Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 17

The Living Sacrament

John van de Laar

I did not see it coming. It had been years since I gladly departed from the church that had raised me. In youthful arrogance I had decided the traditions and rituals of this community were both unnecessary and restrictive, and I shed them like an unwanted and ill-fitting garment. But now, here I was, for the first time, feeling the undeniable attraction of these ancient ways, and I was deeply disturbed.

The cause of this discomfort was an announcement by the pastor of the independent church in which I served as worship director that we would not be gathering on Good Friday. While Easter Sunday would be recognized, the rest of Holy Week was foreign territory and completely ignored. In the face of this revelation, something inside me stirred, and I felt a longing for renewed connection to the Church—the timeless, universal community of the faithful that had been following Christ for millennia. I realized that I needed a sense of continuity with the stories, activities, and seasonal celebrations that had been the foundation of Christian worship since the beginning. I had, shockingly, discovered in myself a desire to honor and embrace the traditions of my faith.

Some years later, as I performed a baptism for the daughter of close friends, the promise spoken by the congregation captured my wife’s heart. “…Will you so maintain the life of worship and service that [this child] and all the children among you may grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord?”The Methodist Service Book. Petersborough Methodist: Publishing House, 1992, A9. This, Debbie realized, was what she had to do with her life—enable God’s people to live this profound promise. As she later explained this experience of God’s call, I realized how powerful a simple sacrament could be, how these ancient rituals could transform, heal, and renew. And I found myself beginning a quest to understand something of the power of these “little incarnations.”

I have since discovered that the sacraments are at the heart of monastic life, and so it is no surprise that my quest has often led me to the feet of those who share its rhythms and relationships. While my connection with the monastery—that of an outside observer, essentially ignorant of the inner workings of the community— is small, I have come to believe that one of the great gifts monastic faith offers is the ability to view and live life with a sacramental awareness. This gift can be applied to every moment of our existence, but there are, perhaps, four areas of contemporary living for which it is most relevant. And when we begin to unwrap and enjoy this simple offering of monastic faith, life becomes deeper and more vibrant; joy is increased; and a growing sense of order, peace, and well-being fills even the darkest and most difficult phases of our journey.



01.  Eternity in Time

One of the first things to strike me about monastic life was the strict and seemingly rigid ordering of time. I grew up preferring to organize my life with as much spontaneity as possible so that should inspiration or opportunity manifest, I could easily follow. However, as I learned more about the unique rhythms of monastic time, I discovered great wisdom and a source of gentle strength.

Contemporary society has a rather ambivalent relationship with the passing of the hours. “Time is money,” we say, as we create demanding “deadlines” and strain under the pressure of our “race against the clock.” Heaven forbid we should ever be caught “wasting time,” since it is a hard and unforgiving master, and we its willing slaves.

This life-draining scenario arises from a chronos sense of time. Hours slip by as events follow one another in sequence, and time, once passed, is forever lost. Inevitably, we find ourselves cramming as much into each second as we can, and the pieces of our existence are arranged into a strange value system in which time is rationed according to the perceived importance of each piece. Unfortunately, we too often discover that the tyranny of chronos deceives us, and we feel the loss of relationships and experiences that we wrongly pushed to the bottom of our list of priorities.

One gift of the monastery is that time is encountered through a completely different manner—what the Scriptures call kairos. The kairos is an appointed time, a season in which God’s purpose and presence break into our chronological myopia. It is a moment in which eternity takes precedence, and the ticking of the clock ceases, for a while, to matter.

It was this attention to kairos that urged Jesus to stop the desperate race to reach Jairus’ daughter before death claimed her and engage a poor woman seeking healing from years of bleeding and the public shame it had brought (Luke 8:41-56). Although Jairus’ anxiety must have been blatantly obvious, and his grief, on hearing that they had delayed too long, raw and overwhelming, Jesus is somehow released from these pressures while still managing to minister to each person according to his or her need. Clearly, Jesus knew how to shift his gaze away from the clock and toward the wind-like movement of the divine Spirit.

It is to this same transformed and transforming sense of rhythms and seasons that the monastic life opens the human soul. As Kathleen Norris observes, “In our culture, time can seem like an enemy: it chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease. But the monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it.”Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk. Oxford: Lion Publishing plc, 1999, 12.

An encounter with kairos is inevitably a startling and healing experience, the imprint lasting and unmistakable. Somehow, even a peripheral awareness of the ever-present potential for God’s interruption loosens the hold of chronos on a life. What the monastery teaches is to move our mindfulness of eternity from the edges of our being to its heart, to begin to honor the time we have as a gift, and to be open to its flexibility in order to make space readily when eternity chooses to manifest itself. Kairos, then, enables time to become for us a “little incarnation,” a sacrament through which the Living Christ is encountered and by which God’s grace is received.

On a tour of Israel some years ago, I was left empty and drained after days of frantic sightseeing and the frustration of visiting massive buildings on sacred sites where I had failed to encounter Christ. As I walked wearily into the entrance of the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane, expecting more of the same, my eye caught that of an old monk who was sitting on a stool just outside the door. He uttered just three words: “God bless you.” I thanked him and moved into the cool sanctuary to view the sights within. Soon, though, a sense of calm settled over me. I decided to rest in one of the pews and found myself praying. I was drawn gently out of time into a suspended moment of quiet awe that must have lasted only about twenty minutes before the call of chronos and the rest of the tour party dragged me back to the bus. This small kairos happened over two decades ago, but its touch remains with me, a constant reminder that my slavery to my watch is not the only way to live.

02.  Sacred Sweat

In South Africa a series of television advertisements for the national lottery depict working people suddenly behaving rather outrageously, expressing for the first time their frustrations and anger at bosses and jobs. The reason soon becomes clear: having won a fortune, they no longer need to work, and thus they are free to behave as they wish and walk away to a life of leisure. This, we are told, is our “license to dream.”

What fascinates me about these commercials is the assumption that work is a necessary evil from which we would all flee if we were just given the opportunity. Many, if not most, people seem to endure work as little more than drudgery, finding neither joy nor satisfaction in the tasks that fill the greater part of their waking hours.

At a parents’ meeting at my son’s school some years ago, a teacher began her presentation by asking the parents to raise their hands if they were fulfilled and happy in their work. Of roughly one thousand adults in the room, only about a hundred responded. For fully ninety percent, it seemed, work is nothing more than an unavoidable curse.

Into this malaise the monastery speaks a shockingly simple word: all labor is potentially a divine gift, and in the discovery of work’s sacred nature lies the key to fulfillment and joy.

The monastic life is seldom one of prayer alone. Rather, the challenge of seeking to serve Christ together leads to a deep concern for and appreciation of the most mundane tasks. This means it is common to encounter, among the ranks of the cloistered, highly educated and experienced people—in most environments unlikely to do menial labor—who move easily from their chosen vocation to the daily duties of washing dishes or cleaning toilets. Unlike the world outside their walls, the monastery fails to rank the diverse jobs done by its members, refusing to play meritocratic games. All labor is done in service of Christ and others; all labor is a gift from God in which Christ can be encountered and known; and all labor is necessary for the life and growth of the community.

There is a profound echo of the values of Jesus in this honoring of work. It was both shocking and transforming for the disciples to see their Master strip and then bow to wash their feet (John 13:1-17). In a culture in which feet were seldom pampered as they are today, in which dusty roads were walked in open sandals, and in which the customary courtesy of washing a guest’s feet was usually performed by slaves, Jesus’ act was iconoclastic. In taking up the towel and basin, Jesus called his followers to serve one another, but also removed the temptation to create a pecking order of work. He revealed something new about himself and his purpose to his friends, and they encountered him afresh.

Conversely, in his parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus made it clear that he is also encountered when we serve “the least.” In this way all work becomes an opportunity to meet Christ again, a potential for receiving and giving the grace of Christ. And so it turns out that the sweat of labor is potentially a “little incarnation,” a sacrament.

Centuries ago a Carmelite monk known only as Brother Lawrence reflected on the connections between his work and his faith. Donald E. Demaray describes his observations:

Likewise, in his business in the kitchen—by nature he wasn’t on the wavelength of this job—he just got used to doing everything for the love of God. No matter what he did he prayed for God’s grace to do his assigned work… because in every situation he thoroughly enjoyed doing little things for God.Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. Edited and paraphrased by Donald E. Demaray. Ann Arbor: Baker Book House, 1975, 20-21.

A natural outflow of the monastic life is to realize that God is present in our work and that work is a participation in the life of God. But for those who are not part of a monastery this truth is often best experienced in worship. “In the Lord’s supper, the work of human hands, bread baked and wine made, vessels crafted and textiles woven, the money in the offering plate, all become transparent to the redemptive love of God. This allows us to see our work for what it is, a true participation in the life and mission of God.”Susan J. White, The Spirit of Worship. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 1999, 53. Or, to phrase it more simply, in Henry Scott Holland’s words, “the more you believe in the incarnation, the more you care about drains.”George Hacker, The Healing Stream. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 1998, 17.

03.  Active Sabbath Keeping

A few years ago Debbie, my wife, and I gathered a group of willing and courageous individuals to perform a production of the musical Godspell. Although our rendition was amateur, most of our audiences loved it and were challenged by the refreshing image of Christ that it portrayed. It became known to us, however, that a small group of people were upset that the entire cast had performed barefoot. They felt this was flippant and irreverent, and therefore inappropriate in church. I couldn’t help but wonder when we, as followers of Christ, had begun to view God as so lacking in humor and playfulness.

It is significant that in the writings of spirituality play is mentioned very little. Traditionally, even the Sabbath, that God-inspired weekly opportunity for rest and renewal, has been a solemn occasion. Play, with its noise and laughter, was most certainly off limits.

It appears that in our Western society we have forgotten both how and why we need to play. Sports of all kinds are now professional; the arts are the arena, for a chosen few, of celebrity and high finance. After this, there is not much left that can help us to release the constant pressure to achieve and succeed. Play has become work, the Sabbath an outdated curiosity, and our souls know the brittle dryness that has resulted.

In the face of this restless compulsion, the monastery is strangely but wisely out of step. As sacred as labor may be, rest and its partner, play, are equally honored as sacramental: “little incarnations.” The monastery soothes and heals souls, quite simply, through its constant rhythms of grace—time allocated purposefully to prayer, work, and rest.

Echoing this sentiment, Matthew Fox expresses the power of play for healing and releasing our best creative energies:

We are all invited into our creativity when we have time off. Yesterday I took a stroll along the Truckee River near Reno on a hot Sunday afternoon. It was 98 degrees, but ordinary people found plenty of ways to be creative and cool…When it’s playtime our imaginations come alive.Matthew Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet. New York: Tarcher Putnam, 2002, 217-8.

Even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals Jesus to be a person for whom play was both necessary and commonplace. He regularly introduced playfulness and mischief into serious interactions: writing in the sand before a self-righteous and murderous mob (John 8:1-11), calling seekers of God’s rule to become like children (Mark 10:13-15), and using storytelling as his primary teaching method (Mark 4:34). In truth, Jesus was so comfortable with play and so regularly engaged in it that he was criticized by the religious leaders of his day as a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners! (Matthew 9:10-11; Luke 7:34)

While to a casual observer the monastery may appear to be a fortress of seriousness and the worst sort of Sabbath keeping, the reality is often refreshingly different, as Kathleen Norris discovered over breakfast with her Benedictine friends. “At a late breakfast, the monks grumble over a full-page spread on the monastery in the local paper. ‘They make it look like we’re spiritual all the time,’ one says. ‘Next time they come, we should make them take a picture of our pool table.’”Norris, 191-2. Clearly, in this monastery at least, play is an integral part of both life and spirituality. And even in play, God can be encountered.

Years ago, when I was a youth pastor, the weekly beach volleyball fixture enjoyed each Sunday by the teenagers began to attract other young people, some of whom soon started attending the evening service after the game. One troubled young man slowly grew into a well-respected member of the group and began to exercise some measure of leadership. A few years later, this young man phoned me unexpectedly. He explained that he was calling to say thank you. “It was your willingness to invite me into your volleyball games, and the fun I enjoyed with you on the court, that started my journey of faith,” he said. “Now, I’m offering myself for the ministry. I thought you’d like to know.”

04.  Unlikely Companions

I must confess that the intimate community shared in monasteries is, for me, one of the most frightening characteristics of monastic life. It’s not so much that life is lived in such close quarters with others. It is that I would not be given the choice of who these others would be. The temptation is strong for most of us to connect only with those who are most like us. It is also this tendency that robs us of some of our greatest learning, our most life-giving transformation, and our most healing confrontations.

Jesus clearly believed in relationship and went out of his way to ensure that his disciples learned to live with diverse and unlikely companions. There is gentle humor in the Lord’s choice of his closest friends (Luke 6:13-16): tax-collectors forced to engage with zealots, fishermen with scholars, men with women, and all of the adults with those blessed children.

The monastery is amazingly good at including those who, in other circumstances, might be excluded, ignored, or neglected. Within the close confines of the community, members are taught both to place one another’s needs above their own and to recognize the immense value and subtle power of belonging to an ancient and diverse family. As Kathleen Norris observes,

One monk, when asked about diversity in his small community, said that there were people who can meditate all day and others who can’t sit still for five minutes; monks who are scholars and those who are semiliterate; chatterboxes and those who emulate Calvin Coolidge with regard to speech. “But,” he said, “our biggest problem is that each man here had a mother who fried potatoes in a different way.”Norris, 39.

The monastery is a place in which people learn to recognize the Christ in each other in spite of what Mother Teresa called his “distressing disguise.” In a world at war, in which differences are so often magnified and used as an excuse to deny the humanity of others, the monastic challenge to remember the image of Christ emblazoned within every human soul is both relevant and desperately needed.

In my ongoing quest to recognize Christ in others, I owe a great debt to two devoted people. Mrs. Nel and Mr. Wentworth were both inmates at the Fort England psychiatric hospital in Grahamstown. As a minister in training, I met these two gentle people in the hospital chapel where I was part of a team that led worship each week. At first, I wondered what value they could possibly gain from our services, and how much they really understood. Over time, though, I began to learn that their love for God and their commitment to following him was deep and real.

As they gently welcomed me into their world, sharing poems, hymns, and Scripture passages that were important to them, I started to encounter Jesus as I never had before, and I was changed. Even ordinary people, I discovered, could be “little incarnations,” and since that time, I have met Christ in a staggering array of disguises.

05.  Life as a Sacrament

I am immensely grateful for the traditions and rituals of the community that calls itself by Christ’s name. I have come to believe there are few people in the world who can truly live without being able to find the sacrament in life, and to recognize and receive the presence and grace of God available through a myriad daily “little incarnations.”

I am not a monk and have little direct experience of the monastic life, but I am tremendously grateful that there are people in this world who have answered the call to this life. I need to be reminded that life with its rhythms of work and play, its seasons and relationships, is immersed in God, and just knowing there are people in my world who have built their lives and community around this truth helps me to remember. It is a great gift to society that members of monasteries live their sacramental lives in our midst. Theirs is a prophetic gift, and the recipients are the likes of me.


John van de Laar is a Methodist minister, musician, speaker, and writer who longs to help people encounter God and live “sacredly.” He holds a master’s degree in the theology of music. John is married to Debbie (also a minister), and they have two sons.