About Monastic Prayer
In his Rule for Monks, St. Benedict advises the novice master to determine if a prospective monk has joined the monastery for the purpose of seeking God. The task of seeking God is not limited to the beginner monk, it is a life-long commitment to prayer, both personal and communal.
St. Benedict intended holy reading (or lectio divina) to be his monks’ primary form of personal prayer. In fact, in his day, the monastic schedule set aside up to four hours for this purpose, which also included memorization of the Psalms and other passages of the Bible. The purpose of this intense activity was to impress the Word God on the monk’s mind and heart (RB 48). Monks often read aloud, since the reading of Scripture was meant to engage the whole person in the act of reading so that a monk’s interior life had enough nourishment to grow and develop.
Although most people of contemporary times are not given to memorization quite like the ancients, a monk’s practice of lectio will imprint the Word of God on his mind and heart. To practice lectio, a monk places himself in the presence of God in whatever environment seems most appropriate to him: a favorite chair, an out of the way place where he can concentrate, etc. After a period of quieting and gathering thoughts in silence, he reads the passage, which can be short or long depending on the monk’s inclination. Some monks will use the readings at Mass for their lectio. Other times, monks will practice lectio with whole books of the Bible prayerfully reading it over the course of a year or longer. At still other times, monks will focus their lectio on a particular portion of a chosen book. In any case, the passage is read several times, usually about three to four times. The reading can be done silently or audibly, if a monk feels comfortable doing the latter. After reading the chosen passage a monk should ask himself what word, phrase, or image was particularly striking for him. Sometimes a monk will memorize the word or phrase by repeating it slowly to himself. Ruminating on this word or phrase will help the monk to enter into a prayerful dialogue with God. Entering into the prayerful dialogue with God a monk interacts with the God who knows him and loves him. After the prayerful encounter, a monk rests with God sometimes returning to the written word, but always thanking God for his presence.
At Saint Bede Abbey, the period after Morning Prayer and breakfast is set aside for lectio divina, but our monks are encouraged to spend other times in prayer as well. Some of our confreres spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, others pray the rosary or practice centering prayer, still others pray while relaxing in the gardens or walking in the woods. Every monk also has people on his personal intercessory prayer list: family, friends, former students, even strangers who have written to the monastic community asking for prayers.
The early desert hermits took very seriously Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and would literally pray in every waking hour and would even arise in the middle of the night for prayer. As monasticism evolved into more communal forms, specific times were established for common prayer in order to fulfill Paul’s mandate.
In St. Benedict’s day, the monastic schedule included eight times for communal prayer: Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. Most Benedictine monasteries today have four scheduled times for communal prayer: Morning Prayer, also known as Lauds; Midday Prayer around noon; Evening Prayer, also known as Vespers; and Compline, the last prayer of the day, sometimes prayed in private. This daily round of prayer is also called the Divine Office.
When St. Benedict considers the divine office he usually does so under the title of Opus Dei, meaning work of God. St. Benedict devotes chapters eight to nineteen of his Rule to outline its importance and its structure. The content of the office is the psalms, but there are also readings from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Many of the psalms speak of God’s goodness and his faithfulness to his people. The monk is invited to respond to this goodness of God with quiet meditation and prayer. Consequently, there is a sense of a continual dialogue between the Scriptures and the monk who hears the Word of God and wishes to respond.
Although the Divine Office is of vital importance in the life of a monastic community, the real focal point of common prayer is the daily celebration of the Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the life of a Christian.” All personal prayer and every activity of monastic life should be oriented toward the community’s Eucharistic liturgy, and all the graces of the monastic vocation flow from it. Monks, like other Christians, are called to esteem the Eucharist and participate in the sanctification and glorification of God by joining all the People of God in this central act of worship. By prayerfully listening to the Word of God proclaimed at Mass and reverently receiving the Body of Christ, a monk will grow day-by-day into the image of Christ.