Recently one of our elder sisters has taken a turn for the worse and it is hard to see her become even more diminished. It struck me though, that all of our elders, despite their challenges, come to prayer with us every day, three times a day. They participate to the extent they are able and we help them participate.
They are an example of an important aspect of monastic prayer, it is prayer to the end, the prayer of endurance, the prayer that continues through diminishment, suffering and letting go. For these elders prayer has become the essence of prayer, it is simply being before God in the presence and with the support of community. For many of them it is now prayer beyond words and concepts, it is the prayer at its most simple and real.
Perhaps this kind of prayer is the ultimate fruit of monastic life. Most of us we are about being busy, priding ourselves on how much we are accomplishing and sometimes being secretly resentful of having to interrupt our day with the call to prayer. But this busyness is an illusion, we think that all this work is really accomplishing something, that we are the important people in the community. But that is the advantage of praying in the midst of community. Those of us who are (relatively!) young and active are allowed to see the example of those whose entire lives have become prayer. They don’t interrupt their days to pray, their being has become prayer.
Our culture tends not to value people who whom it considers marginal, people whose diminishment due to age or disability makes them unable to compete in our work and results centered society. But of course monasteries should be an alternative to that culture. Hopefully we can be at least a small witness to that ultimate, alternative society, the Reign of God. In this Reign of God it is not the obvious people who are central but instead the margins become the center. The people who come closest to manifesting this new society are not the ones with the most degrees, the most important titles or who get the most work done. In this little group of people struggling to make the Reign of God become manifest the people at the center are the ones who look like they are on the margins.
I have a ways to go before I really enter into this new reality. I would rather pray with all my distracted faculties, conscious and aware of what I am praying, or at least conscious of my distraction. There will probably come a time when my prayer is as simple as some of our sisters and someone else will take me to prayer as a new generation prays the same Psalms and the same prayers and someone I’ve never met will give me the Body of Christ. I’m not ready for that yet just as probably none of our sisters ever thought she would be ready. The prayer of diminishment, the prayer of simply being is something that usually comes gradually. And that is appropriate since God’s grace is something that works on us slowly and gradually and it transforms regardless of how hard we work and indeed grace transforms us at the deepest level when we are unable to either resist or cooperate with it. So this is the prayer of our elders, the prayer of presence, the prayer of simply being, the prayer of witness. And this is their gift to us, a gift that if we are all lucky, we too will one day experience.