Punctuated by God

Feb 10, 2020

The hallmark of a Benedictine community lies in its prayer life. The community gathers for choral prayer at least three times a day—morning praise, noon praise, and vespers. In Benedictine communities that devote themselves to the recitation of the more ancient Liturgy of the Hours, the times for communal prayer are even more often than that. To beginners in the life, the schedule can be a shock.

When we were in the novitiate, the older sisters delighted in telling us the story of the young postulant who came to the monastery full of zest for the life—and then, six months later, simply got up and left. “I like it here a lot,” the young woman said, “but there’s never a minute’s rest. And every time I do get time, the bell rings.” Then the old sisters would bubble over with laughter.

It took a while before I caught on to the joke. The funny part was that the postulant had the ideas confused. She couldn’t understand why it was that every time the chores of the day were finished, just when she thought she wouldn’t have anything to do for a while, the bell rang to call the community to another period of prayer. Prayer for her was work, an intrusion into her private time. But for those whose life is centered in prayer, prayer is time for resting in God. It is the “work” of the soul in contact with the God of the heart.

Prayer is what links the religious and the spiritual, the inner and outer dimensions of life. Every spiritual tradition on earth forms a person in some kind of regular practice designed to focus the mind and the spirit. Regular prayer reminds us that life is punctuated by God, awash in God, encircled by God. To interrupt the day with prayer is to remind ourselves of the timelessness of eternity. Prayer and regular spiritual practices serve as a link between this life and the next. They give us the strength of heart to sustain us on the way. When life goes dry, only the memory of God makes life bearable again. Then we remember that whatever is has purpose.

Prayer does not simply reveal us to God and God to us, I came to know after years of apparently useless repetition. It reveals us to ourselves at the same time. If I listened to myself when I prayed, I could feel my many masks drop away. I was not the perfect nun; I was the angry psalmist. I was the needy one in the petitions. I was the one to whom the hard words of the gospel were being spoken. I was the one adrift in a sea of darkness and uncertainty even after all these years of light.

“I don’t pray,” people say to me. And I say back, “Neither do I. I just breathe God in and hope somehow to learn how to breathe God out, as well.” The purpose of prayer is simply to transform us to the mind of God. We do not go to prayer to coax God to make our lives Disneyland. We don’t go to prayer to get points off our sins. We don’t go to suffer for our sins. We go to prayer to be transfigured ourselves, to come to see the world as God sees the world, to practice the presence of God, to put on a heart of justice, of love, and of compassion for others. We go to become new of soul.

Maybe we are forgetting to center ourselves in the consciousness of God who is conscious of us all. Maybe that’s why the world today is in the throes of such brutal violence, such inhuman poverty, such unconscionable discrimination, such self-righteous fundamentalism. Maybe we are forgetting to pray, not for what we want, but for the sight, the enlightenment, that God wants to give us. And if I pray, will I be able to change those things? I don’t really know. All I know is that the enlightenment that comes with real prayer requires that I attend to them, not ignore them.

—from Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir, by Joan Chittister ((Sheed & Ward)

Called to Question: a spiritual memoir by Joan Chittister

Called to Question

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