auscath2My Monastery is Silver

How do we in busy urban Australia, worrying about two jobs, children, mortgage and school fees, maintain an active spirituality? How do we satisfy our hunger for the infinite?

My monastery is silver. It tracks through the suburbs from Surrey Hills to Melbourne. It is the 8.25. Being husband, father, brother, office worker, mortgagee, smothers me with demands. God’s powerful presence in prayer is equally insistent. Life consists in integrating and answering the demands of these two belongings.

How and where can I pray during the working day? How do all my activities as father, husband, son, brother, worker, interweave with this deeper belonging?

It starts. Bring in the paper and the rubbish bin, put on the kettle, feed the cat, make the lunches, borrow train fare from the kids, sign that note, pull up the doona, shave, find a pair of socks, where’s a hanky, pack that bag, put in those bills and cheques, defrost the sausages, rush for the 8.25, think up that agenda, remember to make those calls.

During the morning busyness the ear half listens to the news summaries: Bosnia, Cambodia, Burma, South Africa, Somalia, Tibet, Bougainville, unemployment. Between 6.40 and 8.10 the heart sinks lower and lower, almost to despair. There can’t be a God in a world like that!

Life seems so frantic, the news so profoundly disturbing, the two so unconnected. The challenge to survive neutralises the challenge to respond to humanity. Our lives can feel shallow, our hearts despair.

The Best Places and Tools for Prayer

These predicaments frame our spiritual lives. How do we in busy urban Australia, worrying about two jobs, children, mortgage and school fees, maintain an active spirituality? How do we satisfy our hunger for the infinite?

We all have our ways, expressive of our temperament, of preventing our profoundest instincts from being smothered. Here are some of mine.

Trains, planes, buses, trams. These, for me, are the best places for prayer. Rakes, brooms, spades, forks. These, for me, are the best tools for prayer. Hat, overcoat, walking shoes. These are the best garments for prayer. Travelling, working, walking: in these are purpose but no straining of will. In all these the heart can seek its goal.

I walk to the station in the morning. The air clears my head. The rhythm of the steps and the breath is simple prayer giving thanks for the morning.

On the train, the silver monastery, hiding in a corner, with a small book, I read the morning prayer from the Divine Office. It takes four stations. After that I just sit, half asleep, half praying a mantra, wondering about my fellow travellers, feeling empathy for their lives. Imagining how they live.

Work can be exhilarating, but often is like gnawing on the same hard stones, meal after meal. The ache of boredom can become claustrophobic. Try as I might, many things I have to do are deeply frustrating. How can the boredom be transformed into prayer, made productive? How to both preserve a loving attitude to squabbling workmates and keep integrity?

The Way Home

You play the role, answer the phone, meet the deadlines. Lunchtime is a chance to make contact again. Sometimes I put on the jacket and walk to one of the nearby churches, sometimes Catholic, sometimes Lutheran, my favourite is Anglican. The emptier the better, and it is better to walk out of the city centre. I drop into a steady, comfortable gait. As I walk, I take it easy and let the feverishness of the brain fall away, concentrate on the mantra of the walk.

I sit in a pew or follow Mass. I think of Bosnia, Cambodia, Burma, South Africa, Somalia, Tibet, the people on the train, the unemployed who come to the city in the off peak. In a small way I enter into their suffering. Lunch hour is my great silence.

Going home on the 5.59, I should say the evening prayer. I don’t, I’m too tired. The brain is empty, barely working. On Friday nights, in the winter dark, at Richmond station, I wait forlornly for a connection, looking out across the lights of the suburbs, looking at my anonymous companions, following their own trail of light to their homes. Each to their own, to a shared table, to those with whom they share it, to their space where everything allows them to name themselves, to be named by others.

At home, kids doing their homework, family meetings, doing the dishes, making phone calls, bringing in the washing, watching TV, the crabbiness, the relaxation.

The discipline of loving in the family: the core and test of our spirituality. That one has low self esteem, that one is joyous, that one is likely to win ‘bitch of the week’, that one is cross that we because we are tired while she is wide awake, that one wastes money, that one gives lectures, that one is lazy.

The Love of Each

Each with their beauty of spirit, blooming and fragile. Each one needing nurture and being nurtured. We sandpaper each other smooth. ‘Thank you for this food, thank you for our guest and God bless the cook’. The love of each, and the love of the group, give an inkling of the shape and hue of divine love. In the universe, we stand in that love. I pray that this love sustains those in Bosnia, Cambodia, Burma, South Africa, Somalia, Tibet, Bougainville, those on the 8.25 and those caught in all those wars in all those places whose names I can’t remember.

Our working class origin is long left behind. We have two well paying jobs. Are we becoming complacent? How do we prove our solidarity with those in the news? Prayer is too easy. Giving money to causes (making sure we get a receipt for taxation purposes) seems like tokenism. Does political commitment count? Maybe, but that too is mixed up with self interest. Later in our lives, when the children are independent, perhaps there will be a chance for some full-time service. Time will test our genuineness.

Last thing at night, the jog or the walk. The final mantra of the step and the breath. Sometimes with the partner, sharing the day, our first conversation for the day. Put out the rubbish bin, the paper stack and the bag of bottles. Sometimes, in the bath, I finally get around to evening prayer.

Set the alarm for the 8.25. Try again.


This article first appeared in Australian Catholics. It is reprinted with permission of the author, Terry Monagle. Copyright © 2002.