“The power of the liturgy to transform and to lead us to God, depends on our ability in grace to immerse ourselves in the mystery of Christ, which is the objective content of the liturgy.” C Cummings.
I have been involved in some way in Liturgical Prayer all of my life. The word liturgy roughly translated means “the work of the people”. It is the daily work of the whole church. In Liturgical traditions in Christianity (ex Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox and many historical churches) this means some form of Daily Cyclical Prayer prayed at certain hours and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist or Divine Liturgy or Mass.
In monastic life, Liturgical Prayer echoes the daily prayer of the Universal Church but in a special and profound way. The liturgical prayer of Parishes and Cathedrals tends to be specific and adaptable to the busy and active schedule of those who belong to these communities. Now days, they are more infrequent, for example in my parish we celebrate Evening Prayer/Vespers once a week with a small group of participants. Sundays we celebrate the Eucharist in the languages of our communities. Apart from that we are not able to do much more Liturgically because of peoples busy schedules.
Monastic Liturgical Prayer is different. To begin with it is daily, with no stops, no vacations, no days off, daily. It is also more than once a day. It can be four to seven times a day depending upon the community. The basic schedule of Monastic Liturgical prayer is
Laudes (Morning Prayer)
Sext-None-Terce (Midday Prayer)
Vespers (Evening Prayer)
Compline (Night Prayer)
(This daily prayer several times a day is known by name as the Daily Office, the Breviary, the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Monastic Office. The word office from official or officiate or work. It is “the” daily work of the church Universal).
Most Monastic communities also celebrate the Eucharist daily or at least more than just on Sundays.
For those of us who are secular Monastics (living outside of a Monastic Enclosure) we celebrate at least the backbone of the Monastic Office which is Laudes and Vespers. When we can we try to pray together in community at least once a week through the internet.
Mind and Voice in Harmony
The rule of Benedict demands from his Monks or Pupils in the School of Christ that they “stand and sing psalms in a way that our mind and voice are in harmony.” Perhaps this is what makes Monastic Liturgical prayer so special and somewhat different from Parish or Cathedral prayers. (not to the exclusion of) Monastic Communities are like athletes when it comes to prayer. They are disciplined, the practice daily, they are frequent, they are deliberate, and they do all in their power always to be “mindful” of how they pray. This allows them to bring both mind and voice together in harmony because they practice it daily and many times a day without stop. It is the voice of prayer that never ceases. St Paul invited all Christians to “pray without ceasing”. This is the challenge for all of us, that our lives may be a constant source of prayer and worship to God without pause. The liturgical prayer of Monastic Communities and Monastics gives space and time for this to take place. It is at the heart of Monastic Spirituality.
Have you ever been to a Monastic Liturgy of the Hours or Eucharist? It usually feels a little different. It is not so hurried or rushed. It has no announcements in-between or blessings for birthdays or anniversaries. It is not about “us” and what we need or want. It is about God, and worshipping God in “Spirit and in Truth.” It is usually brief and exact (never more than 30 minutes for the Daily Office). It is not filled with commentary or directives or even long Sermons. It allows the Liturgy to sink in slowly into the heart and the mind of the participant.
Our author reminds us of the importance of Liturgical prayer in today’s society. He write, “In contrast to the Monastic City, (or community) many cities in our modern world are becoming overcrowded yet lonely places. deserts of dirt and despair where people are afraid to walk in the streets. In the cloisters and choirs of Monastic Cities (communities), a different spirit prevails, a spirit of celebration, with singing, processions, security and fellowship.” At one time nearly all Monasteries or Monastic Enclosures were in places away from Cities and Urban Centers. This was a time when most of the world was living in Rural not Urban places. We now live in a different world. New monastic enclosures are now appearing in the heart of city centers. One perfect example is the Community of Jerusalem that has Monastic enclosures of men and women who live and pray together in the heart of major cities. Currently they have enclosures in (Rome, Paris, Cologne, Strasbourg, Montreal, Florence, Brussels, and more). The community has grown into some 200 strong. Most of their members are young in their 30’s. Their mission and call is to the city centers of the world to transform and to offer places of rest, security, peace and prayer to those who seek them out.
A counter cultural experience
One of the challenges that face all Liturgical Communities whether they be parish based or monastic based is that signs and symbols have lost much of their power and affect on modern humanity. Perhaps it is because everything in todays culture is about images, Face Book, graphics, cell phones, quick pics, Instagram etc. This is at least true for the generation of 40 and under. Many churches have opted for using big screens in order to help people worship and pray. This is not necessarily bad, but it distracts from much of the symbolism, movement, ritual, and esthetics of Liturgical Prayer. Liturgical prayer is always best when it is nearly done by heart, is easy to follow, repetitive, symbolic, uses the entire body (sit, bow, stand, kneel, prostrate, making the sign of the cross etc. ) and engages the senses (light, music, incense).
The daily dialogue with God
Finally, Liturgical Practice or Prayer is about our daily and even more than one time a day dialogue and discussion with God. Liturgical prayer is always in two or even three directions. It is us to God. It is God to us. It is us to each other in the world. This dialogue is shared among all those who participate in liturgical prayer. Each person has a role, the lector, the cantor, the schola, the choir, the celebrant, the deacon, the intercessor, the psalmist just to name a few. Even listening to Liturgical prayer requires active participation. In the Monastic Tradition the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible are at the heart of Liturgical Practice. Many Monasteries in earlier times required the monks to pray the 150 psalms if not daily then weekly. Most Monasteries today choose to pray the 150 psalms in a cycle that covers two to four weeks and includes some psalms that are repeated daily or weekly so that they can be memorized by heart and easily sung. The daily recitation or singing of psalms puts us directly in touch with all the human emotions that exist, both positive and negative, and our deepest need and desire to worship God and God alone. St Ignatius made it clear that “humankind was made to praise worship and adore God.”
Liturgical Practice is the work of the people of God across the globe. For monastic communities, it is at the heart and soul of what they do each and every day. They do not pray alone but in union with millions of Christians and non Christians all over the globe. I just began using an App. on my phone which is for meditation. The wonderful thing about using this App. is that in a given moment you can see how many other people are also meditating with you at the same time, many times thousands around the globe. The unceasing prayer of the Church is real and palpable in Liturgical prayer. It can be done alone, and in one’s room, but using forms and formulas that others are using around the country or around the globe. It can be done in Community where only two or three are gathered in God’s name. It makes no difference.
For the newcomer, C Cummings offers words of consolation and expectation. Liturgical Prayer for a person that is new to the experience at first seems foreign and strange. But if you allow yourself to be taken in and engaged it will change you for the rest of your life. “Gradually the newcomer in community liturgical prayer the deepest expression of his or her personal relationship with the Lord and will learn to pray the Eucharist and learn to pray the Office.”
Liturgical Prayer is the most visual and sensual part of Monastic Life. It grows on the believer more and more with time and experience. At some point it becomes so natural that it just forms ones daily experience and fills ones daily schedule as normal as brushing one’s teeth or eating three meals a day or watching the local news cast. It becomes an integral part of daily life.