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Following the Rule

The Guideposts senior editor shares why he’s thankful for living in the moment.

I spent the weekend on a farm with nuns. Four nuns, actually, each of them farmers. The farm is in a town called Brewster, about an hour and a half north of New York City. Kate, Frances and I took a train there Friday afternoon for a three-day family retreat. We needed one. The city, as it does, was beginning to crush us.

The farm brought us back to life. Technically it’s not a farm as you would picture one, with barn, silo and fields of grain. It’s a large, old, rambling house surrounded by a big organic garden, a guest house, a chapel and a school.

Nuns have lived there for several decades. It’s owned by an order called the Community of the Holy Spirit, which also owns a sister house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That’s how we know these nuns. Their city house is only a few blocks from ours. Kate has led church services for them.

What brought us back to life wasn’t just getting outside and away from the city’s noise and just-recently-returned summer garbage smell. It was spending time with women whose lives are very different from ours, more intentional, more focused, more directed toward truth.

Nuns live according to a rule. The sisters at Brewster have adopted a modified Augustinian rule, a pattern for monastic life dating from Late Antiquity. They divide their days into regular periods of work, prayer and study. Those periods are not mere suggestions or notations in a daily planner. They are the rule. The nuns took vows of chastity and obedience when they entered the order, and they are expected to follow the rules.

That, oddly enough, is what brought us back to life. Not living the rule ourselves—in fact we spent most of our time goofing around in the school playground, bothering the nuns as they weeded the lettuce, chasing chickens and watching trees sway in a lazy wind. No, what gave us life was being, just for a few days, in a place that exhibits all the fruits of that rule.

Life at the Brewster convent feels real and alive. The women there don’t bother with all the frivolous things our society is so enamored of—status, possessions, celebrity. They know about all that—in fact you can watch them, in full habit, wishing Whoopi Goldberg happy birthday in a recent appearance on The View—and they’re wickedly funny as they storm around their kitchen preparing Saturday night pizza, which we ate with them.

But in Brewster everything has its right place. The pizzas were made with ingredients from the garden. The dough had been prepared by Sister Catherine Grace during one of her work periods. The time for eating was marked as time for community. Everything had a purpose. Nothing was wasted. And therefore a moment as mundane as dinner became immensely special and meaningful.

That’s what we had been missing in the city, that understanding that this moment, now, whatever it happens to be, is a moment of immense importance. All of us, whether we like it or not, live according to a rule. We allow ourselves certain things and disallow others. But for the most part we don’t acknowledge that, don’t even know it. We do what we do without thinking it through. We barrel through our routines, resent them mightily and look for something, anything to distract ourselves. We’re always yearning for time off.

Nuns never get time off. There are times of rest and recreation built into the rule. But they’re never free from the rule. And yet I’m sure the last word they would use to describe their lives is confining. Freed from compulsion to escape the ordinary, they have the luxury of making daily life an act of deliberate relationship with God. They know why they do each thing they do. And so they are grounded and perceptive in a way few other people can match.

I felt relief just being with them and thinking about that. I don’t quite know how to do it myself. Perhaps it’s impossible in the workaday world, raising kids, battling the subway, juggling work. I don’t think so, though. I think everyone can learn to pay attention, to be thankful for this moment now, whatever it brings, and to live as if in the presence of God. That was my hope, anyway, on the train back home. I’m still holding onto it.

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at jhinch@guideposts.org.

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