It’s a strange thing. I blogged I don’t know how many posts about the Rule of St Benedict. I read canon law and theology for work. I am always reading something Christian alongside my ‘fun’ book. (Right now, that’s Lisa Deam, A World Transformed, all about the spirituality of medieval maps.)
But what good does it do to have read With Christ in the School of Prayer without praying?
Not that I never pray.
But life has been disconnected and, in many ways, frustrated this year in England. And I did not do a good job of refocussing devotional life in the wake of the birth of my now one-year-old son. It’s all my fault, whatever the circumstances. And some of the circumstances are blessings — but still. One should avoid having prayer life and Scripture and whatever other disciplines being derailed.
So what to do?
How do I get a boost and reshift and refocus, discovering the devotional life of being a parent?
Sometimes it has worked — the 4:00 AM feeds proved a good time for Nocturns. But now he sleeps all night. And from waking to getting on my bike to work, where do I find a moment to pray? And then, getting home, his supper, bath, bed, our supper, whatever’s needful in the evening, some time with my wife, bed. And so again.
So, people who read this blog. Some of you are parents who work full time.
What do you do? Where do you find time for all those happy disciplines — contemplation, intercession, mindful Scripture reading? How can fatherhood work for me spiritually? I want to be a good dad and a strong disciple of Christ who models Christlikeness to my son. I think that to be able to do this, I need to stay plugged into the Divine source of all things.
I’m reading Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer just now. It’s been my devotional book since Easter. I wish I could say I’ve taken this long because I’m savouring and applying it, but, really, I’m just distracted and lazy. Anyway, many of the major lessons in this book about intercessory prayer are really about what historically we would call ‘meditation’ (with a bit of room for contemplation as well).
Historically, the Christian tradition has meant by meditation the active use of the mind to ruminate upon some passage of Scripture or some aspect of God or some deed in salvation history. To spend time with it and immerse the mind and heart into it as a way of drawing closer to God, of uniting the mind with the heart.
Murray counsels the reader at many times that in order to unlock the promises and mysteries of prayer, we need to enter into a richer relationship with God and a fuller understanding of His person and relationship to us. For example, one of the lessons Christ teaches us in the school of prayer is that our heavenly Father gives good gifts — or even the Holy Spirit — to his children.
The meditation on this verse takes two aspects. First, meditate on the Fatherhood of God. What does it mean for God to be our Father? And what does it mean, then, for us to be his children? What sort of gifts would a good Father give? What sort of children can expect to get anything they ask from their fathers?
The answer to the last question takes us to a meditation on how we relate to God. If we are not spending time with God, or if we are consciously living in a way that displeases God, how likely is it that God will give us what we ask? And how will we know what sorts of things God is likely to give?
Think on this: If you spend no time with your father, despite his desire to be with you, but want a car for your sixteenth birthday both for the awesomeness of the car and its practicality, is he really going to give you a car? He will give you a good gift, certainly. But not a car.
This is dangerous thinking. It can lead into moralism, legalism, the belief that we can merit God’s favour. It can lead into treating God like a genie. But then — if we spend more time meditating on the character and attributes of God, more time reading Scripture and meditating on its truths and God’s actions, more time being silent before the throne of God — frankly, if we spend more time with God, we will come to know Him well, and knowing Him will protect us from all the dangerous -isms of Christian thinking.
Throughout With Christ in the School of Prayer, Murray takes us on meditations and encourages us to be silent before God as well as to meditate upon Him and upon Scripture. The more we do these things, the better we know God and the more we are conformed to the likeness of Christ. The more our wills align with His. And the more we will see our own prayers answered.
Some people like to pit different kinds of prayer against each other. I have read pieces that are harsh on evangelicals because they do not know the great riches of contemplative prayer but only wade in the shallows of intercession. I have no interest in such ways of thinking.
All prayer is united, whether supplication, intercession, meditation, contemplation, adoration.
They flow and work together, and each is part of healthy Christianity. And there are probably more evangelical contemplatives than you’d think (and they may not even know that’s what they’re doing).
So: Meditation and intercession. They work together.
For the past several months, after I finished Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (through which I also blogged my way), I’ve been creeping my way through the Rule of St Benedict. Next week I’ll round up all the Benedict(ine) material on this blog. For now — what now?
There are many lessons we can take away from the Rule, many of which are thrown into sharper relief when considered alongside Scripture, the Rule‘s context, other monastic literature, and later Benedictines. My own lumping mind has tended to do this. If you want those in detail, enjoy.
But, having come to the end, what should we be doing now, with this mid-sixth-century rule for beginning monks, designed in central Italy to run a school in the Lord’s service that, due to several historical events in the text’s history, became the norm for western Christian monasticism from about 800 onward?
Some main themes that emerge for us non-monastic, layfolk of the 21st century:
Silence. Benedictines are encouraged not to talk. In that silence they engage in:
Prayer. Regular, routine prayer. Sort it out. Make yourself a little prayer rule. Join us at The Witness Cloud.
Scripture reading. Get on that, too. Figure out a rhythm of reading and studying the Bible regularly.
Work — usually physical, but maybe illuminating manuscripts or whatever. Seek how to glorify God in your work.
Community. This, for me, is always the hardest (at least in person). Find a way to invest in your church, the other Christians around you, your family, et al. Figure out how to go deeper, how to find that tantalising, elusive spiritual friendship written of so beautifully by the great Cistercian St Aelred of Rievaulx.
These are the biggest, I think. One could add: submission to fellow believers and church authorities. That would probably revolutionise our lives in ways we can’t imagine.
What is great about these, though, is that they point us not back to Benedict or to the history of Christian monasticism and spirituality, but back to Jesus, to the Most Holy Trinity, to the Body of Christ, the church. Let us set our minds on things above. This is what Benedict envisaged. It is a message as timely now as in the year 540.
But … if you do want more ancient monks, check out Benedict’s influences, especially John Cassian, and his contemporaries, such as the Greek fathers in The Philokalia, vol. 1. Then, maybe cross the Irish Sea and rest with St Brigid. And whatever wisdom you find there to apply, take it all to Christ. Enter more deeply and richly into the mystery of his love.
This is what the great mystics, contemplatives, preachers, ascetics, and others of the rich tradition of Christian spirituality would call you to.
Prefer nothing to Christ (The Rule of St Benedict, ch. 72).
In chapter 50, distance from the monastery or travel are no excuse. When the hour for prayer comes, stop what you are doing and pray. Get off your horse and pray. If the bell for prayer rings and you are out in the garden, kneel in the dirt. Pray.
For us today: Holidays are no excuse! A lot of us get our prayer disciplines out-of-whack during holiday seasons. Some people stop making it to church when they move out to their cottages. Others choose not to go to church when away from their home city. Benedict would not approve. Just because our secular work is on holiday doesn’t mean our prayer lives are!
Chapter 52 highlights the extreme importance of prayer in the Benedictine world, urging that oratory be put to not purpose other than prayer. No idle conversations. No roughhousing. No badminton (I know a minister who wants to take the pews out of his church so they can play badminton). Making certain places special, set aside for prayer and holiness, helps make all places special.
There is an argument from contemporary neo-Celtic spirituality that there are ‘thin’ places. I am not sure if a. this is actually something Insular Christians of the Middle Ages believed or b. it’s true, anyway. In fact, there is an argument that places people often consider ‘thin’ are not literally, objectively more so than anywhere else — whether we say Mount Athos or the chapel at Wycliffe College in Toronto or wherever — but rather that the activities we engage in while at such places make us more attuned to God.
The goal for us, when we leave ‘thin’ places, is to make our whole lives in every place ‘thin’, permeated with the Kingdom of the Heavens. For, as Christ says in Matthew 4:17, the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand.
Prayer is the opus Dei in the life of the Benedictine monk. It is the work of God. It runs through the fabric of every day. I find it no surprise, then, that some of the great pray-ers of history and writers on prayer have been from the Benedictine traditions. I think immediately of two from the Middle Ages, St Anselm in the opening prayer of the Proslogion or his Meditations and the Cistercian St Bernard of Clairvaux and his rich spirituality, expressed in his sermons on Song of Songs.
In chapter 22 of the Rule of St Benedict, the monks are commanded to sleep with their clothes on. Why? This way they have no excuse for being late for their middle-of-the-night and early morning prayers. They can jump up from bed and go straight to the oratory. In fact, many Benedictine monasteries have a staircase descending straight down from the dormitory into the chapel.
Benedictines pray a lot. The round of prayers is the focus of many chapters of the Rule, as discussed already, and the adaptation of the office for eleventh-century purposes takes up one half of Lanfranc’s constitutions (my review here). They pray Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, and Matins/Vigils/Nocturns. Two of these occur immediately upon rising. So they have no time for dilly-dallying in bed.
Off the top of my head, here’s a (post)modern takeaway:
Do we lounge around ‘in bed’, as it were, instead of sinking to our knees in prayer?
By ‘in bed’, besides actually lounging in bed, I mean sitting in front of the TV or computer or whatever other entertainment we have, and dulling our senses to the spiritual realities all around us, realities to which God is calling us, realities accessible to us through prayer?
Maybe we should be quick to pray, always ready at any moment to enter into communion with God.
For St Benedict, chanting the Psalms, singing the hymns, praying intercessions, and reading or listening to passages of Scripture and the Fathers — these are not enough in themselves to constitute true prayer. There must be an accord between internal and external when we pray.
It is very easy for those of us in liturgical traditions to allow the rituals to become ‘dead’, to become mere rote activity, for our minds to wander, for our hearts not to mean what we pray. There have been those (particularly within the charismatic movement) who have sought to move the Church of England away not only from the Book of Common Prayer but the modern liturgies as well, believing that the Holy Spirit is stifled by liturgy. In many churches, what matters most is the inner attitude of the worshippers’ hearts — not whether you are standing, sitting, kneeling.
St Benedict, perhaps merely reflecting his culture, perhaps reminding us that, as psychosomatic unities, as persons comprised of body, soul, spirit, calls for worthy bodily posture and rightly ordered thoughts:
let us stand to sing in such a way that there is no discrepancy between our thoughts and the words we are singing. (ch. 19, p. 44 trans. White)
He also notes the importance of the simple prayer of the heart:
And so our prayer should be kept short and simple, unless divine grace inspires us to prolong our prayer. (ch. 20, p. 45 trans. White)
Prayer should not be something that is said and forgotten. You stand in front of an icon, recite your prayers, and go about your business. That is not prayer. (p. 113)
The attitude of the heart is not dependent upon incense and liturgy, nor upon lighting effects and evocative music. It is dependent upon the grace of the Spirit and upon our own cultivation of a quiet heart. True prayer can elude us as easily in the Vineyard as amongst the Anglo-Catholics — and it can come in either place as well.
Following from yesterday’s post about silence in the Rule of St Benedict:
“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”
― Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers