We begin in darkness. Monks and laity, perhaps a visiting priest or two. All of us gathered in the baptistery of the Abbey Church of St. John the Baptist, to celebrate the church’s 54th anniversary. But behind this intent is the ancient call to sanctify time and enter the space of God.
Inside the sanctuary, a lone monk sings a psalm as our two columns process slowly along both sides of the church. We stop as candles are placed along the walls. This journey is maybe fifty yards, yet it symbolizes all of life. We began beside the waters of birth and rebirth, of baptism and the womb. We will end with our eyes fixed upon the spare white altar of sacrifice.
I’ve attended nearly 40 services during my three-week writing residency, each time drawn by an urgent need to immerse myself in this life of prayer. I am a 12 and 7 man—Noonday Prayer and Evening Prayer. This schedule fits my natural sleep cycle. And the discipline structures my days. As the gospel tune says: My soul’s been anchored in the Lord.
Now, you might think a parish priest like myself would have a set prayer schedule. But, you would be wrong. A disciplined prayer life is often one of the first casualties of the priesthood.
Here in Collegeville there is discipline, and with it, surrender. I’ve become obedient to the bells ringing at the Abbey Church. No matter the task or the event, I keep an eye on my watch or the nearest clock. I prefer a leisurely walk from my apartment, 20 minutes by way of the main street, 30 minutes if I take the forest route with the little bridge over Stumpf Lake. I have made it in 11 minutes, hustling up the main road’s long incline to arrive out of breath as the first petition is being said.
Tonight’s service begins a two-day commemoration of what architect Marcel Breuer wrought a half-century ago, a Bauhaus-inspired church, magnificent in its spare simplicity. The concrete walls are bare. The Marian and Blessed Sacrament chapels are tucked off to the sides. Don’t look for the tapestries, altar hangings, statuary, stained glass iconography, paintings, Scripture passages and self-help inspirations you find in many churches. They would only distract you. Yet, their absence gives the sanctuary a spiritual depth that invites contemplation. This space has been bathed in prayer, for around 79,000 services, day in and day out, year in and year out. On the hottest days of summer and on the most unbearably cold days of winter, the monks have prayed. Tonight is no different.
Gradually, imperceptibly, the darkness lifts. The ceiling that soars several stories above comes into view. Soon the sanctuary is filled with more light than I have seen in all the services I have attended. The space glows. The light that began as flickering candles is now incandescent. The light that shone in the darkness has now overcome to reveal this holy place of prayer in all its glory. I feel like Jacob waking from his dream of the angels of God ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. “‘Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!’ And [Jacob] was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” Genesis 28:16-17, NRSV
Let nothing, then, be preferred to the work of God.
– Rule of Benedict: Chapter 43
Unless you have been a parish priest and have had to lead liturgy Sunday after Sunday, year after year, you cannot appreciate the gift of communal prayer in which you are not the presider. Praying in community takes me back to a time before God called me to do anything in the liturgy, except be present, which is the most important task of all.
As much as I hunger for the disciplined prayer life, I yearn equally for those times when I can settle into this sacred, pleasant mystery without having to worry if the service is being done right, or if someone is going to miss a cue. As a solo priest, even when I’m praying in my community, I’m in charge. Sunday is my show, if you will. Communal prayer that finds me as a participant and not the leader is rare, maybe once a week.
I do pray alone, working my way through the Daily Office and the Psalter. But alone I am prone to even more distractions than usual. My mind wanders. I hurry things along. Sure, I tell myself I am joining with the great prayer going on throughout the world. Somewhere, somebody is praying, and I am with them in spirit. But this fact remains: I am alone. And we are social animals.
At home in Baltimore the world intrudes with its demands and necessities. Discipline eludes even my best intentions. I pray on the fly. Catch God when I can. Here, with a community of Benedictine monks a short walk away, there is a prayer schedule that does not change. You could set your watch by it. Seven bells in the evening, the monks must be praying. And when I hear those bells, it is as if they’re saying: Supper Time!
Prayer is food. It is as necessary to my well-being as pork chops smothered in gravy with mashed potatoes on the side. Just like my stomach growls when empty, so, too, does my soul. I can feel the emptiness and with it a distinct vulnerability. My defenses are down. I could be knocked off kilter at any moment. A priest without prayer is like a satellite that has lost contact with Mission Control. For me, the Abbey Church has become a place to reconnect, to repair some frayed wires, and to lay in a reserve for the next dry season.
The liturgy as prayed by the monks is slow and deliberate. In monastic prayer the silence is as important as the words of Scripture. This is one more contrast with what goes on at home. Silence during Sunday’s service means something must be wrong. Maybe a reader has forgotten a passage. Perhaps the lectionary’s pages have not been properly marked. Somewhere there is a mistake, a glitch. Within ten seconds people start fidgeting. A nervous cough breaks in. Is something unpleasant about to happen? At home silence is an intrusion. We gallop through our prayers. Scripture and song follow each other with no time for us to think about what we just heard, what we just read, what we just sang. Our rhythm matches the world’s.
In the Abbey Church we are outside of time. Off the clock. We’re in no hurry, for here is where we should be.
Let nothing, then, be preferred to the work of God.
My last Sunday evening finds me in the university library waiting for the church bell to announce Evening Prayer. This will be my final service. I wonder how much of this prayer experience I will take back to Baltimore. How quickly before the rush of everyday life overtakes me? How long before I am again catching God on the fly?
I will miss these times in the Abbey Church. I’ve loved joining the monks in singing Salve Regina, or sitting in silence, pondering the Psalm that has just passed my lips. I glance at my watch. When I hear the bell, I make my way across the lawn, glance up at the gigantic tower, the sight of which is still confounding and awe-inspiring. It is 2,300 tons of concrete, stands 112 feet high and looks like something from Picasso’s Guernica, or a dreamscape painted by Salvador Dali. I mount the steps, enter the baptistery, and dip my right hand into the holy water. Making the sign of the cross, I step into the quiet sanctuary.
Already a few monks are here. Soon, a bell, deep and resonant, rings four times to signal the hour’s arrival. Another bell, whose tone is deeper, rings the hour. Its sound, carrying across the low octaves and rising to mid-range, reverberates through the concrete walls. The entire church hums. When all is quiet the monks enter two-by-two, a slow shuffling marking the steps of the older ones, some of whom I can recognize with my eyes closed. The leader begins: “O God, come to my assistance.” And we respond: “O, Lord, make haste to help me.”
Once again I join those who have learned through the osmosis of years to pray in this measured way. And I, their willing student, take in one more spiritual meal to hold me for the days to come. Thirty minutes later, we are done. The monks depart without a word.
When the work of God is finished, let all leave with the most profound silence, and let reverence be shown to God.
– Rule of Benedict, Chapter 52
Were this a Saturday night, a sweet smell of incense would linger. But this is Sunday, and so the air is clear. As always, a solitary monk returns to extinguish the candles. The lights dim. Only the white granite altar is illuminated. I, restored and at peace, give praise and thanksgiving, then turn and walk into the quiet night.
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Len Edgerly says
Thank you for this beautiful account of your time with the monks. The peaceful, clear cadence of your words has touched and calmed me in the middle of the night here in Boston, where I happened on the Bearings Online newsletter in my email inbox. What a timely gift!
jenni ho-huan says
lovely, honest re-telling of a precious personal journey. hope you find or begin a community like this back in Baltimore!