We all have our pet peeves, and the term is an apt description. To an item they tend to be about inconsequential things, and they reveal our capacity to be small-minded. And as much as we hate to admit it, most pet peeves are the property of a single owner. It’s just as well, then, that most people don’t care about my private causes, since big fights and wars start when too many people care passionately about the same picky little stuff.
As a human being, I have a warehouse filled with pet peeves, but a few of those contained therein are peculiar to a monk and a priest. These are the ones that relate to liturgy, and for years the topper for me was that space in the Eucharist that comes between the Lord’s Prayer and the congregation’s response: “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours….” Free-wheeling celebrants have taken this interlude as a license to go free-range and wax eloquent about a wide variety of causes and concerns and hopes and aspirations. To give them their due, I suppose they’ve meant to sound spontaneous and sincere, but it’s always sounded canned to me.
Eventually such celebrants will alight back on earth and slide seamlessly into the conclusion: “as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” That is the the cue for the congregation to chime in with its response. But in my pre-ordination days I swore that someday I’d end that flight of fancy with these words: “As we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the end of this prayer.” That would show everybody, I thought. Then I realized that all it would do is reveal my own eccentricity. So I’ve never done it. But I still might, someday.
I drag this pet peeve of mine out of storage because the other day a friend of mine asked me about chapter 20 in The Rule of Saint Benedict. This is the section in which Benedict says we should “lay our petitions before The Lord…with the utmost humility and sincere devotion.” A bit later he continues: “Prayer should therefore be short and pure…,” and then he concludes that “in community…prayer should always be brief; and when the superior gives the signal, all should rise together.” Or to translate this into the vernacular, when people pray they should not rattle on in a flood of words. Say to God what’s on your mind, and then give God a chance to get a word in edgewise. And then be done with it.
When I reread this chapter, I realized that Saint Benedict certainly had his roster of pet peeves too, and prayer had made the list. For one thing, he encouraged an economy of words, because simplicity and the direct approach to God generally are the best course when it comes to private prayer. Anything beyond that, and a monk will run the risk of joining the chorus of Pharisees, whose primary audience when it came to prayer was their neighbors, rather than God.
As for community prayer, sticking to the text was an ideal form of humility for Saint Benedict. For one thing, you join your brothers in solidarity of purpose. You’re one with them and just like the best and least of them. Beyond that, prolonging the whole exercise can translate into an attempt to hang out your personal holiness for all to see. At least that seems to be part of the caution that Benedict gives here.
In all the essays on prayer that I’ve run across, I’ve not really seen much of anything about God’s perspective on this. I know from the Gospels that God no longer accepts animal sacrifice, and that God generally prefers a pure heart instead. But what exactly does God want to hear when we pray?
Well, I’m not God, and I’m not about to presume to plant myself in God’s shoes; but I figure that God would be satisfied with some variation of The Golden Rule. God may very well be content with a chat much like the ones that we have with our family and friends — complete with praise, questions, complaints and all.
For the moment, let’s assume that God’s as busy as the rest of us. Still, it’s important to realize that as long as we’ve got time to talk, God’s got time to listen. Second, it doesn’t matter to God that we don’t always know what we want when we begin to pray. That’s the whole point of conversation, and it should be one of the reasons we call God up in the first place. And finally, God doesn’t mind it at all if we don’t ask for anything. If the truth be told, God probably appreciates the occasional call when we have no ulterior motive hidden behind all of our pleasantries about God’s greatness.
That may very well reflect Benedict’s views on prayer. Prayer should be honest and pure, as if you were talking with a friend or family member. Such an approach avoids the pretense that so irritated Benedict, and it probably saves everybody a lot of time.
+This was a very busy week, but somehow I muddled through it all with minimal wear and tear.
+On September 8th I said Mass for Los Angeles area members of the Order of Malta, gathered at the Passionist Retreat House in Sierra Madre, CA. Afterwards I gave a talk on the Rule of Raymond du Puy. Dating from the 1120’s, it is the earliest extant rule for the Order of Malta.
+On September 11-13 I was in Newport, RI, where I presided at a wedding at Saint Joseph’s Church. I also had the opportunity to slip over to nearby Portsmouth Abbey, where I gave a retreat to the community many years ago.
+On September 14th I said Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Rosary in Duluth, MN. Afterward I gave a talk on the development of doctrine in the Church to the Guild of Saint Raphael, an association of physicians in the Diocese of Duluth.
+Most major cathedrals and abbeys in medieval Europe had chapter houses, where the canons or monks met for business regularly. The chapter house at York Minster is particularly striking, since it is both spacious and covered with an elegant dome. The photos in today’s post all come from that spectacular space.