I’m asleep in the early morning hours. There is a knock on my door, and a monk lets me know it is time to be in the chapel. Again. Praying. Again.
Throughout the day it is a rhythm like breathing. To the chapel to pray. Back out to work. To the chapel to pray. Back out to work.
My work is reading and writing. I find my writing steeped in prayer. Just two weeks of this immersion in prayer and I see it shaping me. Praying dozens and dozens of Psalms begins to change the way I think about the world and my place in it.
What might happen to my heart and mind if I spent years like this?
Life in a monastery is life structured for prayer. That may be obvious.
Connecting to God through prayer redirects you to doing God’s will in the world. That may be less obvious.
Structuring the life of a whole community to bring the members into an intense life of prayer could have amazing consequences. Actually, it already has. I’m convinced it can do so again.
It has been true of monasteries. Anecdotal evidence says it is true of more familiar kinds of Christian community too — like churches. I keep hearing that growing, effective churches are often ones that take prayer very, very seriously.
I’ve been blogging on St. Benedict’s Rule of late — the little book that has defined the ideals and practices of monastic life in the West for 1500 years. I’m interested in creative ways that Christians have organized their community life to take them deep into relationship with God and catalyze participation in God’s mission in the world.
So far I’ve posted on Benedict’s views that the best kind of monastic community places itself under a Rule, limiting individual freedom, and places itself under an Abbot, an official father figure with a great deal of authority. And I posted on the kind of character qualities this life is supposed to foster, especially in terms of the key virtues of obedience and humility.
“So how is that going to lead to mission?” you rightly ask.
Indirectly. It is half of the picture — the side of monastic community life about human beings in relation to each other.
The other half of the picture is the ways the structures and practices taught by the Rule guide the monks in relationship with God.
I can sum up this second half of the picture in one word: prayer.
Any one monk lives out that one word many different ways every day.
“O sure,” you say, “we pray in our community too.”
Well how does your community’s prayer life stack up against this?
- They get up in the wee hours of the morning and gather for “Matins,” keeping vigil with Christ, praying Psalms, listening to Scripture.
- They gather again at dawn for “Lauds,” praising God in Psalm and prayer.
- And again at the first hour of the day or “Prime.”
- And again at the third hour or “Terce.”
- And again at the sixth hour or “Sext.”
- And again at the ninth hour or “None.”
- And as evening draws the workday to a close they gather again for “Vespers.”
- And just before heading off to bed, they gather one more time for “Compline.”
If this sounds like prayer boot camp, don’t be surprised. Benedict is training his monks for battle.
These are the “hours” of what is called the “divine office.” Praying this way is their main work. Benedict calls this kind of prayer “The work of God” and you cannot overestimate how important it is to him. In Benedict’s words,
“Therefore, let nothing be preferred to the Work of God.”
What do they do in between? They pray.
- Benedict’s rule makes time for private prayer apart from the office.
- They would prayerfully read and recite Scripture, hour by hour forming their hearts and minds to God’s Word — a more elaborate Bible memorization plan that even the Navigators could have come up with.
- And in many other ways and many other moments of their life and work together, Benedict tells them to pray.
They also do other kinds of work. Monasteries and convents I know run prep schools, run hospitals, make coffins, run organic farms, make candy, bake bread, brew beer, bind books, roast coffee. They do manual work that sustains their real work, which is prayer.
Altogether that’s a potent recipe for spiritual transformation. The Rule places them in relationships of obedience and humility to form their character, and obedience guides them into practices that make prayer and Scripture the substance of every day of their lives.
Hmm… a community of Christians living a life of humble obedience… brought into constant contact with God through prayer and the word… where might that lead?
If someone wrote a Rule describing your community’s practice of prayer, what would it say?
What might a community in our time do to create a structure that deepened the members’ engagement with God in prayer?