Monks live by prayer and like monks everywhere, the members of our community file into our Church several times each day (in our case 4 times) and sing God's praises by chanting Psalms, singing Hymns and hearing the Scripture read.
We do the same thing every day (with the exception of our Sabbath day, which is Monday). One of the first things that people notice about our life is that there is a lot of sameness to it. The times for praying are the same each day. We sing through the 150 Psalms in two weeks and after that it's the same Psalms over again. We read the Old Testament once each year and the New Testament twice. After that it's the same readings, the same Bible. The same thing, over and over.
What's it like to do the same thing over and over like that?
Actually it's quite amazingly varied. It's certainly true that the words are mostly old familiar ones, but there's a lot more to the content of the Office than the words. I bring to the Office my own feelings, thoughts and concerns and those of my fellow monks. The guests who come to pray with us are part of the content of this prayer as well. And the circle of involvement spreads out to the world around us and is constantly changing and altering my experience of our common effort of prayer.
My own moods and feelings have a lot to do with it, of course. Am I energized and joyful this morning and ready to dive into the praises of Matins? Or am I groggy, thick-headed and reluctant? Sometimes I come to the Noon Office with real enthusiasm and with gratitude for the chance to take 15 minutes out of my work and sink into the cool stream of chant. Just as often I am distracted and reluctant and my mind is rebellious at being forced off of its favorite preoccupations, and paying attention at all seems impossible. And of course at evening there are the same possibilities - sometimes I am calm and collected and eager for the gentle peace of being sent off to bed to the sounds of Gregorian Chant, and just as often I am exhausted and anxious to get the whole thing done with.
What I have come to realize through the years that I have been praying this way with my community is that none of these is "better". It's easy, of course to be judgmental about my own states of being and to label some of them as positive and some as negative. It's completely predictable that I will want things to be pleasant at the Office and to be disappointed when I am angry, out of sorts and not recollected. I'd rather have an easy time of it than struggle to pay attention to the texts and end the Office with no memory of what I have been singing and saying. I want the experience to be "good" and not "bad".
Well, that's natural enough - to want the pleasant experiences. What I have to do, however, is to go beyond what is natural enough to what is real. And what is real is that life is made up of all the stuff that I bring to the Office. My joy, my happiness, my excitement, my boredom, my restlessness, my inability to pay attention are all part of the picture, and I pray with the whole picture, not with just part of it.
I have just come from Sunday Vespers as I write this. This has been a busy and intense weekend for me and I'm glad to be settling down into the peace of a quiet evening and the anticipation of a relaxed day tomorrow. I almost always look forward to Vespers on Sunday, because for me it carries overtones of the end of a busy week, the promise of rest and the quiet of a guesthouse that is empty of people for a short time. But undistracted centeredness was not part of the picture this evening. My mind was restless. The Psalm this evening roamed through the deserts of the ancient Middle East and all the vagaries of a life lived in the desert. It is a wonderful meditation on God's care through all of the vicissitudes of human existence. And over and over again I realized that I was somewhere else than with the Psalm in that desert. Over and over again I had to pull myself back to that Psalm as it mused on God's presence and God's blessings.
And you know what? It was all right. It was fine. Here I am, distracted and restless and trying to pray. And distracted and restless prayers are fine. I bring myself back over and over again, and there's nothing problematic about that. I dip into the Psalm we're singing and it's an old friend. I know it well. I've sung it for years. This evening I had to return to the Psalm over and over again, and something wonderful happened - I met those returns with joy instead of harsh self-recrimination. I'd been away, mentally, but coming back was a happy task. I was coming back to an old friend who didn't judge me, but welcomed me home. That Psalm didn't really care that it had been 7 verses since I had paid any attention. It was glad to have me back and to give what it had for me of God's love and forgiveness and peace before I inevitably slipped away again.
It's good to be taught that I'm not engaged in a perfection contest. I'm just bringing myself over and over again into God's presence, and that's what I want to do with my life. Each time I slip away I will, sooner or later, be presented with an opportunity to come back, and there is joy in coming back. I'm having some small Prodigal Son moments.
That's tonight's experience of the Office. Tuesday will be different. It will be easy or hard, it will be pleasant or unpleasant, it will be joyful or sorrowful, distracted or focused. And it will all be my prayer. And it's good to pray with all of me and not just with some of the parts of my experience.
It takes a lifetime to learn this. And it's really worth it.