Thursday, 7 June 2012

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)


Pilgrim said...

This is so true.
I spent two years in the Canadian bush, at a residential high school for Indian/Native American girls. Everyone, staff and students, had tea breaks morning and afternoon. I think they were only 20 minutes, but that routine contributed greatly to mental health and the peace of the place. It kept relationships more central to the enterprise.
You always had something in the near future to look forward to. THere was always a break inside, including lunch, and supper. The students also had a snack/tea after their evening games/ play/ exercise, just before bed.

I also agree about building the hedge around your private world. I think Paul Tournier wrote a book on that. We have a son with complex special needs, and I have made myself very vulnerable with some staff in the school system in the past year, in an attempt to get his needs met better. This has been a huge mistake, with resulting emotional damage that will take time to heal from.

I think we grew up in a time where opennes, honesty, vulnerability, became a major value, and I think it was overdone in some cases, and I have some unlearning to do.

Thank you for this post. I have thought of the connection of the tea break to the monastery's hours of the day, how wise people have seen the benefits of regular times to stop, breathe, pay attention.

Ember said...

Oh, yes, Pilgrim: what you say there "I have thought of the connection of the tea break to the monastery's hours of the day, how wise people have seen the benefits of regular times to stop, breathe, pay attention" reminds me of the tradition they have established at the Plum Village Community, of a "mindfulness bell", that rings at unscheduled moments in the day. When they hear it, each community member and guest must pause in whatever they are doing to reconnect with their inner core, recollecting who they are and why they are here.
So sorry to hear about the school difficulties that have arisen for you regarding your son :0(

Lauren said...

This morning, after my routine chores, reading this post was my coffee break! Thanks for the smile and helping me catch up with my breath. On ward and upward!

Ember said...

:0) Hi Lauren! Waving! x

Pilgrim said...

I think Phyllis Tickle, who has written some "modernized" books of prayers, said that she has set an alarm on her watch every three hours, to remind her to stop and pray.
I find this very mechanical, but also find it impossible to do, any other way, if you aren't in a community where others are supporting the practice.

Wimmera said...

Yes I need coffe breaks and
Zen Walking Meditation(daily)
Thanks Ember another great reading from you.

Ember said...

Phyllis Tickle is an excellent name. And Zen Walking Meditation is a very mindful, beautiful practice.


Buzzfloyd said...

I like this. I think a kind of stately routine is beneficial in two ways. Firstly, it's good to build in time out so you can calm down and not be hectic. Secondly, if you're like me, it stops you from drifting on an endless sea of frittering your time away on nothing, leaving you irritable and stressed from having made nothing of your work time and nothing of your play time.

I also think that enough food, fluids and sleep are absolutely crucial to maintaining a good temper.

There is a place for the trying hard bit. I think that comes in making a discipline of space between stimulus and response. If you have to spend time with people, and find yourself wanting to respond irritably to something they say, you can practise key phrases to respond to them with, to buy you time to think. For example, "Let me come back to you on that", or "We can take time to talk about this later". Then you can take time to let the angry chemicals dissolve and see what you think later in the day. If it's worth discussion, you can come back to it then. An argument doesn't have to be pursued immediately, when you're still feeling strongly about it.

Ember said...

Good thoughts, Buzz. Margery was very good on this. If you made a suggestion she didn't like, she often didn't say anything at once, but she'd come back maybe a week later and go through it, explaining calmly the problem she had with what you'd said. And she was always very honest and very serious, and never rude.

Julie B. said...

I enjoy reading the conversations that take place here.

I think Buzz is very wise.

Ember said...


Anonymous said...

Ember and readers,

the 1979 Anglican Book of Common Prayer has an excellent Office for individuals and families, each segment taking only five minutes or so to pray;

Morning prayer 6-9am
Noon Prayer 11M-2pm
Evening Prayer 5pm-8pm
Night prayer before retiring. These can be found from p136 in the abovementioned title. They are easy to memorise and will begin to stick in time; I started with the night office, then added evening and noon, with regular morning the most recent addition; I do not intersperce the readings, but groups/families may wish to do so. As ember and several readers have mentioned, this gives pause to stop throughout the day and connect in dialogue with God; I love the prayers.

As a newly confirmed Marounite, I have carried the Anglican office into this walk of faith, with the addition of 'Divine Mercy Hour' (to pray the chaplet; takes about 7 minutes, and is absolutely beautiful). The trick with this is small steps, gradually building and integrating a prayer practice, and not bashing oneself over the head for missing an individual prayer-time etc. Walking-prayer is not unknown in Marounite circles; I love praying the chaplet outside, pacing my little townhouse garden, or standing at close of day praying the evening office with the chorus of evening birdsong in the background, scents of dinner being cooked from the houses around, and just soaking it up; also pray the rosary on foot at times in the same way. Traditionally, Marounite religious have prayed their office on the roof of their monastaries, walking and praying, praying and walking...ah, but I digress...


PS: the world and society in general needs to learn to slow down, take stock, and simply be.

Ember said...

Hiya - thanks, Sarah :0)

Did you mean the Book of Common Prayer? I think that has just matins and evensong in it, which are both quite long.

Do you mean Common Worship? Or the Anglican Franciscans brought out Celebrating Common Prayer which was excellent but slightly complicated.

I think the liturgies from Common Worship are available online as PDFs if friends felt inclined to follow up this suggestion and incorporate that format into daily prayer.

Anonymous said...


The volume I'm speaking of is definitely the (anglican) Book of Common Prayer, 1979 North American edition. the office for individuals and families commences on print page 136 and is broken up into four prayer sessions covering the times listed in my previous post. These are intended for personal, small group or family use and if one doesn't include the bible readings, take no more than five minutes or so each. there is a more formal (liturgical) morning and evening option elsewhere in the book.

The opening words of the morning prayer for individuals and families commences 'Open my lips, O lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise...'

Noon; 'Give Praise you servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord, Let the name of the Lord be Blessed, from this time foorth forever more...'

Evening; 'O gracious light, pure brightness of the everlasting Father, Oh Jesus Christ, Holy and Blessed; Now as we come to the setting of the sun and our eyes behold the vesper light...'

night; 'Behold now bless the Lord all you servants of the Lord; you that stand by night in the house of the Lord lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord...'

Not sure if this is also known as the 'Anglican Cycle of Prayer'.

There is also an Anglican 33-bead 'rosary' and acompanying prayer available on-line if folk are interested; those who are part of the anglican Ordinariate can use these with formally/liturgically ; those who aren't (like me) can still use them as private devotions.

Hope this helps,


Sarah. option elsewhere in the book.

Ember said...

Oh - okay - there may be a US/UK variation here. x

Asta Lander said...

I take pauses - and they are usually accompanied by a cup of tea! Asta x

Ember said...


Nearly Martha said...

Love this. Agree completely. Only wish I was even slightly any good at doing it.

Ember said...

:0) Hi friend! Waving along the coast! x

Asta Lander said...

I need to be silent / for a while, / worlds are forming / in my heart.

--Meister Eckhart, excerpt translated by Daniel Ladinsky

"Each one of us is called to become that great song that comes out of the silence, and the more we let ourselves down into that great silence the more we become capable of singing that great song."
---David Steindl-Rast

Aren't these beautiful quotes? They arrived via email today from one of my favourite sites -

Ember said...

:0) Yes - those are lovely! x