Thursday, January 14, 2010
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.