The Work of Prayer
This week I’ve been at Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon, which is a place for work and prayer. Following the rule of St. Benedict (480-547 A.D.) that “all are to be welcomed as Christ,” I have been welcomed into the daily prayerful rhythm of this place as I take a working retreat. The monastery is on a hilltop flanked by giant sequoia trees, overlooking fruit orchards in the Willamette Valley. Most mornings, heavy fog hangs among the trees and buildings. Yesterday it burned off for a view of snow-capped Mt. Hood against the blue sky. Needless to say it’s hardly a rough place to work, and I’m thankful for friends who provided the opportunity.
The primary work of the Benedictine monks at the abbey is prayer. Six times a day, summoned by the loudest bell I have ever heard, they scurry to the abbey church for the liturgy of the hours, which are prayers sung beautifully in unison (Gregorian chant style). Their prayers consist primarily of the psalms and other portions of scripture, as well as theologically-rich ancient hymns. A few are in for a temporary period (simple vows), but most are lifers (solemn vows). Table-talk among visitors inevitably surfaces the question, “what if your son or daughter decided to make a life of this?” I suspect that’s quite a dim possibility for my own kids, but it does make you consider whether “the work of prayer” is something worth devoting an entire human life to.
We applaud people who devote their daily lives to brilliance as violin players or baseball pitchers or countless other pursuits, but prayer? Is the world a better place because a very few hold it in prayer with singular devotion through the hours of each day? Are such lives well-lived?
These guys obviously are convinced it is. They do other forms of work too—teaching in the seminary, riding around the grounds on John Deere mowers, craftsmanship, community service. St. Benedict’s rule admonishes, Nihil operi Dei praeponatur, “Let nothing take precedence over God’s work.” Specifically, the primary work of the monastic vocation is prayer. It is their opus, worthy of their highest concentrated focus. In addition to the corporate chanted prayers, they privately meditate on scripture, intercede for specific needs, and draw near to God.
What might that say to us who will never be inclined to don a robe or take vows, but still make prayer a part of our lives? I’m fascinated. Most of us give great rigor to our professions or even our recreational pastimes. We read, train, attend workshops, watch videos, get certified. We work at it; we grow in skill. I’m not forgetting that prayer is relationship; so, many of us give great attention to ways we can love another more purely. I’d also like to think we can relax into prayer. But the monks remind me it might just resemble work at times, and that might not be a bad thing.
Over dinner last night with good friends Kris Rocke and Joel Zylstra, we were joined by Father Jeremy Driscoll, a longtime monk at the abbey. Kris and Jeremy have gotten to know and enjoy each other. Fr. Jeremy told us that he prays for our international Street Psalms network at least once a week. “And when we monks promise to pray for you, we really do!” he exclaimed. “It’s our gift and our work.”
Fr. Jeremy is a very influential theologian and scholar—and also a poet. One of his poems gives this disarming and unsentimental glimpse into the work of prayer on a hot August afternoon in the abbey chapel:
The monks chant their prayer in the hot church
but their heart is not in it.
Only their vows bring them here and keep them
at the hot and useless task.
Gone are the sweet first good days
when prayer and singing came easy.
Gone as well many brothers
who used to stand here singing
the feasts with them.
They know there are ways to beat this heat
and that Americans everywhere are finding them
but they beat instead the tones of psalms
and, by beating,
fall through the layers of heat
and the layers of prayer
and are standing there now
only with their sound
and their sweat
everything taken from them
except the way that this day in August has been.
- Jeremy Driscoll, Some Other Morning
Scott Dewey is a CTM Training Associate, a member of the Street Psalms Community and works with Mile High Ministries in Denver, Colorado USA. He shares his thoughts at Seeing from Below where this post was first published on 9/29/2011