In November I went on one of my regular trips to Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery. I tend to think of monastics as leading a life that hasn’t changed over the centuries, at least in terms of schedule. So I was surprised to arrive on a “Desert Day,” something new.
At Mepkin, the monks begin their day by going to their first worship service at 3:20 a.m. It’s the first of eight services of varying lengths throughout the day.
On a Desert Day, the first Friday of every month, the monks can sleep late. They don’t have a service until the 7:30 a.m. Eucharist Mass. The second and last service is a short Benediction service at 7:00 p.m.
The abbot told us that they adopted a Desert Day routine because they needed more rest. On a Desert Day, they try very hard to do no work of any kind. It’s a day to slow down and do far less than they usually do. He talked about how busy they are on most days and how they long for rest.
I said, “So even monks need sabbath time.”
The Abbot smiled and nodded.
I’ve continued to think about those monks and their need for rest. I told my spouse later, I tend to think of monks as leading the most balanced lives possible: work, prayer/worship and study.
My spouse said, “None of which is rest.”
As usual, my spouse went straight to the heart of the matter. We may say we have more leisure time now than any generation in history, but most of us are quick to fill up our leisure time with more and more activities. We’re increasingly frazzled and distracted.
I tend to think that our condition is new, but if we look at the lives of the saints, we find that we’re facing similar struggles on our spiritual paths.
On the feast day of St. Jerome, it’s good to remind ourselves that even saints needed more rest. Jerome was one of those Romans who found himself distracted in unhealthy ways by his society. And so he took himself to a desert hermitage and helped found the monastic traditions which have nourished so many.
Many of us fear taking time off because we’re worried that maybe the world can get along without us. Again, the lives of the saints should encourage us. Many spiritual people have discovered the benefits of periodically withdrawing from society. It should come as no surprise; when we consider the life of Jesus, we see that he, too, took periodic retreats.
Or maybe we fear that if we’re not productive for one day, we’ll find ourselves sliding into a swamp of sloth from which we’ll never recover. Here too, the life of St. Jerome should encourage us. Despite his time in the desert, he blossomed into one of the most prolific authors of his time. His crowning achievement was his translation of the Bible into everyday Latin. His Vulgate Bible was one that was accessible to everyone — at least, everyone who could read.
You might say he sent us down the road to the Reformation.
We often think of the Reformation as the first time that people could read the Bible in an accessible language. We think of the Reformation as making more books and knowledge available. But by translating so many texts and responding to them, Jerome made sure they’d be there for us later.
Jerome is the patron saint of translators, encyclopedists and librarians, and for good reason. He produced an amazing volume of work, much of which continues to be important to scholars of ancient history. Not only did he produce works of insight into the theological issues of his time, but his letters give us a window that we otherwise wouldn’t have into what everyday life was like during his lifetime.
Jerome couldn’t have done all that he did without self-discipline. Even if he couldn’t physically get away from Rome, he could use ascetic practices as a kind of retreat and withdrawal, a centering of sorts. By focusing on God, instead of all the distractions that Rome had to offer, he left himself space to do the important tasks.
As we celebrate the life of St. Jerome, it’s a good day to think about how to apply the lessons of his life to our own. Maybe we need an ascetic plan to face our daily lives; we could experiment with less technology and more listening for God. Maybe we need periodic retreats so that we can recalibrate and focus on what’s important.
Maybe it’s time to devote ourselves to a big project, as St. Jerome did in his translation of the Bible. As we celebrate the life of St. Jerome, it’s time to discern what God calls us to do. And it’s time to structure our lives so that we can do what God asks of us.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.