Sacred Triduum Retreat 2017: Fr Gabriel Everitt
'Prayer in the Rule of St Benedict'
Talk 1: Listen with the ear of the heart (see Prol v1)
I aim in these retreat talks to explore some themes relating to prayer in the Rule of St Benedict. You are of course here on an Easter retreat and when it seems possible and appropriate I will make reference to Holy Week and Easter, though others in the liturgies and other talks of these days, will say more on the Easter theme. But you are here on an Easter retreat in a Benedictine monastery and it seems an opportunity to develop something relevant to this Benedictine aspect.
The Rule of St Benedict, written at some time in the first half of the 6th century in Italy, is not specifically intended as an introduction to prayer, still less as a ‘how to’ manual’ ‘Prayer for Dummies’. St Benedict did not care for loud and boisterous laughter, but I think he might have permitted himself a certain wry grin at that phrase ‘Prayer for Dummies’, whereas a title ‘Prayer of Experts’ would have made him wince. I think he thought we are all, himself included dummies. But he was not writing any sort of prayer guide, for experts or even for dummies.
St Benedict was concerned to write about the monastic life, indeed about the Christian life, and because prayer crops up in a natural and taken-for-granted sort of way in the monastic life and in the Christian life, prayer crops up in the Rule. I do not suppose that St Benedict would have disagreed that prayer is the raising up of the mind and heart to God, nor necessarily with that basic intuition that prayer is ‘asking God for things’. Nor would he disagree that prayer often involves set written prayers: psalms, hymns, canticles, collects, that sort of thing that makes up what is known as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Prayer of the Church. I am indeed going to have something to say in the course of these talks about prayer as intercession and about the office, the Liturgy of the Hours.
But his Rule famously does not start with us speaking, but rather with us listening. In the RB1980 translation of the Latin, which I will usually be using, he begins with us listening: ‘Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you: welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice’. (Prologue verse 1). A voice begins the Rule by speaking, almost it seems out of nowhere and it is the voice of the master, the voice of Christ, the voice of God, calling to us. There will be human agents for his voice, for a monk his abbot, his novice master in the beginning of his monastic life, our parents, our teachers, those who wish us well, the saints of the Church, St Benedict as it is his Rule. But ultimately the voice calling to us, is the voice of God. I heard a lecture in Rome from Sr Aquinata Boeckman, a specialist on the Rule, and she pointed out that the person who speaks most in the Rule is God. This is because so much of the Rule is quotation from the Bible, the Word of the Lord. St Benedict had his favourite places to go; the Psalms, for example, with their prayerful cries of sorrow and joy, triumph and anguish, dreadful fear and hope and then also the letters of St Paul, particularly the later sections of his letters, which are very much about how we are to live our lives, very practical and down to earth guidance, earthly and earthy.
God speaks. We are to listen. We are to listen ‘with the ear of the heart’. This is a famous and a favourite phrase. Our world is often a noisy world and there are many words, too many often for us to listen well. If we are to hear God’s word among the many words, our hearing has to be purified, to become a hearing of the heart, a more intent deeper spiritual hearing. This is a word which needs silence to be well received, a pondering of the heart, because its truth echoes in the depths, always going deeper, resounding for us more deeply, a word that arises from the depths and often unexpectedly, captures our minds and hearts and in a way that cannot be so easily explained but nor is it easy to explain it away.
Listen with the ear of the heart. This phrase will in fact echo in the liturgy of the Triduum. In the gospel for Good Friday, the St John Passion, Jesus says ‘all who are on the side of truth, listen to my voice’ (John 18:37). Also in the Good Friday liturgy in the prayer for catechumens, the beginners in the Christian life (that is to say the dummies, actually all of us says St Benedict) we pray that our God and Lord ‘may open wide the ears of their inmost hearts’.
St Benedict has a whole architecture for daily prayer, which he takes, adapts, adds to and passes on, for the Liturgy of the Hours, as grand as a Romanesque or Gothic Abbey or Cathedral, which encompasses Vigils, long psalms in the dead of night and then shorter offices from Lauds to Compline from the beginning to the end of the day. Any retreatant in a Benedictine monastery is invited into this office and it is the basic structure for any prayerful listening with the ears of the heart. If you visit many monastic ruins from the medieval period, you can often see what are called the night stairs, which went down by the shortest route from the dormitory where the monks slept to the choir of the church below and which are called the night stairs because the monks used them to get to the Vigils which began shortly after midnight and which then continued for a goodly portion of the night. These stairs are often very worn; to some extent that will be thanks to exposure and erosion since that day when the monasteries were dissolved in the late 1530s. But they were already worn before then, by the many, the countless feet that went down by them when the call went up for the beginning of the Vigil office, the waiting for the Lord; many feet, every day over centuries. St Benedict has a vivid description of this moment, as often for his vivid descriptions, tucked away in his very practical chapter 22 on the sleeping arrangements of the monks: ‘The monks will always be ready’ he writes ‘to arise without delay when the signal is given; each will hasten to arrive at the Work of God before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum … On arising for the Work of God, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.’ And so down the night stairs they went, every day, for centuries. I want to say at this point that I have this idea of the night stairs from a talk I heard by Fr Mark Barrett of Worth Abbey, but I cannot blame him for the way I am going to develop it.
'We have a private room and a secret place. It is within our hearts and it is reached by a stairs which takes us down from the surface of our lives, to the place where God waits for us to speak to us, for us to listen with the ear of the heart'
I would like to take those night stairs as an image of what we have to do. In the Sermon on the Mount, in a passage which is read as the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, Jesus says ‘when you pray go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place’. We have a private room and a secret place. It is within our hearts and it is reached by a stairs which takes us down from the surface of our lives, to the place where God waits for us to speak to us, for us to listen with the ear of the heart. We are in that place when we attend with the ear of the heart to the Liturgy of the Hours, which is given to us as our prayer. St Benedict takes a long time to detail the contents of that prayer and only a very little time, one short phrase, to tell us how to behave, how to dispose ourselves for that prayer. It comes in chapter 19 on the ‘Discipline of Psalmody’: ‘Let us consider, then, how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels, and let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices’. Minds to be in harmony with voices for the official and communal prayer of the church, the Liturgy of the Hours, because when minds are in harmony with voices we have descended by the night stairs into the deep places of our hearts and there we are listening to the Lord.
This is St Benedict’s recipe for our attendance at the public prayer of the Church. In the immediately following chapter, he gives some further instruction for our own personal and private prayer, which may extend beyond the times of the liturgical prayer. Again he is pretty brief and to the point: ‘God regards our purity of heart … not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace’. And again, later in the Rule, in chapter 52 on the Oratory of the Monastery, St Benedict again makes a very short reference to private prayer, touching in one laconic phrase on a theme that has filled libraries, bookshops and Amazon with works on prayer, beyond summary; St Benedict says ‘After the Work of God, all should leave [the oratory] in complete silence and with reverence for God, so that a brother who may wish to pray alone will not be disturbed by the insensitivity of another. Moreover, if at other times someone chooses to pray privately, he may simply go in and pray, not in a loud voice, but with tears and heartfelt devotion’.
Does St Benedict give any guidance about a method of prayer, particularly for private or personal prayer? I am going to leave this subject for a later talk. Here my intention is to look at some of the passages which give St Benedict’s fundamental principles regarding prayer, his basic position: ‘Listen with the ear of your heart’, ‘let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices’, ‘if someone chooses to pray privately, [let him] simply go in and pray. Simply? Well, is it simple? The words here are certainly simply and straightforwardly said, but I think the experience is not so; there are difficulties and the difficulties tend to be met fairly early on and to stick around for really rather a long time.
We have already met St Benedict’s saying that ‘the sleepy like to make excuses’. Indeed our own sleepy sluggishness is familiar to us, as is our preoccupation with the torrent of superficial words to which we listen with a heart delighting in diversion. Far from being in harmony with our voices, our minds wander this way and that, becoming preoccupied with our acute busy-ness and our concerns. Apart from the Rule of St Benedict, we have a life of him written about fifty years after his death by St Gregory the Great. There is a story of a monk, who simply cannot stay in church to pray, but who keeps wandering off. St Benedict has the insight to perceive that he has a devil who keeps leading him away from prayer and with admirable decisiveness of action, albeit it would not meet with approval in our own time, he takes up a rod and beats the devil out of the monk, who can then turn untroubled to prayer.
We know, I think, this devil, and he can take the form in our own lives in particular of three deadly ds: distraction, dryness and discouragement. He is there at the beginning and he will likely be there at the continuation and long towards the end of a Christian life. We should not take a very likely telescoped story in a saint’s life as any sort of indication that he will be driven out by just one beating. This is a battle fought repeatedly and it may seem continuously. What beats this devil is simply our determination to carry on, to persevere, whatever and how long it takes and that determination is a glowing, and it may be, a growing awareness, that it is worth it and that it will work, however many times the attack may come, which may indeed be every day and last throughout our lives. Remember the Rule is for beginners, for dummies, for plodders. Distraction, dryness and discouragement are so common and so much the norm, that the shock would rather be in their absence rather than their presence. Maybe in the end these enemies are those very ones the Gospel commands us to love, in fact in a strange way our friends and benefactors, because they remind us of our weakness and of our need for God.
Distractions can be no more than passing fancies and fantasies, the wool gathering of the imagination. But they come in or change easily enough into more malign forms, an invading force of pre-occupation with a strong emotional charge, subconsciously buried psychological chunks of our past, or more present niggles, worries, difficulties, hurts from work, friends or family life. An entire office of the Church, Matins or Lauds or whatever can be swallowed whole into the capacious jaws of one of these monsters.
Then comes dryness: aridity as it is called by the more traditional spiritual writers or less grandly just boredom. It is the naughty teenager, still lurking rather too alive and well within us, that finds Church just too terribly boring. This can come at the beginning as one grapples with unfamiliar words in, say the psalms or the readings and finds them irrelevant and meaningless, disconnected to any sort of reality we are living. It comes to those who have been much longer in prayer, for years maybe as the noon day devil, a sort of over prolonged dry clean which has seen any colour fade, any moisture evaporate. The psalms are known by heart, as they are meant to be, but long ago the heart died and an empty shell is left, a dry duty, no longer an affair of love.
Then there is discouragement, a terrible deadening disappointment in self. Prayer may be for others, but it is not for me, it is not my sort of thing, it is just a skill that some have but not me, a tone deafness in prayer, a stone deafness in the ear of the heart. Maybe it could all have been different, but it has not been and now it is too late. There is a moving scene, towards the end of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, when a failed priest in Mexico is about to face a firing squad and it is not the glorious death of a martyr: ‘He felt only an immense disappointment, because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint’.
'I do not think we get to be saints by a little more self-restraint and a little courage. ...We need to ask God to do it for us, which he will do, albeit in his time and way, rather than ours.'
But I think actually the priest was wrong. I do not think we get to be saints by a little more self-restraint and a little courage. If he had had another day, or another week, or another year or however long acquired sanctity would never come, because it never does. This could be discouraging, but only if sanctity is up to us, just a little bit more effort on our part. We need to ask God to do it for us, which he will do, albeit in his time and way, rather than ours. The great sea beast of distraction may swallow us whole and there is nothing but to wait for God to command the sea beast to deposit us again on the sea shore. And he will. And we start again to listen with the ear of the heart and to pray with mind attuned to the words we are saying. We may find ourselves in the dryness of the desert, and there is nothing for it but to trust in God, who in the desert experience of the people of Israel and in their psalms turns the desert into streams of water.
St Benedict’s chapter 4 makes a daunting list of the Tools for Good Works, which starts with the Ten Commandments, as monks need to be reminded not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery and it continues through the rule that you do not do to others, what you do not want them to do to you, through a hard path of renunciation and discipline, carrying out the corporal works of mercy, rooting out anger, grudge bearing and deceit from the heart, doing no injuries but bearing all injuries from others patiently, moderation in food and drink, fearing God’s judgement, always careful in thought and deed. The demands continue to break upon the shore of our fragile wills and captive action. But the final tool of good works is verse 74 ‘And finally never lose hope in God’s mercy’. We never earn God’s mercy; it is always his gift. We do not defeat our distraction, our dryness or discouragement. We will know all three, at times acutely. The rod that beats them is the cross of God’s mercy. You may descend at Mass tonight by the stone steps into the crypt and so watch for some time at the altar of repose. And in that holy rest you may pray, with St Benedict, in the muddle of a life never quite lived as it might be, never ever to lose hope in God’s mercy.