Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 20, is one I should like to quote in full. Alternatively, you can listen to it being read, as in community, on our main website here.
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. (Trans. Wybourne)
Even in translation, I think you can catch a hint of the poetic quality of the original. It is good sixth-century Latin in which not a word is wasted. Note that there is nothing rarified about the underlying concepts. Benedict starts by considering something with which we are all familiar. When we want to ask a favour of someone who is more powerful than we are, we do so with humility and respect. Prayer, too, begins with our neediness, our recognition that in the sight of God we have nothing that he has not given us. So often we approach prayer as though it were a meeting of two Superpowers, God and self, where we address God with a list of ideas we think he might usefully implement. (I exaggerate, but not much.) Benedict will have none of that. We come before God with nothing, awaiting his favour.
Next, Benedict warns against garrulousness. We don’t need to repeat ourselves over and over again. Indeed, no words are necessary. As we saw earlier this week, words often get in the way, bend under the weight of meaning, splinter and divide. Our prayer must come from the heart, and a repentant heart at that: a heart pierced by the sense of sin, laid open by God himself. It follows that prayer will be short and pure. This paradox often causes a lot of difficulty. Go back to that first sentence again. When we want to ask a favour of someone, we may spend ages preparing but the actual asking is likely to be the work of a few seconds. So too with prayer. Much of the time that we give to it is a kind of preparation. We consider the beauty and holiness of God, we are grateful, we may be moved to praise, but prayer itself is the work of a moment.
Benedict is very aware of the pitfalls in prayer, the ways in which we can deceive ourselves. He is insistent that it is the work of the Holy Spirit. In community especially, he knows that prayer can be manipulated for irreligious ends; so even here, at this most intimate moment of our religious lives, he establishes an order, a way of acting that overrides personal preference. The superior decides when prayer in common is to end and all must obey.
It is no accident that this chapter comes at the end of the liturgical code, in the course of which Benedict has set out the parameters for community prayer. The prayer of the individual is always part of the prayer of the community, the one feeds into the other. There is no opposition between contemplative prayer and liturgical prayer since both flow from the same source. The only bar to prayer is one that Benedict notes again and again: lack of humility, a failure to accept our creaturely condition. That is not to say that we won’t find prayer difficult, even distasteful at times, but there is a serenity and confidence about his writing on prayer, as there is in the lives of those who are prayerful, that the rest of us may find encouraging. Ultimately, God is even keener on prayer than we are. He will not withold himself from us.