Lessons from a monastery: Part I… one’s life can become a prayer
Posted on September 13, 2013
The monastic way taught me that one’s very life can become a prayer.
In most American Christian homes, children are taught to pray by beginning with “Dear Heavenly Father.” Then they talk to God for a few minutes, maybe to ask for something they need and to thank God for something they have. They are told to finish by saying, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” And the prayer is then over. Many of the adult Christians I know have this same concept of prayer. Prayer is about communication. Perhaps a few contemplative people will include silence as a part of their prayer. But the average evangelical? Dear Heavenly Father, … and in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Imagine my curiosity when I go to the monastery and attend services – meetings – for the purpose of prayer – and I witness men who do not follow that formula at all. They chant Psalms. They sing. They use a set liturgy with no free-flow of words, no individual requests. Moving my mouth to the words, I imagined my fellow Baptist friends observing this so-called “prayer” service, and I could hear them calling it a music service, or worship, or Scripture reading. Which are all good things. But can one call it prayer?
If prayer is defined as spontaneous communication with God, then it would seem the monks rarely pray. In their seven services a day, they rarely ask God for personal requests. But if prayer is communion with God, then what the monks do counts. Most of the people I know view prayer as an activity of the mind. It is intellectual. You speak to God or think about God. It is demanding work. And a lot of Christians get frustrated by it – because they don’t exactly get a response from God, and it feels like they should. Or they are just worn out by the mental exercises … exercises that sometimes feel fruitless. At the monastery, prayer is viewed differently. “Prayer is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart,” the priest Henri Nouwen wrote. It is a soul-transforming longing for God. As a community, the monks commune with God. They sit in the chapel, and they chant Scripture together. They read from the choir books.
Personally, I have to admit that I think Gregorian chanting would get old. It is not always beautiful. It does not sound like music I usually enjoy. They continue at it for so long. And if I am being really honest, I kind of like telling God about my life and making prayer more about me. I usually would rather tell God specific reasons why I believe God is praise-worthy. I tend to feel words are more genuine when they come from your own mind. But I realized in the monastery that those seven daily chapel services of prayer are the monks’ sacrifice of praise. Each time they enter from behind the tabernacle, bow, and take their seats, it is as if they are saying, “God, you are worth my time. Spending my life in your church, with my brothers, meditating on Scripture – means I love you. I may not feel like chanting right now. I may prefer to sleep, or to play on the computer. But you are the priority. And so I come.”
Those men believe – as do I – that they do not have to come up with original words every day in order to have sincere communion with God. And it is a relief to learn that. Prayer is more than me thinking of things to say to God. Chanting and singing and Scripture and silence … It is different, but it, too, is good. For centuries, monks have done this kind of meditation. Professor Douglas Burton-Christie wrote that one of the main purposes of meditation is to cultivate unity within the mind and heart. The monks in the desert utter phrases from Scripture. They let it fill their minds again and again. They desire to integrate it into their lives completely. They choose to have those words fill their hearts instead of wandering thoughts that might lead them to sin. How can this not be a wonderful sacrifice of prayer? Through the course of a day, my mind drifts everywhere, and many thoughts are not righteous. Many thoughts, at the very least, are useless. One monk is said to have explained that “the ritual chanting of sacred texts contributes in a unique way to a profound, largely subliminal, absorption and engagement having many more dimensions than mere rational understanding.” I believe I would be more focused and driven towards godly goals if I let my mind ruminate on Scripture again and again.
The nun and author Macrina Wiederkehr says we ourselves can be living praise. I agree. I do not have to say, “I praise you God,” in order to have that attitude in each thing I do. Saint Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) resolved a dilemma with which centuries of Christians had been wrestling: should a truly God-devoted follower spend all one’s life in prayer or all one’s life in activity and service? For him, to find God’s will is to find God, and to do God’s will is to be united with God. This union with God in action is prayer. He said, “When we direct everything to the service of God, everything is prayer.” Our lives should be balanced. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism and the model for the monastery in the desert that I visited, cared about the balance of prayer and work. In his Rule, Benedict legislated a way of life that integrates prayer, work, and communality so flexibly that it is still relevant to twentieth-century needs. I believe that whether one does prayer with the Benedictine disciplines or instead takes on the heart of Benedictine spirituality in one’s own context, each of us has the opportunity to make our very lives a prayer to God.