“Pray without Ceasing!” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
This rather daunting command governed life in the monastic deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria during the first generations of holy men and women who laid the groundwork for the monastic world. No explanations, no tips on how-to, no list of extenuating circumstances, just a those three terse words.
St. Paul had never heard of monks or nuns, since there were none in Christian circles in his day. He was actually speaking to all Christians. And he was speaking primarily of living a relationship rather than going through certain prescribed motions. Prayer, after all, is not a matter of technique but of the intricate and profound communion between God and humanity. What comes to mind (mine, anway) is Michelangelo’s haunting portrait of the creation of Adam and Eve painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. You have probably seen reproductions, if not the original. God, in wind-blown beard and colorful robes, with Eve tucked in the crook of his arm, is stretching out his hand toward Adam, who does the same. The impression given by the strenuous reach of God’s forefinger toward Adam and Adam’s toward God is that the two have just now been detached from one another in the act of creation. The few inches of blank sky between God’s forefinger and Adam’s is the birthplace of the urgent prayer that wants to join created to Creator, and Creator to created. In this portrait, prayer is the poignant longing that draws one unceasingly toward the other. What later became words and rituals and competing schools of prayer, each armed with its own how-to manuals, is nothing more than translations of that poignant longing into ways of bridging that gap between one finger and the other.
Monastic spirituality is eminently practical. St. Benedict recommends that we start with our feet on the ground (see RB 4:62, of which this is a very loose paraphrase). Like their Jewish progenitors, the first Christian communities wove services of psalmody to sling across the chasm, giving voice both to God and to humanity in mutual conversation. They too were practical people. They believed that if you’re going to pray always, you’d better start with committing yourself to prayer at fixed times. Thus began the long tradition of the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office which is spelled out in relatively great detail for Benedictines in the Rule of St. Benedict, especially Chapters VIII-XX.
But Benedict fills in the spaces between the Hours of the Divine Office with other moments of prayer, lest we forget for long about those few inches across which the human heart and God are always reaching toward each other.
The Prologue sets the scene with these words: “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection” (Prologue 4:4). That seems simple—a quick sign of the cross, a bow of the head, maybe a murmured “God, come to my assistance,” beloved by St. John Cassian, one of Benedict’s inspirations, and then get down to it. You’ve said your prayer, now do your work. The fundamental flaw here is that in a life of unceasing prayer, you don’t stop praying when you start working, even though you may have to redirect your attention to the task at hand. God is still very much there with you. The early monks kept their awareness of the connection alive by stopping frequently to pray consciously, but they were usually weaving mats or baskets and could afford to take prayer breaks. Other work doesn’t always allow us that luxury, but quite often it doesn’t totally exclude it either. If you can take a coffee break or a restroom break, you can take a prayer break by murmuring a verse from your lectio or just giving a thought to God as you travel across the room or down the hall. If you take the ophalmologists’ advice about moving your eyes of the computer screen from time to time, you can use those breaks for brief prayers as well. Neither kind of prayer break need be long. Jesus was not impressed by length of prayers or streams of words, remember (Matthew 6:7). And you can end your task as you began it, with some sort of acknowledgment of God’s presence and love at work in and with you as you went about whatever business you’ve just completed.
However St. Benedict’s injunction to pray before you take up any good work also serves a different but related purpose. First of all, stopping to pray before you begin the work provides you with a “stop, look, and listen” moment, a moment for discernment. This work you’re about to do—is it in fact a good work? Or a work well timed? Should you really stop to play Scrabble on your computer right now, or should you get on with whatever responsibility took you to the computer in the first place? (This is the Voice of Experience of a Scrabble addict, me.) More seriously, if this work isn’t something you can honestly pray for God to bless—if it’s a spot of tax cheating or meth making or writing an email designed to wound the recipient—should you really be doing it at all? Trying to baptize any of these tasks with prayer is more dishonest than Benedict would readily countenance. Better to rethink your options.
St. Benedict also recommends prayer moment at specific moments. For instance, he recommends that we pray for forgiveness when we realize we’ve sinned (“uh-oh, that was a snide bit of sarcasm”, or “did I just lie about the doorbell to get out of talking to a lonely friend”, or “I might as well have hit the kid as say that to her!”). St. Benedict advises to admit it rather than dodge the issue—and prayer is a healthy way to do that. Pray for God’s blessing when you take up a new responsibility, even something as apparently insignificant as taking your turn serving the meal or washing the dishes. In RB 35:15-18, the Rule describes the formal weekly blessing of incoming and outgoing kitchen servers, but the principle can easily be applied to the less formal trading of all sorts of household tasks. Prayer helps us to see the job in its true light, as an opportunity we’ve been given to serve another in the simple undramatic ways that weave unseen webs of love in homes, workplaces, and supermarkets, wherever human beings are and God is busy creating bonds between us. Pray before you eat (see RB references to the blessing before meals in various places). Prayer reminds us of gratitude and, like the prayer before work, gives us a moment of discernment about how to approach the choices meals require and perhaps the conversation that will be shared at table. Pray sometimes when you’re resting and alone. Benedict suggests, for example, that monks might want to do some lectio divina during the afternoon siesta, but he wisely refrains from making it a rule (RB 48:5) . It may seem odd to pray during rest time, but after all, Jesus did say, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
These are only some of the opportunities we have to throw filaments of prayer across that gap between Creator and created, honoring the urgency of the longing Michelangelo captured on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Of course we can only talk about what we do on our side of the gap, but Michelangelo reminds us that as we reach for God, God is reaching for us. Paul, very well aware of the gap and the mutual pull enlivens it long before Michelangelo, tells us how to live in it: “Pray without ceasing.)
July 11, 2014
Solemnity of St. Benedict
©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga