Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Writing Our Communities Psalm

I have to confess I have always thought that the Psalmist was a bit of a drama queen. The Psalms always seem a little "over the top," heavy on hyperbole and drama. Perhaps it is just because I come from a culture that tends to value the "stiff upper lip" approach to life's problems that the Psalms have always seemed rather exaggerated.

Recently though I've had a new insight into the nature of the Psalms. In a class I'm taking we were given an assignment to write our own Psalm. We were supposed to do a "lament" Psalm and make sure it included the standard elements of a Psalm: an invocation of God, a complaint, a petition and a vow to praise.

I decided to write a Psalm that reflected the fears of our community, the reality that like most religious communities we have fewer, older members and our future is not certain. The process of expressing our "lament" in this way was eye-opening. I tried to make my psalm as "over the top" as psalms usually are. It was an exaggerated plea for help painting a dire picture of our situation. And then at the end, like all Psalms, I included a vow to praise God no matter what may happen.

The result was very interesting. By the time I finished my deeply pessimistic view of our situation and ended with a vow that nothing will shake our faith, I felt different. Somehow expressing deep worries, articulating the fear we often feel but often don't state out loud, was very liberating. By being rather melodramatic and exaggerated in voicing the fear it becomes less powerful. By claiming the "vow to praise," stating to God that nothing will shake our faith and knowledge of God's presence, I felt deeply energized and renewed. No matter what the future may hold God is present in our midst, upholding and guiding us.

So, the Psalmist may have been a drama queen, but it is a transformative drama!

A Communal Lament

O God why have you abandoned us?
Left us crushed and desolate in this place of sorrow?
Answer God, listen to our plea,
attend to the sound of our cry.
Are you not a God of mercy,
a God who gives life to those who revere your name?

For you have abandoned us and broken us,
left us without hope or promise.
Respond now, raise your holy arm,
look upon us and save us.
For our community is dying,
our life blood poured out like water.

We stagger like a lion's prey,
daily we are diminished, we shrink and stumble.
We waste away like a land without water,
like animals in a drought we thirst for the waters of life.
In diminishing choirs we struggle to sing your praise,
in the dryness of prayer we crave your presence.

We remember the days long past,
we long for the splendor we once knew,
how we would fill the chapel with voices of praise,
in ranks strong and overflowing we sang hymns which are your due.
We were a beacon of hope to all who knew us,
the light of our faith shown in the darkness.

Though darkness may fall and despair overcome us,
still we will sing your praise O God.
Though none may enter and we sleep in the grave,
on our lips will be songs as we close our doors.
In dying breaths we will remember your name,
for in your praise alone is our life.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Praying Together

Over Christmas I tried recording some of our common prayer in order to try posting it on the web. What surprised me the most was how good we sounded. Well, we sounded better after I made sure that I didn’t sing while I recorded the community singing. But despite the occasional cough and background noise we were remarkably clear and together. No one would mistake us for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but for an average bunch of women trying to sing together we weren’t bad. It also made me think about what it means for us to pray together as a community.

Most people think of prayer as a solitary activity but for Benedictines prayer is a community practice. Our communal prayer shapes, molds and transforms us from a collection of individuals who happen to pray together into a community united in heart and mind through prayer.

In our American society we tend to value the individual above all else. We pride ourselves on being independent and self-reliant. Americans celebrate the myth of the rugged individual single-handedly conquering all odds. Community is often an afterthought, working together is not as prized as going it alone.

But for Benedictines the heart of our way of life is community and perhaps nowhere is this expressed more clearly than in our practice of prayer. In our monastery we gather morning and evening to celebrate the divine office, the ancient prayer practice of psalms, hymns, readings and blessings.

Common prayer is truly a practice. We practice day after day, month after month, year after year. We practice because we hope that through the long work of years we will no longer be a collection of individuals who happen to be praying at the same time and place but we will become one body at prayer.

Through the unity of our prayer we express our unity as a community, a small manifestation of the greater Body of Christ. In praying together each of us has to put the needs of the whole community first. The best singers have to make sure they are not standing out and trying too hard to lead the rest of us. Those of us who are not natural singers have to try hard to listen and blend in as well as we can. All of us have to learn to be patient and forgiving with those who are not only musically impaired but also rather loud and oblivious about their impairment.

All aspects of the prayer encourage us to become one heart, one mind. We all strive to come to chapel when the bell rings, dropping what we are doing and making the common prayer a priority. We come and sit in silence, becoming present to what will happen. When the clock chimes we rise as one and the leader lights the candle to signal the beginning of prayer. We bow in unison at certain points and remain seated for a while even after prayer is finished.

Most of the unity in prayer is external. Even when we sing and pray in unison our minds may be busy wool gathering in complex and unique fantasies. But the discipline slowly, gradually and with great effort leads to transformation. Through practice, through daily, small exercises of becoming one community in prayer we are slowly transformed. In prayer, in the rest of community life we grow into the reality that we not simply isolated individuals who happen to live with others but through the course of our life together we are transformed into a community, into one body knit together in Christ, struggling to love as we have been first loved by God.