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Archive for February 6th, 2012

Why in the world do we pray?

“Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption.  How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion.” (Rule of Saint Benedict, c. 20.)

In the Abbey cloister

It’s no secret that monks spend a lot of time in prayer.  Some would contend that it is too much.  Still others would argue that any time spent in prayer is a waste of time.  If there is a God, then what could one person possibly do to influence His decisions?  If there is no God, why in the world would you spend even one minute in prayer?  Oddly enough, the answer to the first question is much more difficult than the answer to the second.  After all, if there is no God, then what business is it to anyone if  you choose to spend your whole day on prayer.  What else is there to do?

Whether we like it or not, prayer comes naturally to human beings.  From the child who pleads with a parent for some special gift, to the adult who turns in desperation to God, prayer is a reflex when we realize we don’t control our own world.  But therein is the problem.  How can a God who’s brought life to billions possibly care about one lonely soul?  And if God knows what we need, even before we ask, then why bother?

Petition is likely the most frequent form of prayer, but there are many more reasons to pray.  We praise God, though He certainly deosn’t need it.  We confess our sins, though God saw us commit them while we did them.  We pray for others, as though God has somehow overlooked them.  We pray in  thanksgiving, knowing that most of the gifts we receive are undeserved.  We pray in a myriad of ways, whether formally or straight from the heart.

But why do all this?  We do it, not because God needs to hear us, but because we need to pray for our own sake.  Prayer is not about a legal relationship between Creator and creature, but rather it is the expression of love between beings.  As in the case of the stoic husband who loved his wife so much that he almost told her, so we never realize the fullness of God’s love for us unless we speak with Him.  In prayer we build a vibrant relationship with God.  In prayer we open our souls and discover this isn’t just about asking God for special favors; it is the discovery of how much God loves us.

Do we always get what we pray for?  We certainly do, at least when we pray the Lord’s prayer.  After all, when we prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, that certainly includes his work in and through us.

A Personal Note

On several occasions I’ve noted Saint Benedict’s advice that the Abbot should seek the counsel of the young.  Sometimes even they have wisdom, he cautions.  Sometimes they have even more than that, as I learned last week.

I’ve not chatted much with our novices, so last week I welcomed the chance to sit across from one at lunch.  It was a very pleasant conversation, which did not surprise me.  What did stun me was his off-hand remark that I had taught his father when the latter was a student at Saint John’s.  What?!  When did I suddenly become so old?  I could scarcely process the meaning of this.  Had I been in the monastery so long that the son of one of my students had become my confrere?

This was a dose of reality therapy for which I was not prepared.  But on further reflection, the  thought comforted me.  For one, I had done at least something right over the years.  I had been part of a larger ministry that had a positive impact on father and son.  And if I was surprised at the outcome, imagine the reaction of the father.  Had he known as a freshman that someday his own son would be a monk at Saint John’s, how might he have handled that?

This episode reminded me of the particular vows that Benedictines make at profession.  While other orders promise poverty, chastity and obedience, we vow stability, a monastic manner of life, and obedience to the abbot.  Stability is anathema to our society.  For Jesuits and Franciscans, who move about regularly, it is an anchor they find abhorrent.  Stability means that we belong to one community, for life.  It means that we grow or decline in our spiritual life in the context of the same group of brothers, and we do it for a lifetime.  We have a stable yardstick against which we measure ourselves, and I at least consider that a positive.

I’ve rooted my own work ethic in this commitment to stability.  Put pithily, I’ve always believed that if you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.  A bit more elegantly, if you regularly show up for work — and life — and if you give it  your best effort, day in and day out, then sooner or later a few good things are bound to happen.  Dogged determination is a logical complement to stability.

At Saint John’s we’ve always derived quiet satisfaction from the fact that four and five generations of families have studied and lived and grown at the Abbey.  I guess that’s a form of stability too.  So we should not be surprised that the son of a student might become a novice.  Nor should I be surprised to learn this simple bit of wisdom from the youngest monk in the community.

The Charlemagne Window, Chartres Cathedral

The Liturgical CalendarThis week we celebrate two important figures in the monastic and Church calendars: Saint Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedict (February 10th), and Saint Benedict of Aniane (February 11th).  While the former has gotten a lot of press, the latter gets scarcely any notice at all, which is a shame.Benedict was a Visigoth — ethnically, but not behaviorally.  He entered the service of Charlemagne, but left to found a monastery on his ancestral lands in the south of France.  Initially he followed a much stricter eastern tradition, but he did an about-face and adopted the Rule of Saint Benedict.  Through his urging, that Rule emerged as the norm for the empire, decreed so at the Synod of Aachen in 817.  Benedict died on 11 February 821.

Charlemagne, being an emperor, gets all the credit, of course.  But to give credit where it’s due, he really was a remarkable man.  Over the course of his career he conquered pretty much everything he could get at, and he used Christianity as a vehicle for the cultural unification of his realm.  He brought to his court at Aachen Alcuin of York to promote the study of Latin in the empire, and he established a territorial parish system, which ensured that everyone received pastoral care.At his capital in Aachen he built the domed cathedral which one can still see today.  From the second-floor gallery he surveyed the congregation from his throne, which is still in place.  It is said that he was a good family man, and the fact that he maintaned four of them concurrently shows his dedication to family values.Aachen is located near Cologne, on the German-Dutch border, and it’s well worth the visit, if you’re in the neighborhood.  His palace chapel is an octagonal adaptation of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and in imitation of the Byzantines he carried the title Holy Roman Emperor.

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