Taking Aim at All the Sky

Editor: readers, I’m sure you’ll appreciate a return to the Brazos Fellows blog by alum (’18-’19) Jess Schurz. Jess now researches education policy in the DC area.

“Why am I so restless?”

Though I didn’t have the language for it at the time, this question was the refrain of my college years. It was most incessant in life’s day to day, with my increasingly sporadic, staccato attention span; coming to the end of a conversation or task without reaching for a quick distraction seemed a colossal feat, and one that grew only more elusive.

Over time, the “restless question” broadened out quite a bit, becoming more gnawing, looming, existential. It probed questions outside of the day to day of life, more into the year to year. In the frantic attempt to forge my own life, I flailed around. In the words of Richard Wilbur’s Seed Leaves, I felt “vaguely vast.” I wanted to “Increase, and yet escape / The doom of taking shape.”  That restless question, which reached its full torrent my senior year, ultimately led me to join a new program called Brazos Fellows. This nine-month fellowship, tucked away in unassuming, charming Waco, challenged this restlessness in ways I didn’t quite expect. 

As I met people involved with Brazos Fellows before I began, their habits of life struck me as, frankly, rather odd. They committed to strange things like keeping the Sabbath (did people still do that?), weekly meals with friends (but what if something better came up?), and daily prayer (aren’t the days too full for that?). 

Yet, they had an internal rest — a disposition of “settled-ness” that was undeniable. They were a steady, clear lighthouse while I was a flickering fluorescent light.

In pursuit of this rest, I joined Brazos Fellows. “I’ll take this rest ready-made and packaged to go please,” I all but demanded. These nine months in Waco, I thought, were a time to learn the tricks of the trade, and then be on my merry way. I was, after all, about to enter into the exciting, daunting post-college years. As such, I needed to get this “rest” thing squared away. The year with Brazos was to be my stamp in the passport — a one and done process before heading out the doors. When the program began, however, we received no such one-size-fits-all quick fix. Instead, they gave us a Rule of Life. 

Next thing we knew, we, too, were committed to rather strange practices. Every morning, we gathered together with the Book of Common Prayer’s Daily Office; each Monday, we shared a meal and then prayed Compline with one another; on Sundays, we ceased from work; every month, we met with a spiritual director. All the while, we participated in the worship and life of our parish and the liturgical calendar handed down to us from tradition. Since leaving Brazos Fellows, I describe this time as “somewhat monastic,” and, to our great delight, it was. 

Like most aspects of the program, the Rule of Life is nothing new, but rather an inheritance from the history of the church. This particular spiritual practice dates back to the sixth century. Written in 516 to guide monastic life and used to this day, The Rule of St. Benedict outlines three prime subjects: obedience, stability, and conversion of life. It instructs brothers on all aspects of life in the monastery, from how to order the reading of the psalms to times of day for prayer. In Brazos Fellows, our own “little rule for beginners” was modeled similarly, albeit pared down from a book to a single page.  

Toward what end is the Rule — St. Benedict’s and our own — ordered? St. Benedict desired the Rule to “regulate the lives of those who obey it.” It is to bring order to scattered loves, thoughts, and habits. Namely, it guides our restless hearts to rest. 

The Rule also offers a homecoming of sorts — a means by which we can return to He whom we are made for. St. Benedict told his brothers that the Rule of Life is “to bring you back to him from whom you had drifted.” It helps us to “bind our wandering heart to thee.” 

Day by day, week by week, our own rather strange practices slowly took root. Morning prayer, which seemed at first like rote repetition, gently lifted our gaze to our Father and the Communion of Saints. Similarly, Sabbath loosened our Sundays from the tight grip of an “always optimizing” culture and gave us to celebrating and participating in the heavenly feast. Of course, participating in these practices was made all the more rich by doing so together; in fact, practicing the Rule alongside others chipped away at the great myth of autonomy, where we’re told that self-actualization is a triumph — or failure — of our own will. 

Directly confronting the temptation to remain “vaguely vast,” the Rule also placed us within our larger context of the story of the church. Rather than forge our own way, we were invited to simply receive with thanksgiving what’s been passed along through tradition. It challenged the “relentless presentism of our moment,” to borrow language from Alan Jacobs, with old words and old prayers. 

Each practice of our little Rule reminded us that our time, our bodies, our lives are not our own, but gifts from the one who is “closer to me than I am to myself.” As Brazos alum Emily Engelhardt so beautifully reflected, “God loosened my fingers of the tight grasp of control I was attempting to hold on my own life. ‘Let me take it,’ He says. ‘I have something better for you.’ 

Crucially, the Rule of Life is a commitment to practices. It both meets us in and draws us out of our weaknesses. “Over and over again I have left home,” reflected Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son. “I have fled the hands of blessing and run off to faraway places searching for love!” We are indeed prone to wander. As such, we need to be reminded to return to our father, then reminded once again, and on, and on.  

Brazos Fellows was a time for roots to grow deep. It was not at all the “Jack and the Beanstalk” nine months that I imagined it would be, where I hoped to water a seed that would reach the top of the sky by morning. Instead, any change that did come was gradual and quiet. And the changes continue to be gradual and quiet year after year.  

I now find myself living in a city known for its pace. It’s certainly one of its main draws for people who move here, including myself. Locals race down the left side of the escalators with podcasts queued, while tourists stand and wait for the right side to take them down in its own time. Meetings are brief. Schedules are stacked. Days are filled until they’re bursting at the seams.  

This day-to-day pace, as these things tend to do, often bleeds into the year-to-year. At least, it has for me. “It’s the city of walking resumes,” one friend noted. “Sometimes, work is really all people have,” observed another. “Workism” can easily be a badge of honor, so long as it leads to the next great thing. Acts of leisure, likewise, can quickly fall into side hustles and yet another avenue for striving, performing, pursuing recognition. As in Richard’s Seed Leaves, we can fall into the temptation to, like the little plant, “climb / To the tip end of time / With all of space to fill.”  

To that end, I believe St. Benedict says, “yes!” “Pursue your task at hand whole-heartedly,” he might even add. And then he’d likely exhort us yet again to let these pursuits be animated by the same grace that moves our interior lives from restlessness to rest. His Rule reminds us that it takes daily, weekly, yearly practices to remember that a life with deep, hidden roots is good. And from that place of settled-ness and rest, we then look to the example of Richard’s little plant, who “Takes aim at all the sky / And starts to ramify.”