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.