Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, February 4, 2007
Come, let us sing to the Lord:
Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.
Psalm 95 starts the monastic Office of Matins, and I have begun most of my days with these words for the last 43 years. Our community prayer is this: singing and saying the words of the Psalms and other scriptural texts over and over again.
Just before I came to Holy Cross in 1964, I had a very difficult conversation with my best friend, who couldn't understand what I was going to do with my future. One of the things that was most difficult for him to understand was our litgurgical life. "You can't possibly say that same stuff over and over again and have it mean anything!" he said. He was convinced that I was giving my life to a meaningless task and he was very angry at what I was going to do.
And here I am four decades later, still here and still starting each day with the same words. A large part of my life has been the recitation of the same words over and over again. We say the Psalms completely through in the course of two weeks, so I have said, or chanted, the Psalms now 1,000 times, more or less. I have listened to the reading of the New Testament 86 times and to most of the Hebrew scriptures 43 times. And what has the experience been?
To begin with, my friend was right. There have been a lot of dull and dry times. There were times when repeating the same words was just .................. repeating words. It didn't mean much to me and I wasn't paying much attention. The work of paying attention has been just that - work. And the constant task of bringing my mind back to this work has had to be repeated over and over again. I have repeated the Psalms 1,000 times and have had to force my attention back to those texts a lot more than 1,000 times! A good many times I wouldn't have chosen to do it if I had any choice. But the bell rang and there I was in church, because this is what we do.
But there has been a lot more to it than that. Somewhere in the course of those 43 years the texts of thosee Psalms on which I forced my attention over and over again began to transform. They ceased to be something more than dryness and repetition and became my prayer. In some way that I was hardly aware of at the time, my heart awakened to these Biblical prayers and they became mine.
It didn't happen fast. It didn't happen suddenly. Often enough I didn't even notice that it was happening. But there did come a time when I noticed that these prayers that I was reciting and chanting now awoke an echo from the center of me. Now I really did (and do) "shout for joy" at the beginning of each day.
This is what the task has been for, this struggle with the endless repetition that my friend referred to in his frustration at my vocation. And what a gift this has been, this gift of simple persistence, and work and yes, desire. I always wanted these prayers to be more than words, and I never knew what depths I would discover until those words awoke inside me.
The passage of Psalm 95 with which we start each day ends with the words: O that today you would hearken to his voice. And here I am, after 43 years, engaged in what has become much more than dryness or work. It is the really fascinating task of learning to hearken to that voice. Has it been worth the labor of 43 years? You bet! I wouldn't trade anything for the gift of awakening to myself and to the presence of the Divine within.