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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Of Reverence in Prayer: RB 20 (Again)

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that I have often written about St Benedict’s twentieth chapter.* In a few short sentences he sums up all that needs to be said; but we are not so easily satisfied. We go on, tugging away at the mystery of prayer, not wanting to believe it is as simple as he says. Even in translation we can catch a hint of the poetic quality of the original, with its alliteration and sixth-century stylishness, and know that we are reading something Benedict considers to be immensely important:

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)

It is no accident that this chapter comes at the end of the so-called liturgical code. After setting out his regulations for the common prayer of the community, the Divine Office, Benedict turns to the private prayer of the monk. There is no opposition between the two, indeed, the very qualities Benedict prizes in the one are to be reinforced by the other, but he is aware that our private prayer can run away with us, as it were, and end up not being prayer at all. He therefore advocates that our prayer should always be short and pure, unless prolonged by grace. I think we can all work out what he means by ‘short’ but what about ‘pure’?

We must remember that Benedict was writing as part of a monastic tradition that held Cassian in high esteem. For him, as for Benedict, purity meant purity of heart, a single-minded focus on God. Benedict is therefore asking us to concentrate on God and nothing else. That is why the pauses in the Divine office are so important and why every Office 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 beautiful. 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. The short, pure prayer he encourages is the mystic’s ‘longing dart of love’, the ‘short prayer that pierceth heaven,’ the poet’s ‘heaven in ordinarie’.

* For example, see http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/10/27/reverence-in-prayer-rb-20/

 

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We Are What We Pray

I have been thinking about yesterday’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 20, On Reverence in Prayer, and wondering anew at its beauty and perceptiveness. In one sense, Benedict says very little about prayer. He is almost English in his reticence. In another, almost every line of the Rule speaks of his attitude to prayer. It is quite clear that, for him, we are what we pray. Whether praying alone in our monastic cell or with the brethren in choir, whether we are talking with a guest or tapping out a blog post on the computer, whether we are working in the garden or performing some household task, whether we are filing a tax return or driving a car, we are the person prayer has made; and the prayer we make is the person we are. We cannot separate the praying self from the self we are at every other moment. That is a thought that gives me pause. Whenever I am testy or unkind or selfish, that is the prayer I am making to God, just as much as when I am patient, kind or generous. How glad I am, therefore, that the Lord looks at us all with eyes of compassion and love!

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Reverence in Prayer

Today we read chapter 20 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Reverence in Prayer. I have commented on this chapter many times, but every time I read it I find something new, something that lights up some aspect or other of prayer that I have been struggling with. If you are not familiar with the text, I suggest you read it over slowly and carefully, or listen to it on our community website, here. The English translation can’t convey the poetic qualities of the Latin, but something of Benedict’s sureness of touch communicates itself: he knew whereof he spoke.

The word that sings from the page for me this morning is ‘purity’. We aim at purity of heart, we keep our prayer short and pure. Purity in this sense means without any admixture of anything else. I wonder how many of us could truthfully say our prayer is pure? We are so busy chattering away to God, asking for this, thanking him for that, we forget that what he most desires is communion with us. Deep down, it is what we most desire too; but we are like Naaman, faced with bathing in the Jordan. We are sure it ought to be more complicated; so we read endless books on prayer and search out different techniques, and all the while the gift of prayer is within us, poured into our hearts at baptism.

Prayer is simultaneously the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. It is also, incidentally, the only activity of this life that endures to the next. Today, try to find a moment or two when you can just be with God, enjoying his presence (even if it seems to you like absence) and allowing him to enjoy yours.

Note: a Twitter friend picked up on an ambiguity in this post. When I said that prayer is the only activity that endures to the next life, I meant that we shall continue to pray (ie love and contemplate God). If a meaning is not clear, it is the writer’s fault.

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