Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What is Monastic Prayer?

It seems obvious to say that prayer is the heart and center of monastic life, whether for professed monastics or oblates, but what exactly is monastic prayer? How is monastic prayer different from other forms of prayer? Trying to define monastic prayer is probably as impossible as it is presumptuous. But perhaps it can be helpful to outline a few characteristics to help us enter more deeply into the riches of our monastic heritage.

Pray Without Ceasing
One of the most challenging verses in Scripture has always been Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) For the early monks to pray without ceasing became a central quest and goal of their lives. When men and women moved to the desert to live lives focused solely on God they searched for ways to make their whole lives a prayer. Many practices of the desert fathers and mothers focused on prayer. They would memorize and pray the Psalms. Often they would repeat and meditate on certain key verses such as “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me.” The solitude and silence of the desert helped monks constantly bring their awareness back to God, to be mindful and present to God in every aspect of their lives.

We see strong echoes of the unceasing prayer of the desert in Benedict’s Rule. His monks memorized the Psalms and then prayed them together seven times a day. The daily schedule of Benedict’s monastery then provided for 2-3 hours a day for lectio divina, praying with Scripture. The activities of everyday life in the monastery are circumscribed by prayer. There are prayers at meals, for guests, when starting a particular ministry, for those who are absent, and so forth. Prayer in the monastery is indeed continual. Benedict structures his way of life so that the activities, the awareness of the monks, is always being brought back to God. In every aspect of daily life prayer permeates the consciousness of the monk. All that the monk does involves a constant reminder of the presence of God. The goal was for the monk to come to a point where he or she didn’t need to be praying the Divine Office, doing lectio or saying prescribed prayers, to be aware of the presence of God. Eventually the monk would get to the point where every breath and every thought was focused on God. The external, prescribed prayers, the designated times for prayer in chapel or the time set aside for lectio divina, would be so internalized by the monk that he or she would be aware of God’s presence in all things at all times. This is prayer without ceasing that we are all striving for.

Prayer Outside a Monastery
So this sounds great for people who live in a monastery, when the whole day is centered around a common practice of regular prayer, but what about people with busy lives, jobs, and families far away from a monastery? Perhaps the key is that the prayer practices Benedict talks about aren’t important in and of themselves. The point of the Divine Office or regular lectio isn’t so that you can check them off your “to do” list every day. Praying the Office or having a set time for lectio isn’t important in and of itself. What is important is the discipline of praying regularly.

We do activities on a regular basis so that they become second nature, an integral part of who we are. Most of us don’t have to make a decision to get out of bed in the morning (except on an occasional Monday perhaps). Getting out of bed is just what you do. You don’t have to think about it. In the same way Benedict provided for lots of structure for prayer so that eventually his monks would just pray naturally, at all times in everything.

Most of us aren’t anywhere near that kind of prayer. Most of us struggle with prayer, including those of us who are members of monasteries! But the key is that monastic prayer isn’t just for people who live in a monastery or who have made monastic profession. Monastic prayer is simply about perseverance and faithfulness to prayer even when it is a struggle. Monastic prayer means praying where we can, as we can. We try to create a practice of prayer that works for us that we can be faithful to so that eventually prayer will not just happen at specific times and places but prayer will be the essence of our lives.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Humility in Everyday Life: Bells

Our monastic life is circumscribed by bells. We have chimes that are heard over the intercom ten minutes before time for prayer or Mass. The large bells are then tolled to remind anyone outside that it is time for prayer. After Mass or Mid-Day Prayer one of the bells is rung for the Angelus prayer. After a sister dies we toll the bell as a way of announcing her passing. During a funeral we begin to ring the bells as everyone moves up to the cemetery and we continue to ring them until people begin to come down.

For us the bells are part of a function of monastic humility, they remind us to come back to our center who is God. There seems to be something in the human condition that our default mode is to be self-centered. When we aren’t thinking, aren’t aware, we automatically act as if we are the center of the universe. Our own personal concerns and desires become the most important thing going on.

The bells are a wake-up call, sometimes they are a rude awakening, giving us a rough push off of our throne at the center of our lives. The bells remind us that this life is about God. The bells call us to be mindful, to be present, to listen, to come into the presence of God. Benedict calls on his monks to drop everything when they hear the signal for prayer. It isn’t easy to do. Each of us is the star actor in the drama of our lives and we don’t like to be interrupted. The bell always rings just when we are in the middle of an important project, just when we are finally inspired in a piece of writing, just when we are in the middle of something important. It is at that moment we have to drop everything to go and pray. This isn’t praying when we feel like it or when we decide that the Spirit has moved, it is praying according to someone else's schedule.

The bells remind us that time is not our own. Every moment is a gift, not an entitlement. Hearing the bells interrupts us. They say: listen, pay attention, what are you doing with your one and only life? Time will not be repeated. The moments are one time gifts, will you let them slip away or stop and give thanks in an attitude of stunned amazement?

The bells themselves are a gift. Bells are unique to a monastery, most people don’t have anyone to ring a bell to remind them to come to prayer, to stop and pay attention to God in the gift of the moment. This is why Benedict says that his Rule is a little rule for beginners. Monastics are in the remedial course of spirituality, they have external bells and reminders to bring them back to the presence of God. The bells are a luxury of the monastery.

But for everyone, monastics or not, it is not the bell itself that is important. You can live in a monastery and ignore the bells and continue with your self-important busyness rather than respond to their call. Outside a monastery you can create your own bell, your own reminder and call to stop, to listen, to pay attention and come back to the gift of God in the present moment. It is harder outside the monastery but we all have a choice. Will we listen to the bell, will we stop and give thanks, will we return to our center who is God? Listen says the bell. Listen, it is the call to humility, the call to come back to the center, the call to be present to God.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Humility in Everyday Life: Yogurt Cups

Every time Sr. Carol Ann sees a plastic yogurt cup she starts to twitch. OK, that isn’t fair, it isn’t like her mother was scared by a carton of yogurt when she was pregnant with Carol Ann and that has caused a life long fear of yogurt, the problem is recycling. We recycle almost everything here, from bottles to cardboard to foil to little plastic yogurt cups. The problem is that there is someone who eats yogurt and then just throws the container in the trash, leaving it for Carol Ann to fish it out, rinse it and put it with the rest of the recycling.

It isn’t a big issue, it is just one person and one little plastic container, but in some ways it symbolizes what humility is all about. Humility is central to Benedictine life. In Benedict’s Rule he sets forth the idea that we grow into humility. We progress in humility slowly, step by step. We gradually move from fear to love, from being consumed with ourselves to being filled with God. This growth is the work of a life time and it is appropriate that the work of becoming humble consists not of great, grand gestures and ostentatious accomplishments but little actions and incremental progress.

Humility is a lot like recycling yogurt cups. It is a little thing. It seems hard to believe that it will really make any difference whether I throw this container away or take some extra time to clean it and put it in the recycling bin. It requires a different way of seeing the universe. It takes humility to realize that humility itself is the sum of many, many little actions that flow from a new way of looking at the world. Recycling is a small act of reverence for the universe, a tiny way to make a difference, to make sure one less piece of trash winds up in a landfill.

Humility is a way of giving thanks for all that we have been given by God. In humility we give up the some of the room that is taken by our self-centeredness and give ourselves the room to be thankful. The opposite of humility is arrogance, the arrogance that takes gifts for granted. We are arrogant when we see a sunset and are too preoccupied to not let it take our breath away. We are humble when give thanks that we have so much food that we have the privilege of worrying about containers rather than where our next meal will come from. It is arrogance that assumes nothing I do will make a difference. Humility allows us to give thanks for little actions, gestures and gifts. In humility we give thanks for those who put their heart into making a difference for our planet.

In Benedict’s ladder of humility, the last step describes humility as a state in which perfect love casts out fear. That is the key to humility and to recycling yogurt cups. When we do all the right things, when we carefully wash our yogurt cups and put them in recycling, but we do it out of duty, or guilt or because we are afraid Sr. Carol Ann will discover that we are the ones who have been throwing them away, we aren’t acting from humility. Our actions may be good, the right thing is done, but neither our selves nor our earth has been transformed in the process. When we come to a place of humility we are able to do the smallest things out of love. In this transformed place we come to see that the love of God, love of God’s gift of creation, love of our brothers and sisters, is manifested in all we do. In this place even the smallest actions, the smallest yogurt containers in the recycle bin, are expressions of reverence, thanks and care.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Humility in Everyday Life: Applesauce

At first humility and apple sauce don’t look like they have much in common, but I think they do. A couple of days ago I helped pick apples that we will use for apple sauce. The apples were from an old apple tree and we mostly picked them up off the ground. The next day I realized, or my legs told me in no uncertain terms, that I don’t usually do so much bending. So as I walk around rather tenderly I am reminded of what goes into our homemade applesauce. Normally when we eat apple sauce or any other processed food we simply open a can, jar or package without thinking how it got to our plate except to remember our trip through the grocery store.

On the other hand when we eat apple sauce here at the monastery we know where it comes from and that is part of humility. Anyone who has ever read the Rule or any Benedictine spirituality knows that humility is a big topic. Benedict delineates 12 separate steps on the “ladder” of humility. It is a leit motif in the Rule, in the background as the unifying thread throughout the many practical provisions of everyday life.

Humility is often explained in abstract terms, as a goal or ideal, a personal quality. But it may be helpful to explore what humility may look like in the everyday life of a monastery or anyone’s everyday life. For most of us humility is the very steep ladder that we don’t often feel we are ascending either quickly or well, but humility is also a characteristic that permeates our way of life. Humility is what reminds us we are not in control, that we are vulnerable and dependent. Humility is what allows us to be open, grateful, to receive everything as gift.

Humility comes from the root word humus, or earth. When we are humble we are reminded not of our exalted status but of our lowliness, our rootedness, that we were created from the earth. Making apple sauce helps bring us to that state of gratitude, not clinging and entitled to everything we can grasp, but standing with hands open to the gifts of God and the earth.

The humility of apple sauce connects us with the reality that our food does not magically appear in a package from an antiseptic grocery store. We don’t automatically get apple sauce just because we want it, we will get apple sauce if the gifts of God and our hard work come together in a serendipitous union. If the rains don’t come, if the bugs and the blight do come, there won’t be apples. If people aren’t willing to risk sore legs to pick the apples, if others don’t take time out of their busy lives to sort, cut, cook and prepare the apples, if others don’t give of themselves in service to set it out at the meal, then there will be no apple sauce.

There is no entitlement, there is presumption that there will always be homemade apple sauce on the table, it is a gift. It is a gift of many peoples labor, a gift of God who holds the harvest, it is a gift that we can never take for granted. For Benedict humility is about being filled with God rather than ourselves. The final summit of humility is coming to a place where love casts out the fear. At this summit of humility love will banish the fear that has fed our illusion that we are the center of the universe. At the top of the ladder of humility we will no longer be caught in our sense of arrogant entitlement. When we are humble we will be thankful for all the gifts that fill and sustain our every moment. In humility we can give thanks for the smallest gifts, for homemade applesauce, because we know that the smallest gifts are very great indeed.