Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Wandering Mind: Insights on Prayer in the Rule of St. Benedict

            One of the great difficulties in the life of prayer is the problem of the wandering mind.  The opposite side of the coin is the practice of the Presence of God.  St. Benedict however does not approach prayer from contemplative heights, but rather from a practical and humble assessment of the experience of the average person.  One reason why he tells us to keep our prayers “short and pure” is because most people have the more immediate problem of maintaining their focus for the brief time of one prayer office.  In the quotes from the Rule below (Ch. 19, 20, 43) and in order to clarify the quotes below, I have included texts from the English Standard Version, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Septuagint [LXX] in blue, along with the texts from the Rule.  Where the context is important I have included the context. 

Chapter 19: On the Manner of Saying the Divine Office

We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that "the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place" (Proverbs 15:3).  [“The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good. [ESV]   But we should believe this especially without any doubt when we are assisting at the Work of God. To that end let us be mindful always of the Prophet's words, "Serve the Lord in fear" (Psalm 2:11-12).  [Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.  Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. [ESV] and again "Sing praises wisely" (Psalm 47: BCP).  [For God is King of all the earth; * sing praises with all your skill.] and "In the sight of the Angels I will sing praise to You" (Ps. 137:1) [kai. evnanti,on avgge,lwn yalw/ soi. LXX, trans. in the sight of the angels].  Let us therefore consider how we ought to conduct ourselves in sight of the Godhead and of His Angels, and let us take part in the psalmody in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.

St. Benedict’s understanding of the nature of prayer is founded on the reality the Presence of God is everywhere.  Where Brother Lawrence would Practice the Presence of God, St. Benedict would rather have us practice the awareness of the perpetual Presence of God.  God is always with us, even when we are not consciously with him.  This for St. Benedict is a matter of faith and understanding, before it is a matter of experience.  He tells us that the “eyes of the LORD are in every place.”  That is the abiding reality of not only spiritual life, but of all life.

1   O LORD, you have searched me and known me! 
2   You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar. 
3   You search out my path and my lying down        
and are acquainted with all my ways. 
4   Even before a word is on my tongue, behold,
O LORD, you know it altogether. 
5   You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me. 
6   Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it. 
7   Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence? 
8   If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 
9   If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me. 
11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night," 
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

We should understand and believe this when we are assisting at the Work of God, the Opus Dei, and in all the times of praying, whether corporately or individually.  In all of these we are not the primary officiant, we are merely assisting at the Work of God; the primary officiant is the Holy Spirit, and following the Holy Spirit, the Community of the faithful, at work or at prayer.  When praying we are never alone but are surrounded by a whole host of witnesses.

We are to serve God in and with our prayers with holy awe, recognizing to Whom our prayers are directed.  Not only that we are called to, “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.  Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”  In prayer we are to “rejoice with trembling.”  The text also brings to the fore our love relationship with the Son of God, “Kiss the Son!”  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).  Prayer, love, and adoration, are inseparable.  Prayer is meant to engage the whole person. 

We are instructed to, "Sing praises wisely" or perhaps better translated to “sing praises with all your skill.”  When praying exercise your mind, your body, and your voice.  One way of doing this is to pray, or sing a prayer office aloud, deliberately, with all the skill you can manage.  For this purpose it is very helpful to learn some of the Benedictine chants that are available to you. Even though some are assigned to specific Psalms in our Offices, if you learn three of four of the chants you can use them with almost any Psalm.  The benefit of doing this is that you have to work harder at prayer and it increases your concentration.

We are to pray with an awareness of the extended unseen fellowship of the angels.  In your prayers,

You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:22-24).
Focus in prayer is a matter of practice and deliberate focus.  St. Benedict says, “let us take part in the psalmody in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”  It doesn’t happen accidently, one has to desire to keep heart, mind and voice in harmony, and persist; and as often as we wander we are to recall ourselves to a conscious active practice of prayer.  Sometimes this cannot be done praying silently; one often has to literally give voice to our prayers in order to maintain that focus.

Chapter 20 exhorts us to be aware of to Whom we are praying.  The focus is on the identity and majesty of God.  Praying with focus requires a conscious awareness of Who God is, and who we are.  Such awareness brings with it humility.

Chapter 20: On Reverence in Prayer
When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, we do not presume to do so except with humility and reverence. How much the more, then, are complete humility and pure devotion necessary in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe! And let us be assured that it is not in saying a great deal that we shall be heard (Matt 6:7). [“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” ESV], but in purity of heart and in tears of compunction. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless it happens to be prolonged by an inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, let prayer be very short, and when the Superior gives the signal let all rise together.

            The analogy is phrased in formal language; but what if you, in our more egalitarian age, were to ask for raise from your boss?  You would know, unless you are a fool, that attitude is everything, and if you are asking for a raise you ought to make your request with respect for the fact that your boss is the boss.  How much more if you are asking for daily bread from the King of the Universe? Prayer also calls for simplicity rather than complexity.  The more complex our prayers, the greater the difficulty in maintaining focus.  Often at prayer our minds wander to other tasks that may beckon for attention.  Keep an index card handy and write down one word only when a task comes to mind to remind you of the task later, rather than getting trapped into dwelling on the task instead of your prayers.  Having done that put the index card aside and return immediately to your prayers.

Chapter 43: On Those Who Come Late to the Work of God or to Table

At the hour for the Divine Office, as soon as the signal is heard, let them abandon whatever they may have in hand and hasten with the greatest speed, yet with seriousness, so that there is no excuse for levity.

Benedict establishes a simple precedent.  Establish your own regular time of prayer and having done that, when your internal bell rings, do not delay but go immediately to prayer rather than dilly dallying, or puttering around.  Prayer is serious work, and it is work that you do in companionship with the Holy Spirit.  Your commitment to pray is not a commitment to yourself, nor just in a general sort of way to God, but rather a commitment to the Holy Spirit Who waits for you to assist in the work of prayer with Him as you present yourself to the Father and the Son.