The Secret of Benedictine Prayer

I should like to quote a few sentences about prayer written in the sixth century:

Whenever we want to ask something from powerful people, we do not presume to do so without humility and respect. How much more ought we to pray to the Lord God of all things with profound humility and pure devotion! And we must realize that we shall be heard not for our many words, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer, therefore, ought always to be short and pure, unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God’s grace. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short; and as soon as the signal has been given by the superior, all should rise together. (RB 20, trans. Wybourne)

That’s it. That’s all St Benedict has to say about what we might call private or individual prayer after devoting twelve chapters to the common liturgical prayer of the community. Of course, the whole Rule is about our relationship with God and is permeated with the spirit of prayer, but Benedict’s explicit treatment of the subject is very short, very simple and takes a lifetime to understand fully. In a few brief sentences, silvery in their alliteration and poetic form, he gives us what we may think of as the secret of Benedictine prayer. It is to be short and pure.

It is no accident that chapter 20 comes at the end of the so-called liturgical code. The common prayer of the community flows into the private prayer of the monk and back again. But whereas the liturgical prayer of the community is minutely prescribed, the prayer of the individual is not. Benedict’s insistence that prayer should be short and pure doesn’t mean it should be perfunctory — far from it! It is to be intensely focused, and most of us cannot manage that for very long without becoming tired or disheartened. The few moments of individual prayer that come at the end of every Hour of the Divine Office are not to be unduly prolonged by the superior. Too long a pause and some will start fidgeting and distract others. Better that the signal to rise should be given and individuals decide for themselves whether to return to choir to pray longer.

Prayer always comes to us as sheer gift, but we can still try to manipulate it (and God), usually by droning on and on, which is why Benedict says that tears of compunction and purity of heart are what are needed, not many words. Tears of compunction have a long and beautiful history in monastic tradition. They are a sign of the truly repentant heart, of those who trust God completely and are therefore able to acknowledge how far short of the glory of God they are, and how the mercy of God spans the abyss between.

I think, however, that the word ‘purity’ is really key to the whole chapter. It locates Benedict’s teaching in the monastic tradition of the desert, of Cassian and early writers on prayer, and echoes the Lord’s own exhortation not to heap up words as the pagans do. Just as the Rule encourages us to live a pure (single-minded) life, so Benedict wants our prayer to be single-minded in its focus on God. That is why the pauses in the Divine office matter and why every Hour concludes with a few moments of silent prayer. As the words die away we are left contemplating the Word himself. Without this focus on God we do not allow the liturgy to have its full effect in us and our private prayer misses the mark. To achieve this focus on God we need a measure of self-discipline and restraint, even of things that are otherwise good and helpful. In other words, Benedict is urging us all to face God in prayer without defences, without anything that could get in the way of our being open to him, and he is wise enough to know that most of us cannot keep that up for very long. Strain is the enemy of prayer because it produces tension and turns our gaze away from God back on ourselves. The short, pure prayer Benedict encourages is the mystic’s ‘longing dart of love’, the ‘short prayer that pierceth heaven,’ the poet’s ‘heaven in ordinarie’. It is simultaneously easy and difficult; a gift, but one we have to work for.

Unlike many other great writers, Benedict was not systematic in his treatment of prayer. There are no divisions into mansions or nights, nothing to capture our imagination or enable us to understand the process of being stripped bare of what we once relied upon. There is just the ‘simple, naked intent unto God’ as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says; and it is enough. That is the secret of Benedictine prayer.

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