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Benedictine Prayer: A Larger Vision of Life

December 18, 2007

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The function of prayer is to change my own mind,
to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me.

 

Benedictine prayer is not designed to take people out of the world to find God. Benedictine prayer is designed to enable people to realize that God is in the world around them.

Prayer is meant to call us back to a consciousness of God here and now, not to make God some kind of private getaway from life. On the contrary. Prayer in the Benedictine tradition is a community act and an act of community awareness.

Benedictine prayer, rooted in the Psalms and other Scriptures, takes us out of ourselves to form in us a larger vision of life than we ourselves can ever dredge up out of our own lives alone.

 

Benedictine prayer puts us in contact with past and future at once so that the present becomes clearer and the future possible.

Benedictine prayer has several characteristics that make more for a spirituality of awareness than of consolation. It is regular. It is universal. It is converting. It is reflective. And it is communal. Out of those qualities a whole new life emerges and people are changed. Not in the way tornadoes change things, perhaps, but in the way that sand in oysters does.

Prayer that is regular confounds both self-importance and the wiles of the world. It is so easy for good people to confuse their own work with the work of creation. It is so easy to come to believe that what we do is so much more important than what we are. It is so easy to simply get too busy to grow. It is so easy to commit ourselves to this century’s demand for product and action until the product consumes us and the actions exhaust us and we can no longer even remember why we set out to do them in the first place.

But regularity in prayer cures all that. Regularity harnesses us to our place in the universe. Morning and evening, season by season, year after year we watch the sun rise and set, death and resurrection daily come and go, beginnings and endings follow one another without terror and without woe. We come to realize that we are simply small parts of a continuing creation, and we take hope and comfort and perspective from that. If getting this contract is all that the world is about; if washing the children’s school clothes is the centre and the acme of my life; if holding this meeting or getting this promotion or making this money is all that claims my whole life’s concentration and fills my whole life’s time, then I have become more of a thing than a person and life is really passing me by. Or, I am passing it by.

Benedict called for prayer at regular intervals of each day, right in the middle of apparently urgent and important work. The message is unequivocal. Let no one forget what they are really about. Let no one forget why they have really come to this life. Let no one forget the purpose of life. Let no one forget to remember. Ever. Benedictine spirituality is not a spirituality of escape; Benedictine spirituality is a spirituality that fills time with an awareness of the presence of God.
“Pray always,” Scripture says. “Prefer nothing whatsoever to the Work of God,” (RB 43:3), the Rule of Benedict insists. “Impossible,” we object. And yet, if we keep our souls tied to a consciousness of God as the Rule directs, even in the face of things of apparently greater or more immediate value, then consciousness of God becomes a given. And consciousness of God is perpetual prayer.

To pray in the midst of the mundane is simply and strongly to assert that this dull and tiring day is holy and its simple labours are the stuff of God’s saving presence for me now. To pray simply because it is prayer time is no small act of immersion in the God who is willing to wait for us to be conscious, to be ready, to be willing to become new in life.

Prayer, Benedictine spiritually demonstrates, is not a matter of mood. To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our terms. To pray only when it is convenient is to make the God-life a very low priority in a list of better opportunities. To pray only when it feels good is to court total emptiness when we most need to be filled. The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer. But when that attitude takes over, we have begun the last trip down a very short road because, without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down. The fuel runs out. We become our own worst enemies: we call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray when, in reality, we are too tired and too busy not to pray. Eventually, the burdens of the day wear us down and we no longer remember why we decided to do what we’re doing: work for this project, marry this woman, have these children, minister in this place. And if I cannot remember why I decided to do this, I cannot figure out how I can go on with it. I am tired and the vision just gets dimmer and dimmer.

To pray when we cannot, on the other hand, is to let God be our prayer. The spirituality of regularity requires that we turn over our bruised and bleeding and fragmented and distracted selves to the possibility of conversion in memory and in hope, in good times and in bad, day after day after day, morning and night, this year and next.

But regularity is not the only call to otherness in Benedictine prayer. Benedictine prayer is based almost totally in the Psalms and in the Scriptures. “Let us set out on this way,” the Rule reads, “with the Gospel as our guide” (RB Prologue: 9). Benedictine prayer, consequently, is not centred in the needs and wants and insights of the person who is praying. It is anchored in the needs and wants and insights of the entire universe. Benedictine prayer pries me out of myself and stretches me beyond myself so that I can come someday, perhaps, to be my best self.

Benedictine prayer life, besides being scriptural and regular, is reflective. It is designed to make us take our own lives into account in the light of the gospel. It is not recitation for its own sake. It is the bringing to bear of the mind of Christ on the fragments of our own lives. It requires steady wrestling with the Word of God. It takes time and it does not depend on quantity for its value.
Benedictine prayer calls for more than prayer time; it calls for attention to the Scriptures. It calls for more than words; it calls for a change of mind and values. It calls for more than ritual; it calls for deep reflection. It calls for more than getting my prayers in; it requires that I get my heart steeped in the story of God in history.
The prayer life that comes from regularity, reflection, and a sense of the universal, however, is very soon converting. The function of prayer is certainly not to cajole God into saving us from ourselves. “Please, God, don’t let us die in nuclear war” surely is not real prayer. We can stop nuclear war ourselves by stopping the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Humans created them and humans can destroy them. No, the function of prayer is not magic. The function of prayer is not the bribery of the Infinite. The function of prayer is not to change the mind of God about the decisions we have already made for ourselves. The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me.

Finally, Benedictine prayer is communal. Benedictine prayer is prayer with a community and for a community and as a community. It is commitment to a pilgrim people whose insights grow with time and whose needs are common to us all. Community prayer in the Benedictine tradition is a constant reminder that we do not go to church for ourselves alone. It is a chosen people, a human race, a body of faithful who stand in witness, first to one another, that God is God. And yet it is not that there is no room for the self here. It is just that the self grows best when self is not its end. To say, “I have a good prayer life, I don’t need to go to church” or “I don’t get anything out of prayer” is to admit our paucity, either on the communal or the personal level.

Community prayer is meant to bind us to one another and to broaden our vision of the needs of the world and to give us models to steer by and friends to uphold us and encourage us and enable us to go on. The praying community becomes the vehicle for my own fidelity. Because they are there praying, I go to prayer. Because they are there always, I make room in my life for them and for God. Because they are there consistently, I can never put them and their witness and their needs out of my mind. Private prayer, Benedict says, may follow communal prayer, but it can never substitute for it. Prayer, in fact, forms the community mind.

The implications of all these qualities for contemporary spirituality are plain:

 

  1. God is to be dialogued with in the Word daily—not simply attended to at times of emotional spasm—until little by little the gospel begins to work in me. Prayer must be scriptural, not simply personal.
  2. Time for prayer must be set aside and kept: after the children go to school; before breakfast in the morning; in the car on the way to work; on the bus coming home; at night before going to bed.
  3. Reflection on the Scriptures is basic to growth in prayer and to growth as a person. Prayer is a process of coming to be something new. It is not simply a series of exercises.
  4. Understanding is essential to the act of prayer. Formulas are not enough.
    Changes in attitudes and behaviors are a direct outcome of prayer. Anything else is more therapeutic massage then confrontation with God.
  5. A sense of community is both the bedrock and the culmination of prayer. I pray to become a better human being, not to become better at praying.
  6. We pray to see life as it is, to understand it, and to make it better than it was. We pray so that reality can break into our souls and give us back our awareness of the Divine Presence in life. We pray to understand things as they are, not to ignore and avoid and deny them.

 

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