It is a rainy morning, each drop sounding with a chaotic rhythm on the tin roof. The incense is lit, nothing fancy—just a simple stick bought on the side aisle of the grocery store. It smells of cedar and myrrh. Before me there are a few scattered icons—St. Luke, patron of writers, the Holy Family, Mary and the Christ child. Before them a candle flickers, a spent “office” candle from church with plenty of life left for my purposes. It sits in a jar that once held spaghetti sauce, now filled with sand.
I’m preparing for work, and as has become my habit on the best days, I start with a time in prayer—not the active, busy kind (my mind will begin its rush soon enough)—but the quiet sort that brings me to a center from which I can begin to move through the day.
For many years I used a timer set up on an app for this purpose. 20 minutes with a basu bell sounding halfway through. I like the app and continue to use it. The best feature is that after my time of prayer I’m told of all the other people who were praying or meditating at the same time. Some of them I know, some are members of my church or friends from the wider circles of my religious life. Others are unknown to me, but still I feel a connection—all of us seeking the more beneath the surface of our frenetic lives.
Lately, however, I’ve been using this clock less often. Earlier in the year I purchased a chotki from an Eastern Orthodox monastery. I’d been reading a book on the Jesus Prayer, a prayer that has been central to my practice for a long while now. I had always simply prayed with the rhythm of my breath: inhale “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God,” exhale “Have mercy on me a sinner.” But I was reminded in my reading that many Eastern Christians use a rope tied with knots to count their repetitions. The most common sort has a hundred knots, though I also often wear a bracelet of 33, a knot for each of the years of Christ’s earthly life.
In the morning, it is the rope with a hundred knots that I use. It is black with a cross at the beginning and a tassel at the end of the loop. There is a wooden bead made of olive wood that marks the completion of each decade. To pray the cycle slowly and deliberately, resting on each of the hundred knots, takes about 20 minutes—roughly the same time I set on the clock. And yet, there is something different about the rope. It has a more natural rhythm to it than the external constraint of a timer.
I’ve spent a good deal of my life struggling against my finitude, the basic creaturely limits of my existence in time. I always struggle to keep my “currently” reading books under seven and I am tempted to always take on more projects that I can possibly complete. I’ve become better over time, largely with the help of my wife who early in our relationship employed an annoying “bee, beep” sound whenever I started dreaming aloud of a new project while I was still in the middle of several others. She made me a collaged box with index cards where I could keep my ideas until I had time for a new project. It helped, but still I’ve worked to maximize time, blocking it off in clear segments, working against a clock in 25 minute intervals with 5 minutes of rest in-between or 90 to 120 minute sessions of “deep work.”
These methods have been good in many ways, and I do not plan to abandon them altogether, but more recently I’ve begun to think in terms of rhythm rather than clocks. Life works according to cadences rather than the set increments of time. And one of the most dehumanizing features of modern life has been the ignoring of this fact by the systems of production. We make children go to class far too early in the day, ignoring their natural sleep cycles—all to fulfill the economic end of child care. Workers themselves are often tied to tasks in unnatural patterns that do not allow their bodies and minds to work to their fullest potential. Instead of embracing the normal sleepy hours around 2 p.m., when our circadian rhythms turn us toward an afternoon nap, we head for a bit more caffeine or sugar.
Rhythm, as opposed to clocks, works within the context of a wider set of contingent realities—which is to say within the world of finite creatures. So it is that I have found myself moving more deeply toward ways of continuing the work, the disciplines, the essential patterns of my life, but tying them more to the native cadence and pace of their unfolding. For instance, I no longer tend to set an alarm to wake me, unless there is an unusual circumstance that demands it. I find that I naturally wake around dawn most mornings, and never so late as to be a problem with getting where I need to be. With the exception of dinner I also try to eat, as best I can, when I’m hungry—not according to some set schedule. Some days I have breakfast, some others I’m not really hungry until 1 p.m.
This work of living from creaturely cadences rather than clocks requires a certain attention and awareness. It takes listening to the body and also attending to what is the important work now before me. When the energy is strong for a session of focused work, I do it, and when it would be better to go for a walk, I do my best to take the cue.
With the chotki in hand, I’m free to move at the pace of my heart and soul. There are days when the motion of the rope slows me and others when it keeps me on pace from wandering too far in my thoughts. Either way, it is a pace set by my own fingers working in concert with the heart-mind deep within me.
And though I don’t see the faces of friends who have shared the time of prayer with me, I feel connected in a different way. I do not need an app to tell me that when I pray, whenever I pray, I am joining in a great polyphony of hearts moving upward to the divine. I sense that in every knot of the rope I am sharing in a wider prayer. Each knot of this rope was tied as the monk who made it prayed over each twist of the fiber. And in praying with these words in this way, I know I’m entering a common prayer that stretches across centuries and continents.
Clocks will continue to be a part of my life and I will still have mornings when I must wake with an alarm. I have not deleted my meditation app from my phone and I plan to keep using it, here and there, though I long ago let go of achieving any “streak.” But I am working more and more orient my life toward the cadence of the creaturely life, the pattern of light and seasons, the tilting and rotating earth. It is a rhythm I enter each morning with my fingers running along knots on a rope.