You hear the train whistles at 9:30 in the evening and again at 9:30 in the morning as the cars move on the rails through Buffalo, Minnesota.
At the King’s House Retreat Center where the diocesan clergy conference is held in the fall and again in the spring, it is so quiet that you can actually hear the whistles, bringing the reminder that other things are going on in the world than those in your immediate vicinity. People are going places. Commerce is on the move. Nature’s rhythms are apparent here: The birds are packing up; the squirrels dash about stashing nuts and corn cobs; the fish and other creatures in Lake Buffalo go deeper as the air cools down. The gardens are showing their age. The leaves are blazing.
The beat goes on without any help from us.
At the opening of the conference, one of the Catholic brothers who runs the retreat facility told us that their Order would be praying for us during our time there. I remembered that there are many monastic orders around the world whose mission is solely to pray for the world and its inhabitants. So at any given time, some place on the globe, you are being held in prayer by people you don’t even know.
The service of Compline – one of the most beautiful in the Prayer Book, I think– acknowledges all that goes on each night while most of us sleep:
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, sooth the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous….”
This last because we all know how fragile joy is, how vulnerable we are when we are truly happy, since happiness is an intermittent state as much as heartbreak is, another basic rhythm of life.
Late one afternoon, after a short nap, I look out my window and see a lovely, peaceful grey cat standing guard, perhaps “the angel” given charge over me as I slept.
Without the distraction of computers, cell phones, and the daily newspaper (although a few people in attendance seem to spend the better part of the day staring at screens), I have with me none of these dissonant devices interrupting the rhythm I settle into: listening to speakers and to my clergy brothers and sisters; eating meals prepared and served to me; wandering through the grounds; reading what I want to; updating my journal; looking out the window at the trees and the lake; going to bed to sleep as my imagination is activated by train whistles.
And it struck me how much my usual life is not like this; how the rhythm I usually move to is more urgent, more strident, more intense. That probably suits me better, but maybe there’s a middle ground. A lot of it has to do with simply paying attention.
This is stated beautifully in one of my three or four favorite literary statements ever. Read it more than once. It has gifts for you, a new rhythm to add to your repertoire:
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
And it all happens whether we pay attention or not. Just as God is “already present, when we think to call his name” (poet Jane Kenyon’s phrase).
George Eliot (pen name for Mariann Evans), Middlemarch, 1847
See you in church.