“The hour is striking so close above me, so clear and sharp, that all my senses ring with it.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
have been spending time throughout the last year at the Cistercian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz, an hour outside of Vienna, in the gently rolling hills of the Vienna Woods. The abbey, home to roughly one hundred monks, was founded in 1133. For nearly 900 years – through medieval wars and plagues, and through the horrors of the World Wars – the monks have gathered uninterrupted in the oratory at each hour of the monastic day to chant the hour’s hymns.
In this age of manic productivity, when time is measured on an atomic clock down to the nanosecond, it is to places like Heiligenkreuz that we go to renew our sense of presence, and to recalibrate our relationship to human time. It is no small irony that the first clocktower bells, installed in monasteries to summon monks to prayer at the appointed hours, are the very innovation that set in motion this march of the ticking clock that would usher in the Industrial Revolution and the digital age from which we now seek refuge in the cloistered walls of monasteries like Heiligenkreuz.
Whether we are listening in stillness to the ethereal sounds of Gregorian chant in a cavernous oratory, or stopping for a moment in our busy day to observe the shifting light, listen to the song of birds, or simply feel our feet on the Earth and the beating of our heart in time with all of life, observing the hours is a way of weaving a more expansive connection to the march of time through our hours, days, and lifetime. The Austrian Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast describes the hours as the “seasons of the day.” He describes them in this way:
“The monastic understanding of the word ‘hour’ goes back to a Greek word, hora, which is older than our notion of a day broken into twenty-four-hour segments. The original notion of hour is something quite different from a unit of time composed of sixty minutes.”
He goes on to explain:
“We come closer to an appreciation of the original meaning of hour when we reflect on the seasons of the year. They betoken the original understanding, in which a season is a mood and an experience, not an exact period that starts, say on the twenty-first of December and ends on the twenty-first of March. It’s rare that any season really starts on its assigned date. Rather, seasons are qualitative experiences: We sense a subtle difference in the quality of light, the length of daylight, the feel of the air on our skin. We know intuitively that something is happening in nature.”
The hours of the day are qualitative and textural like that. A day emerges gradually from the dark stillness of night, into the light, activity, and fervor of the day; it settles into the soft, reflective glow of evening, and slips quietly back into the darkness of night. Such is the rhythm and flow of our lifetimes as well, and attuning our senses and experiences of each moment to that rhythm and flow of time frees us from the ticking of the chronological clock, and allows us to appreciate and live each moment more fully and richly, as a unique human being, living a singular human life in a world filled with both aching beauty and suffering.
Excerpts from: Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day, David Steindl-Rast and SHaron Lebell (1998)
I have long been interested in monastic traditions, and I believe there is great wisdom to be gleaned from them in working with the chaos and upheaval of life in our modern world, in non-sectarian ways that do not necessarily require adherence to any particular religious doctrine. St. Benedict saw his Rule as a “trellis,” a scaffold upon which daily life could naturally grow. While the structure of the hours comes from the Catholic tradition of the Divine Hours, and the scaffold of the day set out by Benedict, my interest lies not in espousing the Christian doctrine contained in them, nor the Buddhist doctrine of my own spiritual orientation. My interest lies, rather, in exploring how we can apply our attuned awareness and presence to the unfolding flow of time through our lives, and how we can share that experience in a way that transcends religious affiliation.
So I invite you to join me for the next eight weeks in an experiment of building such a “trellis,” tuning into the flow of these “seasons of the day.” The cocoon of this unique Coronavirus period seems an opportune time to do so, as many of us have seen our normal routines upended, and will eventually return to a new “normal” routine. Now is the time we can choose to consider what the shape of that new normal might be.
I will be releasing my own contemplation on each of the hours every Sunday for the next eight weeks, and I invite you to explore that hour of the day in your life. Each posting will feature a section with ideas for Practice, questions to Contemplate, a Poem touching on relevant themes, and ideas for ways to Create, in words or images, your experience of each hour. I invite you to Share whatever observations or insights arise in your own exploration, keeping in mind these two simple guidelines:
- Speak from your own lived experience.
- Situate any outside references (religious, spiritual, literary, etc.) within your lived experience (i.e. what experience of your own made those ideas or words of others ring true in your life)
For your reference, here are the hours we will explore:
- Vigils | Early morning, pre-dawn
- Lauds | Dawn
- Prime | Mid-morning
- Terce | Late morning
- Sext | Noon
- None | Mid to late afternoon
- Vespers | Dusk
- Compline |Night
A note on times of the day (especially if Vigils scares you!):
We all have our own biological clocks – some are morning people, others are night owls. Approach this in the spirit of an experiment for a few days to taste each hour. The idea is not to tie these necessarily to an exact hour on the clock. Monastics often get up and begin Vigils at 5am. It does not have to be that early, but see what your body is capable of for a few days. The idea is to feel the texture of that portion of the day. There is a textural quality before sunrise that is very different from mid-morning, or even dawn.