NUMBER 5 IN THE LENTEN SERMON SERIES
ON BENEDICTINE SPIRITUALITY
Peter Kreeft said, “I guarantee you that after you die you will not say, ‘I spent too much time praying; I wish I had watched more TV instead’” (in Prayer for Beginners). In our world, everything comes before God. In the world as Benedict ordered it, God comes before everything. In Benedict’s view of the world, prayer is essential and foundational. Benedictine monks prayed together and they prayed on their own – seven times a day together and for hours on their own — and God was the priority in every other aspect of their lives as well. As the life of the world around them went to hell in a handcart, you might say, life in the monasteries flourished and evolved, so they became a great inspiration and influence – a rare but important source of light during the so-called “Dark Ages.”
Jesus prayed. The Gospel of Matthew suggests that his prayer life was so compelling that his disciples requested him to teach them how to pray. The Letter to Hebrews (which we read from today) suggests that prayer was transformative in his relationship with God.
Do you know how to pray? Who taught you how? How often do you practice it? How do you know if it’s effective? Are you progressing in it?
There is nothing more misunderstood than the subject of prayer. The Gospel today suggests that at one point Jesus was in some kind of dialogue with God, in which he apparently heard clearly what God was communicating. It says the crowd merely heard noise – they thought it might be thunder. They did not comprehend that Jesus might be in the act of communing with God.
How it is that some are able to hear God while others are oblivious? Maybe it’s ignorance, maybe it’s unbelief, maybe it’s lack of practice. Or maybe it’s the thunder between our ears that keeps us from hearing what God is trying to say to us. Even Jesus needed times of silence and solitude to maintain his relationship with God, to stay on track, or in tune, as it were.
The monasteries teach us about many things, such as the importance of community, of learning to be in relationship, of living a disciplined and focused way of life, and of a sense of perspective and balance, but perhaps primarily they remind us of the importance of prayer. For Benedict, nothing comes before prayer – it precedes, shapes and defines everything.
Prayer is communication – it is the way that we communicate not just with some idea that we call God, but with life as we experience it at its deepest places, and with the Mystery that dwells just under the surface, in and through every created being and thing. As theologian Karl Rahner said: “When we are with God in awe and love, then we are praying.”
People go through transitions in their prayer life, from simple acts of thanks at meals and bedtime prayers as children to learning a repertoire of prayers and styles of prayer both private and corporate from the traditions of the Church. Gradually, if we progress in the life of prayer, we learn to communicate not only by talking at God, or constantly demanding things as a child might do. St Teresa of Avila speaks of doing the work of developing a prayer life in terms of developing a garden, which eventually flourishes and flows with water not just because of our efforts but because of the influence of God, so we become less and less preoccupied with method and more and more in union with the presence of God. Prayer is about learning to communicate with God as God is, rather than in attempting to get God to do our bidding.
So gradually we must learn to pray not only with the head, and from the ego, but from the heart, so that ultimately we are in constant communion with God, which I believe is what St Paul meant when he said we should “pray constantly” as well as what today’s Gospel is describing. Prayer becomes dialogue, in which we are eventually more willing to listen than to speak (see James 1:19), and a constant sense of God’s presence.
Various spiritual writers have referred to the inner cell or hermitage that resides within us, we suggests that we don’t need to join a monastery or travel off to some exotic location to find God. Yet for most, that inner hermitage usually sits empty, unattended, and God waits, you could say. I can’t speak about prayer and not mention what is for me this most insightful comment from Blaise Pascal: “All human miseries derive from our inability to sit in a quiet room alone.” It’s one of those comments that gets truer the more you think about it.
Esther De Waal reminds us that our relationship with Christ calls for time and attention — the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict speaks of the need to stop and listen.
Listening is an underdeveloped skill in our world, where so much focus is placed on being heard, and on finding your voice. But prayer life reminds us that finding our voice is not just a matter of yelling loud enough that we are noticed, but in connecting with the heart of who we are. Speaking from the heart and speaking the truth in love come from developing harmony and integrity in our inner life. Prayer eventually becomes less about speaking our mind than about opening our hearts. As one mystic of the Church said: “Silence is the language of God.”
In the book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love, Fr Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins write: “There is nothing that more characterizes the Benedictine life than listening. It has been called the key to Benedict’s entire teaching. More than anything, a monk is called to be a listener. All of his days, the monk is trained to hear God. He learns to hear God in everything and everyone … Listening, as Benedict understood it, is a special kind of deep attentiveness to all of life … Benedict’s Rule is a guide to sharpening the ears of the heart . . . If you aren’t listening, you aren’t loving” (Radical Hospitality p. 208, 218).
Suspending outward activities (with all the energy we devote to them), and listening within – paying attention to our inner life — really goes against the grain in our society in which so much of the focus is on externals. To quote Radical Hospitality: “Benedict doesn’t call us to listen on the surface. He wants us to listen with the ears of the soul. Listen way down deep. You know the place; it’s the same place that weeps at the sight of a newborn, the same place that falls silent at the edge of a mountain, the same place that reaches for a falling sparrow. Listen from that place” (Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love p. 220)
Jeremiah speaks of the transition in the way people must relate to God, of the need to mature into a deeper sense of what it means to be godly people (or people in relationship with God). He points to a new way of being — a new way of relating – as something no longer external and imposed, but instead intrinsic and integral. So, he says, no longer will people need to be told (or ordered) to “Know the Lord,” because that knowledge – that intimacy with God — will be something that God has already communicated to the hearts and souls of humankind. It must be discovered within, and in the stillness and silence of that inner place, God waits for us as the Bridegroom awaits the Bride.
Every Sunday we quote the Book of Revelation in saying: “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church …” St Paul, who knew a thing or two about prayer life, speaks about this deeper dimension of prayer. In his letter to the Church at Rome he said: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedeswith sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 827ff).
In Revelation 3.20, Jesus says: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you.”
Benedict said: “the disciple is to be silent and listen” – that “monks should diligently cultivate silence at all times (Rule 6:6, and 42:1, as in Seeking God p. 146). It is in that realm which is too deep for words that we ultimately learn to be with God – to sit with God – and come to know God in such a way that acting authentically in God’s Name becomes possible.
So many of the images of Jesus at prayer portray him looking out beyond – into the sky – as though God were distant, separate, out of this world. Prayer and worship are often portrayed as efforts to placate or please God, as though God were sitting above us like a feudal lord upon a throne, eager for us to grovel to show God how great he is and to prove our loyalty. While it’s important not to lose that sense of the universal or even the cosmic, and of looking beyond ourselves, isn’t the whole point of the incarnation to say that God is with us – that the kingdom is within us – that all we need to do is “be still and know” (Ps. 46)?
St Augustine, in a famous moment of awakening, said: “Too late have I loved you! You were within me but I was outside myself, and there I sought you! In my weakness I ran after the beauty of the things you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you.”
In John 10, Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice;” Psalm 85 says: “I will listen to what the Lord God will speak.” We can choose to be attentive and present – or we can choose to be completely absent and oblivious.
If we spend any time with people, we find out that many of them don’t have the attention span of a chipmunk, constantly fretting and full of anxious and agitating energy, and their presence is debilitating, a distraction to those around them. People of prayer are often people we speak of as having a certain presence.
De Waal: “praying can never be set apart from the rest of life, it is the life itself. St Benedict did not ask his monks to take a vow to pray, for he expected prayer to be central in their lives, permeating whatever else they were doing” (Seeking God, p. 145). When Jesus disciples said: “Teach us to pray” it wasn’t just because they liked the idea of special “holy” postures (like kneeling) or special times of silence and solitude – they saw the kind of person he was as a result – they saw that it permeated and transfigured his life – they could see that God was living through him in a compelling way. They wanted to be like him. Hence the importance to today’s Christians of the line in today’s Gospel: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
For me, after many years of wrestling with it, reading what others have said about it, trying and practising various methods, and even falling for a few gimmicks, for me, prayer is simply paying attention to God, which sounds simple, but begs the challenging question, “What is God?” As we continue to use prayer as a means of being in dialogue with God, that question does need to be addressed. Prayer as it matures, develops a deeper sense of who and what God is, and moves beyond projections and idolatry.
It does help to ask: Is it God I am actually relating to? De Waal references the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector) in the Temple (p. 153-4). The Pharisee, in his self-righteous fashion, congratulates himself on what a great guy he is, especially as he compares himself to the lowly tax collector, who stands at the back in humility and even shame. Jesus suggests the Pharisee was merely praying “with himself.” In other words, his prayer did not connect him to God at all – the man really didn’t know how to relate to God, despite all his religious airs and attitude. The tax collector, on the other hand, “went away justified” because he was more open to what God might be able to do for him.
For me, prayer is something that goes on whether I am sitting alone in silence, or presiding at the Eucharist, or standing in line at the grocery store. And it may be that I find out who God is simply in the act of seeking Him. So paying attention to God means being open to possibilities in moments, in events, in the mundane and ordinary happenings of my daily life. It means believing that God might direct my vision or my steps toward a certain book or situation in which something important might be revealed; it means being aware that the people around me at any given moment might be there for a reason, that they might be Christ to me and I might be Christ to them. It means listening for God in the liturgy as well as in the things I see in the news.
For me, attentiveness to God means my days become a kind of dialogue, requiring discernment, faith and a sense of adventure.
Awareness of the constant presence of God integrates our prayer life with our life. Too often prayer is compartmentalized, separated from our daily walk. As Esther De Waal says: “ultimately praying is living, working, loving, accepting, the refusal to take anything or anyone for granted but rather to try to find Christ in and through them all” (SG p. 152) . I want to say that it’s quite inevitable that by being constantly attentive to God, we eventually become God’s presence to others
Jesus got to that place in the life of prayer where he was able to say “Thy will be done.” That is perhaps the most difficult thing we can assent to and that is why prayer is a dangerous thing. “Be careful what you pray for,” as the saying goes. Prayer is many things, but it is nothing less than placing our lives into the hands of the living God.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Resource books: Esther De Waal; Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict
Esther De Waal; Living With Contradiction: Reflections on the Rule of St Benedict
Fr Daniel Homan and Lonni Pratt; Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love
Jeremiah 31:31-34 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Hebrews 5:5-10 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
John 12:20-33 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus. Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.