It’s Day 5 of this final ‘month’ of Simplify 7 (which is actually going to be 47 days for the reasons I explained in my last post) and I haven’t yet explained what I am actually doing to address my goal of giving up stress.
I think it’s widely understood that some stress in our lives can be quite a good thing. ‘Good stress’ is a thing – apparently psychologists call it ‘eustress’ – and it’s what we feel when we’re excited or positively challenged. )If you want to know more, I think this is an interesting article.) Lots of the things I have done within the Simplify 7 project have caused good stress – but I don’t regret any of them.
The stress I want to eliminate (or – let’s be realistic – reduce) is the kind of stress that makes you feel that you’re just on a treadmill: there’s always too much to do, there are never enough hours in the day, every time you tick one job off there are three more in the in-tray…I think most people can identify. Add in some worries about the usual things (money, family, job, the state of the world…) and some lifestyle choices that might not exactly help the situation (too much caffeine, not enough fresh food or fresh air, too little sleep, too much time in front of one kind of screen or another…) and it’s clear to see that, sooner or later, something is going to break down. I don’t want it to be me.
I don’t want it to be anyone else, either, but I’m learning that step one of reducing my own stress is to accept that I can’t be in control of everything. That’s God’s job.
Recognising that doesn’t give me permission to sit back and do nothing, but it does give me a different perspective on what I should be doing. And I suppose that that’s a good way of summarising what I’m trying to explore in more detail through Simplify 7 and this period in particular.
I can remember the first time I ever visited Rievaulx Abbey. I can’t have been more than 8 or 9 but my mum made the place come alive for me as she explained how the monks had lived and why the Abbey had been built where it was. It was the start of a fascination for me – the main reason why I wanted to study Medieval History as part of my degree.
I became intrigued in how the monks had lived. Their whole lives focused on prayer at set times of the day (including the middle of the night) and the development of a monastery that changed the whole area where it was built: creating a place of pilgrimage, developing the farmland, building a hospital and providing hospitality to travellers. Of course, it wasn’t a perfect system -like so many things which start with a vision of God’s kingdom.
But it’s that focus on prayer that I’m exploring as a key feature of this month of Simplify 7.
I’ve long been convinced of the power of prayer and the need for prayer – although I confess that for many years I didn’t make it a personal daily habit. The reasons why (and the reasons why I now do) would probably be enough to fill a book. But in the context of this blog, suffice to say that for a long time I felt that the only prayers worth saying were the ones that came from my own heart and that dealt with the ‘big stuff’ of life. I was suspicious of liturgical prayers – even though, in the context of worship, I was sometimes overwhelmed by the power of simple, well-known words prayed in community – and I always thought there was something a little bit crazy about those monks, getting up in the middle of a freezing North Yorkshire night to pray in words that didn’t come from their own hearts, night after night after night.
But, as I’ve said before, I’m a work in progress – and Simplify 7 has given me a focused opportunity to explore and challenge my own thinking. Sometimes the only way to see what something is really all about is to experience it. So, I’ve decided that the last month of Simplify 7 will mirror what the Hatmakers did: focus on rest and prayer.
The prayer part will focus on an ancient tradition known by several different names: the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Hours…but, basically, pausing to pray on 7 occasions throughout the day (and night). I was intrigued by the book Jen Hatmaker used to guide her on that prayer journey, and decided to use the same one as my own guide. It’s called Seven Sacred Pauses by Macrina Wiedercher – and I’m borrowing my 7 pauses for prayer from there – even though that means using words that are not my own. She describes the pauses as ‘breathing spells for the soul’ and, although I started this month woefully underprepared (the book didn’t even arrive from Amazon until Thursday!) and I am still learning, I have to say that I have already experienced an immense reduction in my stress levels from introducing these pauses (albeit without the rigour of the Cistercians or Benedictines!) into my life. Basically, I am pausing and praying seven times a day:
- The Night Watch (midnight)
- The Awakening Hour (dawn – or when my alarm goes off…at the moment, that’s the same time!)
- The Blessing Hour (mid-morning)
- The Hour of Illumination (noon)
- The Wisdom Hour (mid – afternoon)
- The Twilight Hour (early evening)
- The Great Silence (bedtime)
I’m also using Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, following recommendation from a friend.
Genesis Chapter 2 starts with:
By the seventh day
God had finished his work.
On the seventh day
he rested from all his work.
God blessed the seventh day.
He made it a Holy Day
Because on that day he rested from his work,
all the creating God had done.
So, what I’m aiming to do each Sunday during Lent is rest from all my work. I know that the Sabbath is actually Saturday, but Christian worship takes place on a Sunday (the first day of the week) – and I want that celebration to be a part of my Sabbath experience.
Officially, Sunday isn’t a working day for me anyway, although I usually end up doing a fair bit of preparation or catching up, so it will be something of a challenge to make sure that those things still happen at another time. After all, I don’t want to increase my stress by not keeping up with things at work (or home) – although I know from previous experience that work expands to fill the time we give it! I’m not going to be a legalist about it – just try to make sure that I focus on being rather than doing for the day.
There are other, smaller steps that I’m taking to try to reduce the stress in my life – I am sure I will blog about them later (this one has gone on long enough!) They are all having an impact. That feels counter-intuitive: I’m actually doing more in some respects, and certainly not less. Just goes to show: Prayer changes things – not least the pray-er!