What happens when monks pray? It is easy enough to simply say: that is what we do. We gather multiple times a day to pray in common because that is what Benedictines have been doing for over 1500 years. But of course that begs the question. What does this prayer mean? What is happening as we come together several times a day, day after day, year after year, with the same Psalms, the same prayers? Benedict isn’t much help. He outlines precisely which Psalms and other readings to prayer at precisely what hours of the day, but he doesn’t do too much to explain what is happening when monks pray.
Maybe it is helpful to simply start with the experience of praying. Multiple times a day a bell rings and the world shifts. When the bell rings the world no longer revolves around me and my needs. I am called to give up being the center of my own private little universe and come in silence, in openness, to a place that is only about prayer, a place where all of us come to sink into the presence of God, to open our hearts to the needs of a hurting world.
I may come into our chapel, the oratory, place of prayer, as an individual, but I become part of a community of God-centered people, a community that jokingly calls itself a “motley crew.” Together this motley crew gathers to enter into the presence of God, of one another and the world. In stillness we become present, allowing ourselves to let go of all that has come before and will come after. We enter the reality of prayer.
In this reality we strive to be one voice, our “minds in harmony with our voices.” (RB 19) The Psalms and prayers become one mind and one voice lifted together in praise, in supplication, in despair and joy. In the Psalms we pray words that that have been prayed across three thousand years, throughout our world, across religious traditions. In prayer we lift up to God words and feelings that may not be our own at the moment, but may be the words of people who have no words, people who do not know how to pray, people to engulfed in despair to pray. For these people we chant and recite words calling to God from the depths, words imploring God to act and bring about justice where there is only injustice and suffering. In the midst of our comfortable world we enter into the pain and despair of people we will never know lifting up our voices as their voices, praying for healing and justice.
In coming together in our prayer we recite the Psalms that remind us how much bigger our world and our God is than our limited ability to imagine. We come together to stretch our hearts in proclaiming the tremendous joy of the Psalmist in praising the God who is creator, sustainer, source of all life and power. The confines of our flat, gray universe are shattered as we join in a wild, exuberant dance of life and energy celebrating the God who reigns and sustains our universe. Our joy becomes the joy of all who celebrate, hope and come singing to the mountain of the Lord.
When we come together we enter into the world of prayer where the deep hurts and divisions of our community are brought to a truce. Together as we pray the Psalms, the prayers of an ancient community, and the Our Father, the prayer of our Christian community, we experience a tentative reaching out to one another, a holding of hands, the beginnings of healing. We come into prayer as broken people, as the stubborn, stiff-necked people of the desert, the Pharisees who have safely domesticated God, the people who cannot see their own limitations and lack of forgiveness. Here in prayer the people of hardened hearts are given another opportunity to receive a heart of flesh, to forgive and be forgiven. We do it for ourselves, we do it on behalf of people who have no such opportunity to come together, in community, to pray multiple times a day, to have their hearts broken open.
And so the rhythm continues, day after day, year after year. The bell rings, we drop everything, come to the place of prayer and silence. Together we pray ancient words, ancient prayers. We pray for those who cannot pray, for those who have no words. We pray for ourselves, lifting up our brokenness in order that our slow, painful healing may be offered for a hurting world. We pray in joy, present and hoped for, that the world may see a glimpse of the Reign of God breaking into the world.
Together we pray.