I was awake in the middle of the night last night, and while I lay there in the dark, a train went by on the other side of the river. This happens all the time, of course. The rail line that runs along the east side of the Hudson River was first put there more than a hundred years ago as part of the newly founded New York Central Railway and it still serves as a major transportation line: during the day AmTrak goes by twice an hour carrying people bound to and from Albany and Buffalo and Toronto and Chicago. At night freight trains pound those rails constantly, carrying goods from all over the world.
So one of the dozens of trains that pass each day happened to come along as I lay there and I happened to notice it. Most of the trains that go by pass without any notice from me at all. I am so used to the sounds of rail traffic that they are blocked out of my consciousness pretty totally. But when I do notice, especially at night, a feeling rises up in me. It's a feeling of great poignancy, almost of longing. There is a great peace that often comes over me as I hear those night trains, a feeling that all is right and even if I'm awake and can't get back to sleep, the world still goes about its ways and people tend their business. And there are some other roots to the feeling I have. I know that some part of me is wondering what it would be like not to be tied to this place, to be free to wander, to pick up and go wherever that train is going. There's excitement with that, and wistfulness as I contemplate all the things that might have been if I hadn't settled here. And interestingly enough, with all of that there is much peacefulness.
And I know, because people tell me so on a regular basis, that this monastery functions in the same way for a lot of people. Our friends, and sometimes people who have been here only once, will hear a bell tolling to announce that it's noon, and they will have a flash of memory of white robed monks in choir, chanting the noonday office. And they describe peace, and wistfulness, and longing, together with that same wondering of what might have been if they hadn't taken the course in life that they did. And they talk to me of their gratitude in knowing that we are here, and that we are praying, hour by hour, day by day, and of how important that is for them.
I'm glad of that. I'm glad that we serve as that kind of symbol for many people. I'm happy that we live in their hearts and that the image of a community that is always praying is important to them as they consider the meaning of their lives. And I also wish for more. I'd rather be more than a memory of prayer for people. I'd like to be a sign of what every Christian in the world is called to be.
Because it isn't just monks who are called to pray constantly in their lives. Everyone has that call. When the Apostle Paul said "Pray without ceasing" he wasn't addressing a special group of church professionals, he was writing to an ordinary group of women and men about how to live their lives together. The call to pray is a call to be more fully human, to realize who we are. The divine presence lies at the center of every one of us. To reach towards that center and to touch and be one with that presence, is part of what it means to be a human being. And we call that reaching out "prayer".
So what I hope for most is to be a sign of that inner presence for people. When someone hears the noon bell or siren and thinks of us praying, my wish is that the memory of our prayer will lead to that person's own prayer. Instead of simply a pleasant memory, I wish for our friends to experience that pleasant thought and then turn themselves towards God. Maybe they only have time to do it for a moment - an instant. That's enough. Anything that brings a moment of reaching for God into your life will add a bit - even if it's only a tiny bit - to the strength of your longing for God.
Spiritual writers sometimes refer to monks as archetypes. They mean by this that there is a part of every person that is a monk. Some part of you, larger or smaller, yearns to give everything to God, to really answer that longing we feel for the divine, to let our interior space bloom in the realized presence of the One who always calls us. I think it's part of the vocation of those of us who are monks to be a sign to people of what their own nature really is, and to hold out the call to awaken to that nature. Obviously not everyone is called to live in a monastery. But everyone is called to reach towards God. When the memory of our community chanting the Psalms rises up in the heart or memory of someone who has been here, what I would like is for that person to experience that moment as a direct call from God to themselves. It's a call, not just to relive a pleasant memory, but to respond right now to the summons to deepen, to reach out for God, to hear the call from the center of our heart.
And it doesn't take words to respond. Words are fine, but we don't have to stop and find the right words. We just need to take that feeling of peace and of desire, and let it be a part of our journey to God. And I am convinced that the core of the feeling that I have been describing, which periodically awakens inside all of us, is a simple and deep longing.
It is the call to long for the One who longs for us.