From my prayer retreat at the monastery, post 5

July 16: Observations of Benedictine Life

After being here for a couple of days, here are my observations of life in a Benedictine monastery. These are aspects of monastic life that I would like to work into my non-monastic context.

· Balance of prayer and work. Benedict talked about a balance of ora et labora, or prayer and work. Benedictine monks spend somewhere around seven hours a day working and, depending on the monastery, about seven hours a day praying, most of it corporate and some of it private. You and I probably don’t have that much time to spend praying, but how can we work toward a better balance between prayer and work?

· Vigilance through praying the hours. There are set prayer times throughout each day, so the day takes on a familiar rhythm. This is how Benedictines maintain an ongoing vigil. It is by constant reminder, through participating in set times of prayer together. It is more difficult to forget God when you are coming before him seven or eight times a day.

· Humility. In the monastery, at least in a good one, humility is a prized virtue. There should be minimal amounts of the jockeying or posturing we see in the survival-of-the-fittest world. Here being “fittest” means being humblest – the whole human system is turned on its head. Therefore, service is prized over being served, and meekness is more respectable than power.

· Pace. Nothing moves quickly in a monastery. Nothing is rushed. Your walking pace is slow and measured. You do things in a deliberate, meditative fashion. It is easy to forget about how hectic life is out in the world (which I have found very refreshing!).

· Volume. Just as there is a monastic pace, there is a monastic sound volume. It is soft and gentle. You do not hear people raising their voices. When the Scriptures are read in chapel, it is with a calm voice. The only loud noise you are likely to hear in a monastery is the ringing of the bell to call everyone to prayer. The gentle sound volume is meant to be conducive to meditating on God and his Word. Benedictine monasteries are known for being places of peace. The gentle volume is one reason why.

· Age. Here the old are revered and respected. There is none of the marginalization of the elderly that we see in society. Because the pace is slow and the volume is low, having a monk in his nineties shuffling through the dining hall seems entirely fitting. Age is seen as a crown, particularly if the aged have developed deeper levels of wisdom and humility because of their years in the faith.

· Infirmity. Those suffering with physical infirmities or disabilities are likewise respected and treated as full members of the community. There is an older brother here with a withered arm. He is one of the first to refill your water pitcher or show you hospitality. It is those displays of humility that cause others to revere him. When humility prized, infirmity is not seen as a weakness.

· Fervency in prayer. I have looked into the faces of the monks now and then while we have been praying in chapel. There is nothing casual or insouciant about their presence in prayer. Rather, they are in rapt attention to what they are doing. A very touching image that will stay with me is glancing at one of the older monks as we recited the Lord’s Prayer. Father Philip has been doing this at St. Andrew’s since 1960, praying the Lord’s Prayer who knows how many thousands of times. Yet his brow was furrowed and his eyes were closed tightly in concentration. His head was bowed and cocked slightly to one side in front of his hunching shoulders. It was a picture of prayer that took an instant for me to take in, but it spoke volumes about having a heart of prayer.

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