Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Benedictus interruptus

As Benedictine monks, we arise daily (and early) at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and process into the church for the Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours). We do this four times every single day (five, including Mass), seven days a week, rain or shine. I've been doing it for almost five years now. Some of my confreres have been doing it for 70 years.

This schedule provides the framework for our entire lives as monks. No matter what other jobs we have--and most of us have more than one--nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God, our common prayer, as St. Benedict says in the Rule.

This was a rather easy mindset for me as a novice, I recall. These days, I will be the first to admit that often enough, when I hear the bells summoning us to church, I have a difficult time separating myself from the task already at hand--whether it's writing, studying, doing other work, or even sleeping. I know in my mind and believe in my heart that the Work of God always comes first, and I am grateful for this great privilege and responsibility, but sometimes it can be difficult to shift gears so quickly and so often each day. Sometimes, I'd rather continue what I'm already doing, and sometimes I carry with me to choir an unfocused disposition.

Most likely, there aren't many monks who don't experience this from time to time. It's only natural. But the Work of God is the reason we're monks. Without any of the other things we do around here, we could still be a monastery. But we could not be one without the daily Work of God. And, even more importantly, it is necessary for our own conversion as monks. Our obedience in this regard hinges on the stability that the Work of God provides.

As our Prior, Fr. Kurt, writes in a recent Abbey Press publication,
"In the monastery, our prayer does regularly interrupt our work. However, we don't consider that inefficiency. We consider it an act of thanksgiving for the day we have been given, and an opportunity to thank the Giver of the day. We need reminders--opportunities--like that, because all of us, even in the monastery, can get so lost in what we are doing that we lose our sense of the One behind it all." 
I am also reminded of a delightfully insightful piece our Fr. Christian wrote a few years back comparing monastic life to the premise of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray as TV weatherman Phil Connors. In the movie, Phil finds himself stuck in a time warp in which he is forced to relive the same day over and over again. Initially, this produces shock, frustration, and even anger (like any good novitiate!). Eventually, however, Phil begins to change his reactions to the never-ending repetition of daily encounters until he gradually becomes less self-centered.

Similarly, Fr. Christian points out:
"The monk ends his day, goes to sleep, awakens again the next day to the ringing of the bells, and the cycle begins again. It is a structured, repetitive and somewhat predictable life. In some ways, every day feels the same. Of course, this structured life is not just a repetition of practices but, more importantly, it is a repetition of encounters with people. The monk, unlike Phil, voluntarily chooses this life of repetitive practices and encounters in connection to the vow of stability. The vow of stability is a monk's promise to stay in the same place with the same people and engage in the same monastic practices for the rest of one's earthly life. ... Repetition can help us with this transformation, not merely be keeping us surefooted, but by supplying and resupplying opportunties to us for loving choices."
I began ruminating on all this early this morning after hearing read at Vigils the passage below from The Principles of Monasticism. Lately, it seems, I have been ultra-focused on a number of very worthwhile, fulfilling, and time-consuming projects. It seems they often capture (and hold) most of my attention. Until the bells start ringing again--reminding me once again of what and WHO is truly important and makes it all possible. Blessed be the God of Interruptions!
Common prayer is your exalted duty, your blessed lot and special function. You are called a Benedictine; then you should, by reason of the very name you bear, bless God with a never-ending praise, and in a special manner receive blessings from him. Monks are founded because of the choir in order that the Spouse of Christ, the Church, may use their voice as her own. The become chanters of all creation. They are representatives at prayer for the faithful, their mediators before the Most High. Now you have been accepted into the number of the elect of whom the Lord speaks: "This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise."

Holy Church has assigned to you an angelic ministry of great responsibility. You hold a privileged place day and night in the palace of the Most High King. You are granted this privilege in order to offer the sacrifice of praise. Indeed, no duty must ever mean more to you than dedication to divine worship. It is the capital and stronghold of the monastic life, the heart of religion, the bond of harmony for monks, the crown of all occupations -- that is to say, it is that first duty to which all others, because they are less worthy and honorable, are merely associated. To it nothing at all must ever be preferred.

You must realize that you are to resemble in a distinctive manner that angel who stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he might offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which is before the throne.

At the same time you must never forget that St. Benedict called this duty the Work of God. For it is indeed a laborious task, to which you must devote your whole interest and effort. Be solicitous for the Work of God and employ diligence in preparing for it. When the bell sounds, say to yourself: This is the sign of the great King; let us go. Put aside whatever you have been doing, hasten to the choir. Examine yourself so that you may make certain that your disposition is worthy as you prepare to stand before the Lord in prayer, and that you may devote your whole being to the divine service.

For by your love and devotion to the Work of God you may measure your faith and your love of God, your esteem and reverence to your vocation, and your zeal for the house of God.

-- Dom Maurus Wolter, O.S.B.
The Principles of Monasticism

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