It’s coming on a quarter past eleven, and in another half hour it will be time to close my laptop and walk up the hill for midday prayer with the monks. It’s something I always do when I’m on a writing retreat at the Collegeville Institute, regardless of how productive my morning has been. Some days it is a hard thing to do, because the words have been flowing like water, and I almost can’t bear to stop. Some days it comes as an enormous relief, as I’ve spent far too much time staring at the screen, the delete key my only friend. This morning has landed me somewhere between those two extremes, but that doesn’t really matter. In a few minutes I’ll need to save my work, get up, and start walking.
The getting up and walking outside does its own work, I suppose. Often I’ll be halfway up the hill to the Abbey church, and a sentence or a phrase or an idea will hit like a lightening bolt. I’ve never been tempted to just turn around, though, as I’ve learned how that brief fifteen minutes of psalms, prayer, and stillness settles me. Even if I’ve not been here for a couple of years, the moment I walk into the church I feel myself becoming anchored, centered, and stilled. Moving into the choir stalls reserved for guests, I’m drawn to the same row, the same seat—my seat—and I’m immediately at home. I ready the daily office book, flip to the appointed hymn, gaze up at the great wall of stained glass, and breathe.
This is a different sort of breathing than is usual when day-by-day I pray my morning office on my own. Often as not that takes place in a coffee shop back home in Winnipeg, a practice I picked up after reading the ascetical theologian Martin Thornton in his book, The Rock and the River. He urged his readers to embed daily prayer within the patterns of everyday life. When I’m here in Collegeville, I’ll pray the morning office in a comfortable chair by a window, looking out over little Stumpf Lake. Regardless of where I am, that solitary discipline is also an anchor, though truthfully there are many days when it is all but perfunctory; something I just do before my first appointment arrives or the opening line of my Sunday sermon is written.
But here at St John’s, it is almost as if the Abbey church is so utterly soaked in psalms and prayer that when I sit still I can breathe decades of those prayers. Decades of longing, too; longing for a deeper immersion in the Holy, or for clarity in times of struggle, or for God to break the silence and speak into the burdens we all bear.
The pace at which the monks pray the psalms is ever so slow, for first-time visitors, almost agonizingly so. Each word is spoken—really spoken—as the verses are traded back and forth across the two sides of the choir. To join the monastic community in prayer, I’ve found I need to simply let go and let be, allowing my breathing to notch down yet another level. In the silences between the psalms I feel myself drawing deep, deep breaths, releasing them ever so slowly, and again gazing up at the colored windows that make the concrete walls of that otherwise austere space dance with light.
The words we pray are not always easy ones. Yes, we affirm the closeness of God to “the brokenhearted” and “those whose spirit is crushed,” (Ps 34.18) and often we confess that each of us in our own way is numbered with them. Other times the psalms call us to confess our failings, our brokenness, our sin, our need for mercy and forgiveness. There are psalms that let us rest in confidence, and psalms that call us to loose our tongues in praise and thanksgiving.
Yet there is also a lot of talk of being surrounded by foes and enemies, and of neighbors and even friends who have turned against us and who whisper ill behind our backs. I don’t know about the members of the monastic community, but I really don’t have any enemies, and so far as I know my friends aren’t given to gossiping about me. Still, together we pray those words.
It also isn’t all that unusual to find ourselves speaking the imagery of war, often in terms of vengeance, seemingly calling upon God to intervene as a kind of divine “shock and awe” military general. “You who strike all my foes on the cheek, you who break the teeth of the wicked” (Ps. 3:7), “Blest be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for battle, and my fingers for war” (Ps. 144:1).
Years ago I heard a CBC radio conversation with a Roman Catholic sister, who spoke of how the words of the psalms often stand in stark contrast to the lived experience of her praying community. Some days the sisters were called to pray texts of sorrow and of complaint, yet there was really nothing particularly lamentable going on in the life of their community. Other times the community might be grieving the death of one of their members, yet the appointed psalms were all about jubilant praise and thanksgiving. Yet it didn’t matter, she said, because their prayer was giving voice to the needs and experiences of the whole of the world across the ages, adding something to the effect that someone somewhere is having that experience, yet has not the words or the inclination to speak of it to God. Because they can’t, or don’t, or won’t pray, the monastic community does it for them.
Right now someone somewhere in the world has just been so hurt or so violated that they really do wish that someone—maybe even God—would come and knock out the teeth of the one who did this to them. Maybe the hurt is so deep that it has left them voiceless, muted, unable to do more than just weep. Right now some community somewhere in the world has just said or sung or chanted Psalm 3, and in a way I’m only beginning to understand, it has been done on behalf of that muted person. In the tradition of the psalms, it is more than fair to pray even the hardest words, for nothing is to be declared out of bounds. “Everything fits into the blues,” writes B.B. King in his autobiography, Blues All Around Me, and every experience and emotion fits into the psalms, too. How God chooses to respond to such prayers is an entirely different matter. Called to be shaped by the life and imagination of Jesus, how we choose to respond to the kind of violence that elicits such prayers might well be the more pressing question.
I think, though, that I actually have the most difficulty in speaking those verses in which we all seem so damned sure of ourselves. “The Lord rewarded me because I was just, repaid me, for my hands were clean” (Ps 18:20). “Give judgment for me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity. I have trusted in the LORD; I have not wavered” (Ps 26:1). Really? Even on my best days, I’m not sure I can even begin to believe that.
Yet with their slow, deep, steady cadence—never rushed, always punctuated by silence, so resonate in that space—the monks can pray all of these texts in a way that somehow transcends the literal and moves us—moves me—beyond bare propositions. Just a hymn, some prayers, and three psalms, yet every time I walk back down the hill to return to my writing I find I’ve been ever so subtly opened.
It’s a quarter to twelve. Time to go.