The Reliability of Interruptions: Lessons from a Fictional Monastery

While for the Benedictines prayer is their work, for us lay people in the world our work can become our prayer.

Johann Jakob Zeiller, “Saint Scholastica with Nuns of the Benedictine Order and its Affiliations,” 1748
Johann Jakob Zeiller, “Saint Scholastica with Nuns of the Benedictine Order and its Affiliations,” 1748 (photo: Public Domain)

The subzero temperatures had restricted our homeschooling family to inside activities for over a week. Even our daily walk had been was reduced to pacing the finished basement or using a treadmill. This time of being restricted to our routine indoors, combined with a rereading of In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden, reminded me again of how our family life seems to run parallel to the life within a Benedictine monastery. I base this idea on the Rule of St. Benedict, conversations with a friend who is a monk, and Godden’s novel. (Godden’s content seems reliable as it matches the Rule for in her research she spent time living in Stanbrook Abbey in England and consulted with the nuns during her writing.)

The thing that stood out to me most in my comparison, however, was not the well laid out routine of a monastery and my home. It was instead the importance of peacefully embracing interruptions and the practice of using every slot of time, no matter how short, effectively in serving God. Flexibility in departure from routine is a place that I have long needed to grow, and it is the reliability of having interruptions that makes way for the need to use well every window of time.

The alarm goes off early in our house each morning and we rouse ourselves to our routine. We get dressed, eat breakfast, get out our schoolbooks and begin to work. We usually stop and say our morning and school prayers at our icon covered altar. The busy morning of homeschooling passes on into lunchtime. We eat, clean the kitchen, and take an afternoon prayer time. Then it is quiet time, our “Little Silence” for reading, recreation and exercise. This is when I sit down at my desk to work on whatever writing task I have at hand. Then the evening begins with dinner preparation, the family meal with the allotted discussion topic and readings from Scripture. We end the day with kitchen clean up, night prayer from the Divine Office and story time. The day ends with the children in bed and my husband and I taking some time for recreation, and then our own bedtime routines.

We live by a kind of rule and routine which is not dissimilar to a monastery. And while the most important work of a Benedictine is the praying of the Divine Office — which they drop everything for — the primary work for me in my home is attending to the needs of each individual person in my home from my youngest child to my husband. Everything else is secondary. And I have learned that this work of responding to them is where I encounter Christ in my life and where they encounter Christ in me.

I will make a caveat here, so that no one worries about my mental health — our routine includes time where I am not supposed to have my attention demanded by others. I have built in times of self-care each day for prayer, exercise and relaxation, such as our “Little Silence” which is modeled off the Rule. While I often get that time uninterrupted, sometimes the demands of the moment require me to make a small sacrifice of these times.

While I take on many of the roles of our domestic monastery — the gardener, the cook, the infirmarian, the cellerar, the sacristan — the role I relate to most among the nuns of the fictional abbey of Brede is that of the abbess. She is the one who encounters interruption after interruption no matter what is on the schedule — even missing the chanting of the divine office in the case of a health crisis for one of her nuns. She is the center of the abbey — any complaint, concern or joy is always brought to her in her room as she works on those things required of her by the abbey. The custom in Brede is that she is always available to a nun even for the smallest comment, such as the birth of kittens.  

Several passages from In This House of Brede describe the abbess trying to get some particular task accomplished amid the continual knockings of her sisters on her door. For me, the coordinator of the lives of my children, even my closed door is never truly closed to my children. I probably should adopt the practice of an abbess and respond, “Deo gratias,” whenever a child interrupts me at my writing desk yet again. I sometimes long for the quiet of a contemplative life, or at least a silent retreat, but Godden’s novel reminds me that even in a quiet abbey, there are people to be loved and responded to.

One of the ways the nuns in Brede accomplish their secondary work is through being disciplined with the way they use their time. The bells call them to prayer six times a day, and in their windows of other time, they accomplish their particular roles in the monastery, be the librarian or a weaver of vestments. And like me the work must be put down, no matter what state it is in, when their primary work calls them.

This being said, they skillfully use even their 10-minute windows for the accomplishment of their respective roles. I am learning to do this as well, as my children require fewer of my minutes for their most basic needs, such as bathing, getting dressed and using the toilet, and need more of my time to teach them their lessons. My work is rearranged, and I have discovered that I can slip away after dinner and do some writing or reading for a project in the thirty minutes it takes them to clean the kitchen.

It does seem that the more faithful I am to my primary work, the more little slots of time I have to focus on my secondary work. And when I give it all to God, He always gives me more than I began with. As people active in the world, God is pleased with our uniting ourselves to him in our daily labors.

God has called each and every one of us to some particular work in your life. I have been blessed to have mine be the daily care and education of my children, with my writing only on the side. My husband’s call, for example, is to instruct undergraduates in philosophy and to publish in his field, supporting our family. His work, where he serves Christ, is in his calling as a professor. He, too, is confronted with the continual interruptions and distractions. Another person’s calling might be in their work at an office and showing Christ’s love to the people they encounter there or in working in a service profession where the work is centered on helping customers.

While for the Benedictines prayer is their work, for us lay people in the world our work can become our prayer. I must note here that I do not mean that we should not set time aside for quiet, focused prayer. What I mean is that we can encounter and love Christ in doing his work where we have been placed. We can always be in his presence when we are doing our work for love of him and for others, and in embracing the interruptions as a blessing and using the little windows of time we have well, we can more fully enter into a life of serving him.