Bowstrings

August. Not the month before September: August in its own right.

Some notable feast days – this week the Transfiguration, for example, but Edith Stein/Teresa Benedicta, the Assumption, Maximilian Kolbe… – and for many in Europe at least a bit of downtime. Time to ignore the calls for educators to work all the hours they may rather than all the hours of their contract, or time to be judicious in the ways in which “given time” (the current generation’s version of feudal and post-feudal Boon Days?) is used or asked for.

We were living in something of a fevered state even before COVID overtook us: political instability; work-life balance skewed; worries about aspirations versus income; climate change and our need to fly, to drive, for the cheap T-shirt… “This is the world we built: congratulations.” And while Lockdown has calmed some of that, at a price, even before we count the deaths, the sorrow, there remains uncertainty, financial hardship… and the urge in education and outside it to drive the workforce on: Do more! Do More! Prove yourselves! Even if it’s only to show how much better you are than the old you.

The desert monastics of the C4th have an answer for so much, as Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes so brilliantly explores, and this one is for just such an occasion:

A hunter happened to come by and saw Antony talking in a relaxed way with the brothers, and he was shocked. The hermit wanted to show him how we should sometimes be less austere for the sake of the brothers, and said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow, and draw it.’ He did so, and Antony said, ‘Draw it further’ and he drew it further. He said again, ‘Draw it yet further,’ and he drew it some more. Then the hunter said to him, ‘If I draw it too far, the bow will snap.’ Antony answered, ‘So it is with God’s work. If we always go to excess, the brothers quickly become exhausted. It is sometimes best not to be rigid.’ 

https://erenow.net/common/the-desert-fathers/11.php Benedicta Ward The Desert Fathers

The great inspiration for the move to the desert, Abba Antony meets an outsider: tellingly this is a hunter, someone who has strategy, drive, all the things that make us want to do more. Antony uses the man’s bow as his own example of why the relentless pursuit is unhelpful. Draw the bowstring too far, tighten the tension in life and we risk being unable to accomplish the very things we set out to do.

Cello lessons, Judo Club, Choir, Art Club – and get that mindset improved, kids; a better running time for me, aquazumbaboxercise into another great weekend, the emptily competitive Great British Make Something Brilliant programme, draw up your complex plans for the micromanaged student experience (or risk the vilification of pundits): we have an urge to be better at everything all the time. Time to do that, to be dedicated and wholehearted, is certainly part of the life of all of us, and we have to say an important part of our professional or family life. Even those men and women whose lives were contained by psalms and basket weaving and silence felt that pull: but there are times to stop too. I wonder if sometimes our – my – urge to self-improvement is a sort of running away in itself.

As Williams puts it, the fear is that What you thought mattered – i.e. what you thought was truest to the Real You – turns out to be empty and dishonest... and hitting the Twitter nail on its twitty head in particular Self-justification is the heavy burden because there is no end to carrying it. In the end we have to stop sometimes, put down those burdens, because we cannot run forever – for something or from something – without exhaustion.

But here’s the rub: sometimes our leisure thing is an escape from other tensions and becomes, in turn another net for us to stumble into. The trick (I’m ditching the “us:” for me) is not letting that activity become a chance to run away from something else, and worse still not to spend my time telling myself how successful I am at it.

And this brings me back to my post from the initial weeks of lockdown, and this story of Abba Macarius:

Abba Macarius was once dismissing an assembly of his monks in their desert retreat, and he did so with the words “Flee, brethren.”

One of the seniors asked him ” Where could we flee to that is further away than the desert?” Macarius put his finger to his lips and replied “Flee also from this,” and he went to his cell and shut his door.

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