The schedule in our monasteries includes an activity called the hour of recreation, in which the community gathers in a common room to talk together. It typically follows the evening hour of mental (silent) prayer, and the two share a lot in common. Both require the same attentiveness of heart, both require patient perseverance to gain their reward, and in both that reward is an experience of getting to know the other and being known by them.
Once I became familiar with the daily routine of the monastery – the prayer, the meals in common, the recreations – stories of Carmelite saints who shared the same schedule as I do now became much more interesting to me (Oh, it happened while they were at recreation!).
Recreation is a time set aside for the whole community to gather together for conversation, storytelling, and humor. It’s not a diversion from our life of prayer, but a necessary part of it. St. Teresa-Benedicta was a welcome presence at her community recreations. Her novice mistress tells us “She was a first rate storyteller and could turn even the most trivial incident into a thrilling adventure” (Edith Stein: Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite, pg. 137). St. Thérèse made the community laugh with her rare talent for impersonations (if you can imagine that). No doubt she saw her participation during the hour of recreation as an essential part of living her little way, practicing virtues that go largely unnoticed and in ordinary settings.
Sometimes the conversation at recreation flows quite naturally, at other times it must be worked for – like prayer. Occasionally one thing will grab the attention of the entire community, perhaps something unusual that happened that day. Holy Mother St. Teresa experienced this once when her brother Lorenzo sent her a curious new object from the New World: a coconut. The Sisters spent the whole time just trying to get it open! (The Divine Adventure: St. Teresa’ of Avila’s Journeys and Foundations, pg. 145).
Recreation is also a place where virtue is tried and we become aware of our weaknesses. Holy Mother understood that part of its purpose was to “reveal the Sisters’ faults,” so that they could grow in self-knowledge (The Book of Her Foundations, 13.5) Holy Father St. John of the Cross once had his patience tested during a recreation in Madrid. While John was speaking, the house superior interrupted him by brusquely ordering him to be silent (in other words, he told him to shut up) – and this in front of the whole community. This man had a grudge against John because when John was his superior he had reprimanded him for assuming special privileges against the law of the order. John bore the insult patiently.
Humor and pleasantness, struggles and awkwardness all make up the fabric of religious life in community. It all forms one life with Christ, who is, in the words of Holy Mother, “[our] Guest, who comes to be with us and eat and recreate [with us]” (The Way of Perfection, 17.6).
If my brief description of the hour of recreation in Carmel resonates with you, if it seems to be the kind of dedicated communal experience you are yearning for, God may be calling you to religious life. Whatever your vocation may be, it could be helpful to reflect on the kinds of recreation you take, and how you share them with others. How does prayer inform your own times for recreation?