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/