Monastic Time/Harvard Time

Monastic Time/Harvard Time Each June for the past six years, Robert Kiely, Ph.D. '62, has been a guest at an Italian monastery for a...

Monastic Time/Harvard Time


Each June for the past six years, Robert Kiely, Ph.D. '62, has been a guest at an Italian monastery for a time of prayer, meditation, instruction, and silence. Loker professor of English and American literature, master emeritus of Adams House, he is the author of Still Learning: Spiritual Sketches from a Professor's Life (Medio Media, $14.95, paper). He has come to feel, he writes, that the monks of Monte Oliveto Maggiore are welcoming, which is more than can be said for the cloistered ones of Harvard.


From the point of view
of some guests, students, and new faculty, the entire concept of hospitality is alien to Harvard. Stories abound about scholars from other universities and countries spending an entire year in Cambridge without ever being spoken to by any member of the Harvard community....

There are explanations for Harvard's neglect of invited and uninvited guests. From inside the enclosure, it looks as if there are so many of them and so few of us. And no one at Harvard has a spare moment....Monastic time is governed by eternity; Harvard time is governed by 50-minute class periods, two-hour committee meetings; three weeks until an essay, manuscript, or lecture is due; four years until graduation or tenure review or retirement.

Every profession has its exchange currency and status symbols. For politicians, the coinage is power; for business people, money; for movie stars, fame. Professors like all these things too, but the most common and least tangible is time. The message, "I am busier than you," is the ultimate claim to glory.

At the conclusion of long committee meetings, as the sun is setting over the Charles River, we do not sing Compline at Harvard, but there is a ritual. Everyone takes out his or her little black calendar book. Not an abbot, but a weary chairperson asks whether anyone is free for a lunch meeting a month from Thursday. "Count me out," says someone proudly. "My lunches are booked until March." "Don't even mention lunch or dinner," says another. "I haven't eaten at home all semester." "You should talk," chirps a third, frowning at her little black book. "I don't have a free breakfast until April." And so on. In saecula saeculorum.

I can describe but not really criticize my colleagues because when I am at Harvard, I have no time either. I have no doubt that my pulse rate and stride quicken when I cross Massachusetts Avenue, not just because I am trying to avoid being hit by a bus, but because I am about to cross a threshhold into a performance space of high intensity. I have to admit that if I have an errand in the Square or am late for class or office hours, I put on sunglasses and pull a hat down over my face in the hope that I will not be recognized and delayed by an unwanted encounter....

Time feels scarce here because there is so much worth doing and so many impediments to doing it. The distractions are legion. In the frescoes at Monte Oliveto, little horned demons with pitchforks are constantly prodding the monks into drowsiness, gluttony, envy, lust, and pride. At Harvard, visiting demons, tenured and untenured incubae, administrative succubae--all with their distracting demands and pitchfork loads of time-killers--lurk behind each bush and bookshelf.

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