by Derek Olsen
Most of the things that we do in life—especially our modern lives—take up our time. However, I am firmly convinced that there are two things that actually give us time back: prayer and exercise. I find that when I’m doing these regularly, I can think more clearly, am more focused, and am better able to stay on task. (Not coincidentally, I also find I’m a better dad and husband then, too…) Of course, trying to fit these things in around an overcommitted schedule—day job, side jobs, church work, and chauffeur duty for the girls’ activities—is never easy.
Our schedule has just made its great Autumn Shift as the girls are back in school and ballet is back in full swing. As usual, I’m trying a new exercise routine to pack it all in. Early mornings consist of a 50-minute block for tai chi, speed rope jumping, and stretching. Then, my lunch hour alternates between a strength workout or running. It’s been moderately successful so far… (Translation: I haven’t gotten a single strength workout in within the past week and only ran two days!)
One of the issues that fights against the success of this program is keeping different physical activities in play. Some folks say that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you get yourself moving. That’s entirely true, if you’re getting yourself active, but at this point in my life that doesn’t work best for me. I just hit the big 4-0 this summer. I find myself creaking and joints crackling more in the morning when I go up and down the stairs in the morning chase to get hair and teeth bushed, lunches and schoolbags packed. I know I need to work on my mobility and flexibility; the stretching and tai chi help with that. The jump rope and running help with the two kinds of cardio, anaerobic and aerobic. The strength training helps me to keep what muscle I’ve got. (Yes, I’m finally mature enough to accept that I’ll never be buff, and I’m better off trying to preserve what’s actually there!) Because they are all targeted on different body systems they’re not interchangeable. Tai chi doesn’t do what running does; jumping rope can’t replace strength training.
And this same principle is just as important in my spiritual life too.
I read with great interest the article posted the other day on The Lead about diminishing silence in modern life. The writer is spot-on that our schedules and gadgets make it too easy to drown out the silence that used to appear in spaces in our lives and that we need to intentionally cultivate it as a discipline.
Now—my fear is that some enterprising clergy person reading that article will decide that the best way to do it is to put more intentional “quiet time” into the Sunday Eucharist. And that won’t cut it.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with some silence in the Eucharist, but there is a pernicious notion that if Episcopalians are going to do something “spiritual” then it has to occur between 10 and 11:15 on a Sunday morning. This defies both logic and the prayer book.
The Eucharist has its own rhythms and purpose: we join together publicly as the Body of Christ to participate in his own self-offering to God the Father through the Holy Spirit. We are privileged to get plugged into the internal dynamics of the Trinity.
But we also have the Daily Office. Here we lift our voices in prayer and praise at the hinges of the day, and make our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to recall who God is and what God has done for us in our own person and through our ancestors in the faith.
And we are called to read and search the Holy Scriptures. Yes—we hear these in the Eucharist; yes, we read them in the Daily Office. But those times are not and cannot be a substitute for our own engagement with the Scriptures where we, with the aid and guidance of the Spirit, play hide and seek with the Word amongst the words.
And too we must engage in holy silence. We must shut our own mouths, still our own thoughts, and open our own hearts to the Holy Other whom we meet in the quiet.
Our spiritual lives need to incorporate a variety of exercises; one is not enough. The Sunday morning Eucharist is not a catch-all where we try to cram all of our spirituality for the week into a single hour and a quarter (or half…). You can’t substitute one for the other and expect to have a balanced spiritual life. That’s specifically why the Book of Common Prayer has continued to insist, communicating to us the wisdom of centuries, that our wholeness is found by opening ourselves to God along many channels, not just one.
It takes a routine to accomplish it; it takes discipline. As I struggle to keep my own routine, the Eucharist is pretty easy to manage—it shows up once or twice a week and in public. There’s a certain community accountability built in. But meditation, Scripture, and the Office: they’re important too. I find that I’m—literally—not all there when they’re not a regular part of my life. Like my running and my lifting, I can’t pretend I get to them every day. Sometimes a week will go by without me cracking my devotional Bible. Sometimes an apologetic prayer on the way out the door will have to take the place of the Office. But I know that the pieces have to be in play.
As the run up to General Convention starts and as voices start getting louder presenting various plans and platforms for fixing the Church, I think this is going to have to be mine… The Church can’t be the Church only on Sundays. The Eucharist is glorious—but not sufficient. It’s an important piece of a balanced spiritual diet—it can’t be the only dish on the table. Reading the Scriptures, praying the Office, embracing holy silence, these aren’t things we can delegate away or farm out to contractors. We—us—the great mass of laity, this is what we’ve got to be about. I know it’s not easy—believe me! But there’s no way we’ll get anywhere towards accomplishing it if we don’t make these activities priorities—in our personal lives and in our common life. Our clergy and bishops should be helping us with this, helping us towards this. A full and balanced spiritual life for the laity bolstered by the clergy is not a distraction from the Church’s work but the foundation of it. Justice, mercy, loving-kindness are most fully enacted when we are in constant contact with their source, the true Fountain of Virtues. Only then can we fully be who we are called to be—the Body of Christ united in our on-going pilgrimage to inhabit the Mind of Christ.
Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music and is the Liturgical Editor of the newly revised edition of the Saint Augustine's Prayer Book. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.