There is a great heritage bequeathed to aspirants in all Religious Orders by their spiritual forebears. It is the First Command.
There are copious rules developing around this initial order of obedience, but nothing can be attempted in the ascetical life until it has been established. You do not find it placarded in the cloister corridors as you do in a busy office or a hospital. It is the essential atmosphere into which you move, and you either accept it as sacred, or else profane it with every unnecessary sound of your voice.
The First Command can be issued in a single word, the most thunderous in the world when shouted. Birds begin to twitter when it settles in the air. It is the cricket’s opportunity and the dove’s delight. In it you can hear the leaves crinkling on the trees, the leaves turning in the books. It is the language of resignation, patience, forgiveness of injuries. Beethoven utilized it to compose the world’s great symphonies. Christ hid in it for thirty years, preparing Himself for His mission. It is all that is audible of the planets circling the sun, of buds growing in the field.
In fulfillment of the First Command one notices the time passing, knows that it is time, knows that it is not eternity.
“There cannot be two hundred men in this house! It is impossible! Where is everyone? I hear nothing! What are they all doing?”
Recreations were merrier because of the observance I mention. A bell would ring and a burst of voices be heard, anxious to tell the happy thoughts that had been saved up during the day. A bell would ring again. Sociability ceased instantly and all reverted to the call of the First Command.
When you had any of what was offered you by the First Command you had all of it at once, and each had it all to himself. It was measureless and immeasurable, wider than the ocean and as large as God.
They were building an artesian well at St. Andrew and I used to count the strokes of the heavy drill plunging in the rock. I figured that it would strike a hundred and seventeen thousand times in a month.
I have seen two ascetories filled with novices kneeling for solid hours and hours of prayer in perfect tableau.
Some could not stand the monotony imposed by the First Command, and they packed their trunks and returned home to their mothers.
But on it went after their departure, the inexorable rule of the Religious, which when he forgets he figuratively tears down the walls of the cloister and shatters the great pillars of peace.
The First Command brought the uninitiated to the edges of the spiritual desert where alone the voice of God is to be heard. Yet there were moments of bewilderment when you had so much of it on your hands you knew not what to do. You drew little circles on paper with a pencil; you plucked blades of grass; you examined the bark on trees; you counted ants scampering into the little holes in their hills.