1 During the winter season, that is, from the first of November until Easter, it seems reasonable to arise at the eighth hour of the night. 2 By sleeping until a little past the middle of the night, the brothers can arise with their food fully digested….4 Between Easter and the first of November mentioned above, the time for Vigils should be adjusted so that a very short interval after Vigils will give the monks opportunity to care for nature’s needs. Then, at daybreak, Lauds should follow immediately. Rule of Benedict 8:1-2,4
7 As soon as the cantor begins to sing “Glory be to the Father,” let all the monks rise from their seats in honor and reverence for the Holy Trinity. RB 9:7
Sometimes Christianity can seem disembodied, a matter of intellectual faith in dogma and propositions, believing in an unseen and invisible God. For some, faith may not seem to have a whole lot to do with the messiness of concrete and corporeal problems, the reality of living life in touch with our bodies, the earth or just day to day reality. People who tend to think of their faith in this way have clearly never been to a monastery. There are few things as physical, down to earth and human as a group of monastics praying together.
Monastic prayer is very physical, very real. It is grounded in the body, even when the body isn’t always pretty. The body always reminds us that the body is what Christ came to share with us in the incarnation, the body in all its wonderful, messy, spectacular and occasionally grumpy glory. Monastic prayer doesn’t consist of disembodied, lilting, ethereal paeans to an unseen God in the clouds. Monastic prayer is embodied, it involves the senses, the body, and recognizing the holiness of things that don’t seem very holy.
We gather three times a day for prayer. In the monastery a bell rings ten minutes before the time for prayer and we begin to make our pilgrimage down the halls to the chapel. Most of us walk into the chapel. Some scurry, several limp, and a few meander in after everyone else is seated. You can tell a lot about people by how they walk. Some are deeply weighed down by life, their burdens bend them over and they seem to grow close to the ground. A few people bounce along, the happy Tiggers of a Winnie the Pooh story, a spring in their step, happy to meet the day and its challenges. A few stately ships seem to part the water as the glide majestically along the corridors and between the waves of chairs. Some people rush in like the white rabbit of Alice in Wonderland as if always late for a very important date. One may seem to silently trumpet her presence while another is silent, unseen and invisible.
Like most monasteries today we are mostly older, sometimes we look like a parade of the lame, the halt and the blind milling around, responding to a rumor that Jesus is in the neighborhood and might be healing people. At a certain age knees give out, hips creak and groan, feet hurt and it is easier to kind of shuffle. In the front row are the sisters who have lost this battle, they are experiencing the final growth in monastic humility that comes from being dependent, waiting for someone to take them into or out of chapel, help them with their hearing devices, hand them a tissue when their hands are shaking too much to get them for themselves. They are living with the final betrayal of the bodies that they bring to prayer.
Finally the grandfather clock chimes the hour, the signal to stand and begin. Some stand the way they breathe and move, calmly, effortlessly without thought. Others know that simply getting up at the end of prayer will be as much effort as they can make while some still struggle and heave with the effort. Our entire bodies have come to prayer.
All our voices intend to praise God as one, but some voices do a better job than others. At the signal an entire menagerie lifts its voice, a chorus that contains nightingales and bull elephants, twittering and trumpeting, some on key and some off on another planet. Some sing with great and joyful abandon, oblivious of how they sound. Others are sure that these joyful people are intentionally scraping fingernails across the blackboards of their souls with their sounds. A few rush ahead as if in a hurry to catch a bus while a few poke and doddle in their prayers, content to bring up the rear of the choir.
In between is the reality of Benedict’s reminder to allow time for monks to “care for nature’s needs.” We are surrounded by the same community that Benedict lived in, where you can tell what people had for dinner the night before, who has a sinus infection, who should have laid off the garlic and whose new indigestion medicine isn’t working. One of our sisters refers to it as the “organ recital.”
Listening to this particular organ recital day after day, and occasionally contributing to it, is a reminder that it isn’t our disembodied souls that will be saved, it is our whole, infuriating, wonderful, broken and blessed bodies that will be redeemed. In the meantime we will have lots of opportunities to anticipate that redemption, to practice patience with our own and others bodies.