and prayer. The liturgy of the hours calls us back to prayer at regular intervals to remind ourselves that the center of our lives is God and not the work itself. It is the essence of humility to let go of what we are doing and know the world will still go on. The root of humility is humus, meaning the earth. To live into these sacred rhythms is to live into rhythms grounded in the fertile soil that nurtures life. Often the hours that are still celebrated in monastic communities are the sacred hinges of the day: morning, noon, evening, and night.
Most of us live our lives in artificial rhythms ruled by the demands of the market. We are enslaved by our drives for more productivity, more things. A true retreat for me is one where the only schedule I follow are the needs of my body and intuition, where I check in regularly with the wisdom calling to me from within to listen for what wants to happen next, whether eating or walking or writing or art-making or sitting in silence. It is a true gift in my life the days I work from home I can wake up without an alarm clock.
I want to live a life that honors the ancient rhythms and cycles of the earth. I love Merton’s words: "The whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer." In a technological world, we live by engineered rhythms, rhythms that demands we are “on” and accessible most hours of the day.
I want my life to rise and fall like the ebb and flow of the ocean. I want to shed parts of myself in autumn, go deeply inward in winter, blossom into spring, and shine forth and be radiant in summer. I want to live my life in healing rhythms that honor the limits of my body and the pleasures of rest, the delights of play.
I want to move slowly enough to hear the voices of stones and grass, of sunlight spreading across the ground and the irregular rhythm of rain. I want to witness the slow wearing away of canyon rock by water. Merton says the rain surrounded him “with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody. . .” There is such abiding wisdom in these voices, if we only allow ourselves the freedom to live into them and listen.
I live my life in widening circles:
Each day the turning of the earth, the rising and setting of the sun, honoring the varying qualities and gifts of light and darkness. Each week a day of Sabbath rest where I release the world’s hold on me. Every four weeks the moon moves through her cycle, growing into fullness, then her gentle waning until she disappears for a night into blackness. Every five weeks I enter my menstrual cycle, a reminder of my fertility and the uniqueness of being female. Every ten weeks I receive the gift and sacrament of healing from my medication.
Every four months we mark the turning of the seasons and the slow movement to a new way of being in the world. Each year I remember the day of my birth and the births of all those I love. I give special honor to the commitment of my marriage, and the days that recall the great and terrible losses of my life. Every seven years, they say each cell in your body is changed and you are completely new.
Then there is the largest personal cycle of a lifetime. When my own life falls into the Great Beyond, a rhythm that is not predictable or solid like the turning of the earth. I am only sure it will happen and I give myself to it as Rilke writes, and in that giving I receive a life of fullness.
What are the sacred rhythms of your life? What are the circles you live? What helps you live into wholeness and a wisdom greater than yourself?
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts