As I wrote in the first blog of this series, one of the lovely things about welcoming guests is the questions they ask us. One of the most popular is “What do you do?” In our answers we try to honor the goodhearted intention of the guest who is asking by giving a brief but also truthful response. Sometimes that suffices, and sometimes a genuine conversation begins. Who knew that our lives are so interesting!
There really are two kinds of answer to this question. The first is the one that is probably in the mind of the asker: what sorts of work activities do we engage in? So we talk briefly about our responsibilities and try in a gentle way to introduce the Benedictine balance of work, study and prayer. Almost always it is the work people are interested in. Regularly the followup question is whether we raise our own food. We don’t: the soil is poor and the rabbits eat what is above ground and the gophers get what is below.
But sometimes, to our delight, people ask us about what we are studying, or even about prayer! Which is wonderful. Because what monks “do” is pray. Everything about our life is supposed to lead us into God’s presence, to prepare us to encounter God. Our daily tasks make this economically possible for us. Our studies prepare our minds for this encounter. And our prayer directs our hearts to God.
Monastic prayer is both like and not like other sorts of prayer. Like Christians everywhere we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We make lists of people who need praying for and we remember them in prayer. We turn to the Lord in joy and sorrow and contrition as our awareness and memories and emotions direct us. We try to listen to the needs of those around us and in the world and bring them to God in prayer. We gather for the Eucharist daily and share the Body and Blood of Christ in fellowship with each other. We sit in silence to meditate and contemplate in the presence of the triune God. Just like every practicing Christian.
But monastic prayer has another component, and it is what makes monasteries what they are.
Several times a day we here at Mount Calvary Monastery do what Christian monks everywhere do: We gather together to recite psalms and listen to the Bible together. Unlike other kinds of prayer, this prayer is not especially personal. The idea is to recite the psalter together, aloud, to listen to the Word of God together, to spend some silent time together in the presence of what we have recited and heard, and at the end to collect its themes in a prayer. This is the Daily Office, which in the time of Benedict and for centuries was done eight times a day. Many monasteries, in response to our clock-centered and work-centered culture now gather four times a day. Anglican daily Morning and Evening Prayer are based on this monastic practice, and uncounted numbers of non-monastics make this Prayer Book practice the backbone of their spirituality.
The program of these services is laid out in advance: which psalms, which lessons, which prayer, how much silence. This might seem over-structured, leaving little room for the unpredictable movement of the spirit. Anyone who does this kind of prayer knows that the spirit is moving in the mind and heart, but in a special way.
One of the oldest theologies of scripture in the Church is the assumption that all of the Bible is the word of God: what God is actually saying to the world, as complex as that is. If we want to come close to what God is saying to us, this is the place to go. And the way to do it is to listen.
In a nutshell, what monks and everyone else who joins this kind of prayer are doing is setting our own concerns aside and listening to scripture unfiltered. No preacher or teacher or commentary. Just the words of God. The Word of God. We allow ourselves a great privilege: speaking the Word through our own mouths when we recite the psalms. Hearing the Word read by one of us. As though we are worthy to say the psalms and as though we are worthy to read the Word, to be the mouth by which it enters the world and the ears which are ready to listen to it. In monastic tradition the psalms are the very thoughts and prayers and reflections of Jesus himself, Son of Man and Son of God. When we recite them, we are inviting the resurrected Jesus to enter us, to utter his thoughts and prayers and reflections through us. It is a kind of incarnation, if we let it happen. And if we do, we are putting ourselves close to God.
Benedict begins his Rule with a pregnant word: Obsculta. Listen. Listening implies silence, putting ourselves to the side, paying attention to the other. To the Other. So monks gather throughout the day to listen. To listen to the psalms in our own language and in our own voices. To listen to the Word of God through the voice of one of our own. To sit in silence as we realize that, for this moment, the Word has found voice and ears in us. Right here. Right now.
Of course, Benedict actually begins his Rule with three words: Obsculta, o fili. Listen, oh son. These words have a sequence, a causality. Listening to the Word creates a relationship. If we listen to the Word, if we make that Word our words, we will enter a new relationship. We will be sons.
So. That’s really what monks do.