In her conference our Oblate Director, Sr. Genevieve, talked about Benedictine prayer and said this would be a continuing, rather lengthy series on the subject of Benedictine prayer in general, on Lectio Divina, and on praying the Liturgy of the Hours, specifically on praying the Psalms.
Living according to the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict, she told us, is impossible if the core of our life is not prayer. We shouldn’t forget what really grounds us. It is that living, constant connection with God that makes the Benedictine life possible. We need to not get so caught up other practices that we forget how fundamental prayer is to us. Benedictine prayer is essentially praying with scripture, a life with God that is absolutely rooted in Biblical prayer. We are not talking about method here, but how the source of our prayer is scriptural. When Benedictines talk about prayer they are talking about a life with God that is absolutely rooted in Scripture.
St. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1197) describes it well in this short directive: “Drench your thoughts in scripture.”
Sr. Genevieve talked about prayer as an encounter, conversation and relationship, starting with the story of the encounter between Moses and God in Exodus 3.
This talks about a specific incident, but the monastic ideal is prayer without ceasing. That is actually a line from I Thessalonians 5, where St. Paul said to pray without ceasing. St. Paul was not talking to monks and nuns in monasteries – there weren’t any yet. He was talking to all Christians, and Christians have wrestled for centuries with what that means. He repeats this in various ways in several of his letters.
For the desert monks, unceasing prayer was an absolute ideal. John Cassian (who brought the spirit of Egyptian monasticism to Europe in the fourth century) said that “the end of every monk and the perfection of his heart incline him to constant and uninterrupted perseverance in prayer.” That can be a little daunting, for lay or monastic.
Benedict typically opts for moderation. His instruction is to “listen readily to holy reading and devote yourself often to prayer” (RB 4:55). And in the Rule he also says that whenever you start a good work, pray before you do it (cf. Prologue 4). So we are talking about a tradition that takes prayer extremely seriously, although most monasteries have adjusted their practice of prayer over the years, as oblates need to do also in the lay life.
Referring to the story in Exodus 3 she said that although we know the story, when praying scripture it is important to forget that we know the story, and try to come to it in a fresh way. She did this for us by asking questions as we read this in sections. The story follows Moses killing an Egyptian, being reminded of it by an Israelite, and hunted by Pharaoh. So his life as he knows it is over and he leaves and goes to Midian.
Reading Exodus 3.1, she asked … (and answered her questions with the following.)
1. What was Moses doing? Clearly, he was doing his job, his ordinary business. He was at work. St. Benedict says that we seek God everywhere. We, however, tend to think that seeking God goes on in a special place – a monastery, or in Church, etc. But that is not the case. For Benedict, where do we find God? In the midst of the ordinary. We have come to think that we seek God in churches, or in private. But Benedict says (with a Biblical perspective) that God is always and everywhere, and so God is always and everywhere to be found. So when we come to a place in our own life – in the kitchen or at the desk, where we suddenly become aware of God, Benedict says we need to listen. So we need to be ready to receive God in unexpected ways and places, at unlikely places and unlikely times. (This reminded me of the “thin places” that Mother Maria Michael talked about in the last year.) For Moses, God was speaking in an unlikely place and at an unlikely time, but Moses was paying attention.
2. Where was Moses? In the mountain of God – Horeb – (which may or may not have been Mt. Sinai.) It is not clear where Horeb was, or even that it was a geographical place. Horeb means dryness and devastation. This is not a promising place. Sr. Genevieve pointed out how often we think “I can’t pray now because I don’t feel like it, or my life is too disrupted, or I’m to sleepy, etc”. She said that she sees the image of wilderness as a ruined or devastated garden. Sometimes this can be an image of the human spirit – caused by our own actions, or events in our life. Sometimes these things are not our choices, but sometimes they are. We might create our own desert, so then we find ourselves “in Horeb!” If so, we could not be in a better place, because God is there. Sometimes we need to be devastated and dried up before we can perceive God.
3. What happens to Moses? In the middle of Moses’ ordinariness and dryness he sees a burning bush. It is not the burning bush that is remarkable and catches his attention, but the fact that it is not consumed. This is God’s first appearance to Moses, and it is significant that he appears as fire. We tend to think of it as tamed – like a fireplace or candles or a lamp. But fire can be dangerous, uncontrollable, can eat up everything in its wake. It’s beautiful, if it’s not threatening us. It can be useful and helpful, but it’s never quite under our control. Sr. Genevieve talked about how fire feels and looks alive. Fire became, for his people, an image of God. From this point on, fire becomes absolutely central, the primary way in which God appears to his people. You can make a statue out of stone, and carry it with you, but it doesn’t make the decisions and direct you – it is a statue that is carried by its owner. He wanted to make it clear that he was alive, dangerous, powerful, mysterious and beautiful - don’t mess around making statues. God continued to accompany them later in a fiery cloud – that became the image of God being present. God showed up when he wanted, and went where he wanted, when he wanted. This image continues into the New Testament.
a. Jesus mentions fire once – “I have come to cast fire on the earth…” What Jesus wanted to accomplish was to fill the earth with the presence of God. Other places it is more obscure, because in the modern world, we turn light on and off with a switch, but in Jesus world, the only source of light was fire. It could be a small fire for cooking, or a larger one out in the dark to keep predators away. It could be in the form of a lamp.
b. Revelation says that in heaven the Blessed have no need of the sun or lamps, because God is the light and the lamp, and the lamp is the Lamb – fire, contained and safe. Makes this mysterious presence of God something we can cope with without being in utter terror, something accessible, comforting. This depends on recognizing that the source of light, the image of God is fire. In the story of the transfiguration, Jesus radiates light – fire contained in human flesh. So fire, from Abraham’s encounter with the burning bush on, becomes absolutely central to our way of imaging God. So as you’re praying with scripture pay attention to all those references to fire and light.
c. Benedict picks up this image in the prologue. " Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God… [for Benedict the only source of light was fire, either from the sun or from a lamp or torch] and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out”…The fire of God is always followed by his word – He speaks, as he did from the fire in the bush. And “Run while you have the light of life…” and who is the light of life? God made available to us in Jesus.
d. The Angel of the Lord appearing in the bush really means messenger, and is God – First referred to as the Angel of the Lord, and from then God speaks.
So we begin our sense of prayer with the fact that every place is the right place to pray, every time is the right time to pray, and the God, who we encounter here, is really way more that we can pin down. We can’t say “Ok, God, I’m going to pray now, so now you can appear.” God is laughing and saying, well, maybe I will humor her or him this time! God is unmanageable, inconvenient, mysterious, living, powerful love.
In the bush not being consumed, we already have a nonverbal way of God saying don’t be afraid, because we won’t be burnt up.
In Exodus 3.4 we begin to see prayer as a conversation started by God. Moses played his part – might just be curiosity. God will use whatever it takes to get us home. God calls Moses by name. Moses is one of the few biblical leaders whose name God doesn’t change. God is speaking to Moses, as he is, by his truth.
Moses answers and God says this is holy ground – What makes it Holy? Because God is here. So right here and right now God is present, so, every time and every place is holy.
Moses is told to take his shoes off “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” – Why? It’s just Horeb, where he’s grazed the sheep many time. It is holy because God is there! Right here and now. When we are seeking God, seeking to grow in a life of prayer, God is always here and now. What does that say about here and now? It’s holy. It can be in a supermarket. We really have to work to overcome the notion that holiness is confined in certain times and places that God is confined to. God is not confined. Our imaginations might be confined, but God is not. So right here and right now is always holy ground. If we really want to become people who pray without ceasing, we want to grow into an appreciation of that fact. But God is saying “Be careful.” God is never Moses’ buddy. They have a very close mutual friendship, but never a friendship of equals. In the Rule, Benedict speaks of Christ and with us, but always a little above, beyond us.
By taking off his shoes Moses becomes an Icon of stability. Sr. Genevieve asked us to think about that for next time.