Sunday, March 1, 2009

Who's Looking for Who (Whom)?

I've always been attracted to praying in the middle of the night. Though I've read about this practice in books, it isn't anything I got from a book, it's something that seems to have been always with me. I have this deep longing for night prayer. Sometimes it's stronger and sometimes it's much quieter, but it's with me pretty constantly - just a drawing, a longing. It certainly isn't anything I can do much about, given the circumstances of this particular life - or so it seems.

Some years ago I got a chance to live out this longing as a life-style, not just something that I thought would be an interesting thing to do some time or other. I had a period of sabbatical and I went to live for half a year or so with the Sisters of the Love of God, who are an enclosed contemplative Order of nuns in England. I traveled to England regularly in those days and had gotten to know the community and admired them greatly, and in those days, they were able to welcome members of other communities into their convents. When it became possible to take a sustained period off it seemed like an offer I couldn't refuse.

I lived in one of their smaller houses in a village called Hemel Hempstead, near St Alban's - north of London. The convent was called St Mary and the Angels and it housed a community of 5 or 6 nuns. It was an ordinary largish house in an ordinary suburban neighborhood, and it had a large yard ("garden" the English would say) that gave us some space to wander in. They were willing to have me, so off I went to England and settled in to a life that was purpose-designed for inner exploration.

One of the features of the life of that community was that the Office of Vigils each day was said at 2:00 a.m., and it was largely for that reason that I went to be with them. It seemed like one of the nicest things I could imagine - to have that night prayer be a part of my regular schedule.

I know - many of you think this is weird - or maybe just plain unimaginable. But I liked it - I loved it, actually. It seemed completely natural and I adjusted to the rhythm very quickly - each member of the community did the Night Office for 3 days in a row and went back to bed for a while. Every 4th night you had a night off to sleep through the whole night. We were all at Night Office on Sundays and on big feasts.

There is a special quality of silence and depth at that hour. It seems to me to be a time that is built for prayer. And, curiously enough, the world and its needs have always seemed closer to me then than at any other time. Prayer is not just a personal project at 2 a.m. Intercession flows naturally then. And it's all wrapped in a silence that seems alive. There's a Presence (with a capital P) to the silence in the middle of the night.

I never gave a lot of thought to what the neighbors thought about all this. England is a very secular country and the Church of England doesn't offer much attraction in the lives of most of the population. I assumed that most of those around us simply ignored us and considered us irrelevant to their lives. Certainly there were few, if any, of them who showed much interest that I could see.

Then came a week when all of us had the flu. We had suffered the sore throats, joint pains, fevers and sniffles for a couple of days when Sister Rachel Mary, the sister in charge, said: "Ok - we're going to take five or six days off from the Night Office and get enough rest to get well. Then we'll go back to it." So we did - and I will have to admit that a whole night of sleep, every night, was quite delicious. It takes a lot of energy to do the Night Office on a regular basis.

So we had our time off and had been doing it for a couple of days, when the phone began to ring. It was the neighbors, and a lot of them, not just a few. "What's wrong?" they wanted to know. "Why aren't the sisters in the chapel at night? We're concerned." It had never occurred to me that the people around us even noticed what we did at night, much less that it was an important touch-stone in their lives. I didn't imagine that a practice as exotic as praying at 2 in the morning was part of the fabric of a normal suburban neighborhood of commuters. The fact that they depended on our night prayer at some level of their lives was something I was unprepared for. It was then that I realized that my sense of the importance of praying in the middle of the night was not something as exotic as I had assumed. It seemed to be shared by lots of people. At some level, these folks depended on us being in church while they slept, and it seemed important - even necessary - to them. I've never forgotten that.

Now fast forward to this week. I've been having one of my periodic spells of insomnia and this week has been one of those times. The form it takes in me is simple inability to go to sleep. No matter how sleep-deprived I am, and how difficult it is to drag myself through the days, at bedtime I am wide awake and my body has absolutely no interest in sleep. So there I am. It's usually several hours before I manage to drift off.

So what to do? I've tried a variety of things - reading, walking, praying, meditating, looking out the window at the river in the dark. Sometimes I go to my computer and play some mindless games, which will soothe me enough so that eventually my body will consider sleeping.

There I was, 2 nights ago, in the midst of the night, huddled at my computer, poking away half-heartedly at this stupid game, not thinking about it much - not thinking about anything much, when all of a sudden, completely unexpectedly this thing happened, and it's hard to find words for the experience, but as close as I can come is to say that prayer fell on me. I did feel like something big and heavy came down and covered me. Something. What? Or Who? It certainly wasn't anything I started. Should I say 'God'? The word seems too small. I understand why the Buddha wouldn't use it. It seems irrelevant to the experience. I think I can't do any better than Moses could - 'I Am' seems to get a little closer. There in the middle of the night all of my years and years of longing for night prayer opened up. The Presence from the center of everything seemed to be right there with me - inside me.

Does my insomnia come for this reason? Is it just calling me to be there with that which I have always wanted? Am I so unresponsive and doltish that it finally had to kick me in the head to get me to listen? Or do I have to figure out a reason? Maybe it just happened because it happened. But do I need to be more serious about something I have always wanted? Perhaps I'm just being told to have what I have always wanted. If that's it, I have to figure out how to do it. Not simple with my life the way it is now.

In any case, I invite your own reflections on this curious experience. Prayer isn't basically something that we do - it's something that happens in us and the initiative rests largely with God. Prayer, at its base, isn't about my longing for God, it's about God longing for me. If I'm lucky I get to tune in on that periodically. And I think that most people know this at some level. You don't have to be a mystic to experience this, you only have to be human. God reaches out from the center of each one of us, and finds the time and place when we're able to hear this reaching out. Do you know about prayer reaching out for you? Maybe in just a tiny way? I bet it's there, if you look for it. And I'll bet it's telling you something about how you need to pray. And probably also about how you want to pray!


Gannet Girl said...

I really enjoyed this entry, and I linked to it at my place. Hope that's ok.

mompriest said...

I too love the middle of the night prayer time, although I usually only participate in it during the watch of Maundy Thursday into Good Friday - or when ever I have bouts of insomnia. Thank you for sharing this lovely reflection on prayer. I may use a bit of it in my sermon next Sunday, Lent 2 which will be on prayer...

Br Bede Thomas Mudge OHC said...

Links are welcome - sermon quotes are welcome. Anything that spreads the news.

MEH said...

Well, Bede, I have terrible bouts of insomnia. It happens due to the chronic pain I suffer from in my left knee. Years ago, I decided to just let go - if God gave me something, wonderful; if not, there is the radio or a book or Bible reading.
However, I want to tell you what happened to me once when I was at West Park. I was getting a rest from nursing my Mother. I had a dream about a skeleton arm pointing at me. I still don't know if this happened or not, but I think I went to the washroom. Outside the door of my guest room, there was this wonderful warm green cloud. It enveloped me. I felt loved, refreshed and happy. My Mother died less than two weeks later. I still think that God held me that night.

JHarney said...

Thanks so much for sharing this Br Bede. I just had my first retreat at Holy Cross this past weekend and I feel so blessed...while I was there I prayed in the middle of the night as I am not used to going to bed so was so peaceful...

C. Elsworth said...

Beautifully phrased reflections, as always, Bede.

The night time is also that in which many appetites and fears become overwhelming, at least for me, but I figure for many. I can imagine those who had become used to the praying light being on were a bit lost without it. There have been many nights in which I wish there were such a light around.

Br Bede Thomas Mudge OHC said...

Thanks to all. Just as a reflection, there isn't any way I know of to turn the (inner) light on. It's either on or it isn't. No more experiences like that in the middle of the night, even though I've been up. One just gives thanks and goes on.

kurt aschermann said...

Bede I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your column. I read so much stuff during the week, and most of it I can take or leave--but I make sure to never miss your thoughts…you have such a way of speaking to us all…

I too love the night for prayer. It began many years ago when on retreat at Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. There, of course, the Trappists still start the day (or is it end the day) with Vigils at 3:30am. I found while there I loved getting up in the middle of the night, going to a very dark and quiet church, and praying the Psalms.

And that time on retreat provided one of my most wonderful monastic experiences.

The choir books they provided for guests had each office, including the Psalms and (excluding antiphons and hymns), and were easy to use. So I inquired about getting a full set. They were divided by days, obviously, and Odd and Even weeks. But alas in those days the Trappists tolerated a guest presence, rather than encouraged it, and I was informed that no, the choir books could not be had by an outsider.

Then one evening after dinner Matthew Kelty, who happened to be guest master at the time asked about my request. I knew Kelty- he was one of those that studied with Merton and was seen, therefore, as a mystic in his own right. I was in awe generally, but that he would break silence (and yes, they still had lots of silence in those days) and speak to me meant a lot. He said "let me see what I can do." And as he did it he put his fingers to his lips and said “shhh.”

The next morning, returning from vigils, there on the bed in my room was a complete set of the choir books with a note (since lost, unfortunately) that said "enjoy and be with God" or something like that.

I still use those books to pray vigils and as a supplement to the Monastic Breviary and my early rising is still a habit.

Anyway Bede, your column highlighted so much of my own feeling about night prayer (though I am quite happy to say I do not have the insomnia!).

Thank you for continuing to write the one column I look forward to every are truly a gifted writer.


Kurt Aschermann

Michelle said...

I too have found the night vigils to be full of God...and wrote a bit about it for my diocesan paper.

I'm glad to have found this column!