Tea breaks and fire breaks

At the time my husband Bernard died I was pastor to two churches.  He died right at the end of August.  On the first of September I added four more churches to my flock.  During the last weeks of his life, Bernard occasionally had some good advice for me.  One thing he said was, “Don’t forget to take your day off!”

“Bernard,” I said, “don’t be daft.  I’ll be pastoring six churches.  There won’t be time for a day off!”

“Oh,” he said. “Well, take tea-breaks, then.”

Bernard believed in tea-breaks.  He thought them necessary to an effective day’s work.  He was foreman in a large building firm for quite a lot of years before he set up on his own as a general builder, and he observed that men had a certain capacity for work, a certain amount of strength and energy to give to the day – and a certain need for rest, for spacers; tea-breaks.  In the course of his working life the government at some point dreamed up some benighted scheme for getting more out of the work-force, and tea-breaks were stopped.   Bernard said they didn’t understand; this couldn’t work.  It just meant the men paced themselves differently, working with less energy through the day overall if they were not allowed to stop for refreshment – and it was demoralising too.  It removed a source of cheerfulness and affirmation.  So he kept his tea-breaks for the men in his firm, and in due course got a phone-call from an inspector saying “I understand your men are still having tea-breaks.”

“No,” said Bernard, “they’re not.  We have beer-breaks here.”

“Take tea-breaks” became one of his life mottoes, and it’s a good one, an excellent aid in getting the ground covered, getting the work done.

The way of simplicity includes exercising a discipline of spaciousness – knowing when to stop, when to take an afternoon off or sit down and read a book for a bit – knowing when to take a tea-break.

Another of Bernard’s sayings was “all rush and tear”.  He didn’t approve of life lived in the fast lane, all rush and tear.  “Slow and steady wins the race”, he might have said.

He also liked the words of the book of Ecclesiastes: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might”.

And he loved these words of Sir Francis Drake:
“There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.”

And the likelihood of accomplishing thorough completion, the attainment of true glory, was, Bernard felt, substantially enhanced by taking tea-breaks.

I think he’s right.  Going at a thing gently and steadily, with stops along the way for a cup of tea, is the way of simplicity – the hallmark of a spacious and contented life.

Now, here’s another thing.  As well as tea-breaks, fire-breaks.

St Benedict was a canny one for fire-breaks. 

When are you most likely to fall out with other members of your household?  My best guess is, either before you’ve properly got going in the morning, when you haven’t had your coffee and you haven’t woken up properly; or else towards the end of the day when you mind is no longer fresh and you’re getting tired and therefore possibly a bit snappy.

St Benedict’s rule instituted for his communities the Grand Silence – from after Compline (about 9pm) until after the morrow mass and breakfast (about 9am) they had to shut up.  No conversation.  I bet that stopped a lot of friction from breaking out into quarrels.  The Great Silence is not primarily a noble spiritual exercise.  It’s a fire-break.

The way of simplicity is about spaciousness and peace.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

So says St Paul (Romans 12:18). Wise and lovely words.

Now I aspire to live this way, but I find it quite difficult.  The things I like least about myself are my habits of criticising, arguing and complaining (see here).   However, I have found that just trying hard doesn’t really cut the mustard.  In fact, it’s completely ineffective.

What I notice is that I am most lethal when under pressure.

This last week, for one reason and another, I have felt under pressure.  Everything – everything – has felt annoying.  I had the mother and father of all rows with the Badger at the weekend, and I was impressed to note, waking up this morning, that I’d spent the night still arguing and fighting with people in my dreams

Stop, I thought.  Just, stop!  Realistically speaking, how can this be addressed?  Not by moralising or hardening of the oughteries.  Practically speaking, what needs to happen so that “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” becomes a reality in my life?   And that means what I say about them as well as what I say to their faces! Yes.

I pondered on this for a while.  Then, as Venus was making her transit across the sun, it came to me: what I need are tea-breaks and fire-breaks.

We discussed this, me and the in-house wisdom gurus.  One of us said that she had noticed in herself a weakening of compassion in recent times, a withering of sympathy for her fellow human beings.  She put forward the suggestion that a way to address this is in strengthening boundaries.  If sufficiently clear, strong, high boundaries are in place, that gives space to think before responding, space to deal with one thing before moving on to the next, space to consider, pray and rest before going from one set of demands to the one queuing up behind it.

In other words: take tea-breaks and make fire-breaks.

She also spoke of the protection afforded by hiddenness and secrecy (another form of fire-break) - just keeping quiet about things, not advertising them, "Keep it secret, keep it safe".   Protecting and nourishing what is good, beautiful and effective in one's life by refraining from blabbing on about it, promoting it, touting it round.  Making a fire-break around it.  Establishing, maintaining, protecting the boundaries.

For me, an integral part of the way of simplicity is gentleness.  I am here to build the Peaceable Kingdom.  It seems to me that my good intentions have been thwarted by boundaries too permeable and friable to defend the citadel of peace in my soul.

I would rather people found me disappointingly inaccessible than bad-tempered and snappy.

So my simplicity focus at the present time is on establishing patterns and rhythms of peace, mapped and maintained by tea-breaks and fire-breaks.  Let’s see if that works.


365 366 Day 155-160 
Sunday June 3rd - Friday June 8th

(if you don’t know what I’m talking about, see here)