Going Monastic

Two weeks ago I gathered about 100 people from our parish to watch Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) on opening night at The Chelsea in Chapel Hill. After the film, about forty people came back to the parish for food and a discussion about monasticism and monastic spirituality lead by Fr. John Durbin, Jim Hynes, and myself. The official website has a trailer of this documentary which has been described as a film to become a monastery, rather than simply depict one. Phillip Gröning shot the film over the course of six months living within the Grand Chartreuse, the charterhouse of the strictest of monastic orders, the Carthusians. The austere film reflects the austerity of the monastery itself, inviting you into the silent meditations the Carthusian monks have been praying for an entire millennium. No music except the infrequent chants in the monastery, no interviews, no commentaries, and no extra material interrupt the ancient rhythm and life of the monks. Gröning did not pretend to take you back to the thirteenth century, but rather depicted all aspects of the monks’ lives, including laptops and silent prayer, jumbo jets and sparse cells.

Although I certainly have never felt called to such an austere order as the Carthusians or even that of the Trappists (see a previous post about one of our parishioners entering a Trappist abbey), I have a certain affinity to the structure of the monastic lifestyle. Watching Into Great Silence left me feeling that the Carthusians seem to have exaggerated their rule and actually laid aside some of the key principles of community that guided the original Rule of St. Benedict. And so I returned once again to read the Rule of St. Benedict: Insights for the Ages, an edition that includes commentary from the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister (Crossroad, 1992). It has been a really helpful tool to understand Benedict’s Rule more as a way of living than as a strict guideline for creating a community. Combined with Michelle and my earlier read of Brother Benet Tvedten’s How to Be a Monastic And Not Leave Your Day Job and praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I am feeling more and more called to connect with monastic life, which seems less about the fuga mundi (flight from the world) than it is about how to better live in the world. And I think Benedict offers ways to do that—in family life, in parish life, in academia, in a monastery—wherever you find yourself.

One of the tools that Benedict sets up is a strict praying of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Liturgy of the Hours is, along with the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the Mass), the ancient prayer of the Christian Church. Christians gathered every morning and evening to pray the Psalms, much as their Jewish contemporaries did (and many still do). In addition to Michelle and my efforts to pray Morning and Evening Prayer somewhat regularly, I have been reading Robert Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: The Origins of the Divine Office and its Meaning for Today, an incredible tome I was meant to have read while doing my MTS at Notre Dame. Much like Benedict’s Rule, that I first read as an academic assignment, Taft’s book is much more enlightening, although no less dense, now that I am trying to derive meaning from the prayer life of the Hours I (wish to) call my own. A brief quote from one of the monks in Into Great Silence (yes, they do speak on Sundays when they go outside the monastery on field trips together), which captured the idea of mystagogical catechesis perfectly, fit well here: we are not to question the signs, but rather question ourselves vis-a-vis the signs. So as I have been questioning myself rather than the Hours themselves, it has been much more fruitful delving into Taft’s work.

As I have found from Taft and as Michelle and I have been practicing to the best of our abilities, the hinges of the Liturgy of the Hours have always been and remain Morning and Evening Prayer. Apart from the dozen or so times I have lead Morning Prayer for the St. Thomas More School kids, our parish and most Christians have little experience of the public praying of the Liturgy of the Hours. I am hoping that continuing to pray Morning Prayer with the school children as part of the public prayer life of the Church and in bringing the Liturgy of the Hours to our nascent community of San Ysidro y Santa Maria we can do something to reverse that. But one the beautiful things about the Liturgy of the Hours is that any Christian can pray it, lead it, and share it with others. And while the books of the Divine Office that priests, deacons, and religious are required to pray often seem obtuse with all their ribbon flipping, there are a number of helpful tools that have emerged in just the last few months, such as single volume Psalters (e.g., Mundelein Psalter, Max Johnson’s Benedictine Daily Prayer) that seem to offer help to those who would like to incorporate the Liturgy of the Hours into their hectic lives.

Perhaps the most useful recent development is offered free by Universalis, a website that offers all the prayers of the hours in many electronic formats for use throughout the day. The new technology, which is never spurned by Benedictines or the Church, but rather is to be put to the service of God and humanity and never subjugate either to the technology itself, has put into the hands of everyone with access to the internet all that is needed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. At minimum families and individuals should pray, together when possible, Morning Prayer (formerly Lauds) and Evening Prayer (formerly Vespers) But for those looking for the complete monastic structure of every day, Univeralis has everything you need, including a guide to praying the Liturgy of the Hours in whatever way best suits your life. I truly hope that the Liturgy of the Hours becomes, once again, a central aspect of the life of the Church. As we pray the Psalms we come to embody that most essential of Benedictine qualities: obedience. And although the word makes contemporary Americans cringe, obedience is about listening (Lat. obdīre): listening to the Word of God in scripture, listening for God in the whispers and silence around us, and listening for God in those who embody Christ around us. Lets make room for a little silence wait for the Lord to speak to us.

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