Monastic Practices Watching

“The night watch begins with the celebration of Vigils and continues afterward in the silent darkness until the morning prayer of lauds.”  C Cummings

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When I was in Jr. High I joined a club that dedicated itself to “bird watching”.  I supposed it was almost as nerdy as the debating team I belonged to, but for some reason I was attracted to this outdoor sport that needed little heavy exercise except walking and wandering and plenty of insect repellent.  I remembering buying the local bird guide for Minnesota where I lived and soon I began to spot and see birds that I recognized all over, chickadees, bluejays, red headed wood peckers, crows, magpies, meadowlarks, blackbirds, and even loons when lucky. 

Watching and Waiting is far from easy.  We wait many times for what we do not even know what we are waiting for.  We wait for trains and buses.  We wait for people to show up at meetings.  We wait for people to contact us or call us.  We wait for medical results.  Waiting and watching is part of our existence and it is in the Monastic world a Spiritual practice.  Monastics spend every night from sunset to sunrise watching and waiting. 

Nearly all monasteries practice what is known as “The Great Silence” following the last liturgy of compline. Great silence lasts until after the first morning liturgy usually of Laudes or Morning Prayer.  The silence in a monastery at that time is palpable.  People avoid any conversation at all or they leave the monastery if they are visiting with guests. 

In the winter it is an even more profound silence in the evening since there is the stillness of the winter sky and the fact that the sun sets early in the evening in the northern hemisphere.  In some ways it is a different kind of prayer, the prayer of watching and waiting.  There is both a restfulness and an anxiousness.  One rests knowing that the body needs sleep and quiet in the night.  One is restless as the many thoughts and experiences  that have been collected during the day begin to appear in a new form like a film passing through the important moments that one has lived during the waking hours.  The concerns and preoccupations of the day linger on and slowly fade and die away until morning comes again.  This is a time of letting go of control over our emotions and feelings and our power to control the outcome of our lives and many times our destiny.  Watching and waiting is about recognizing our vulnerabilities in life, about letting go of the constant changes that happen around the world, and in our personal lives.  It is about putting things into their proper perspective as the night lingers on. 

I love the prayer from the New Zealand Compline service at the end of the night.  “The angels of God guard us through the night, and quieten the powers of darkness. The Spirit of God be our guide to lead us to peace and to glory.  It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For  those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.”

During my stay at the Monastery here in Bavaria, I have been observing my self early morning as I rise at 5:25 every morning to the sound of the Monastery Bells telling me to get up and prepare for Vigils and Lauds (the practice here at this Monastery).  I am NOT a morning person.  I get out of bed and stumble to the sink inside my small room (cell) and find some warm water and a towel to begin to wet my face and do a quick pat down of my body where the body odors have been collecting while sleeping.  I then dress and put on my habit saying a vesting prayer as I put on the symbol of my vocation as monk and remember my own nakedness and vulnerability as a human being and that as with every christian we are every morning to ‘put on Christ’ as our outer garment.  I then begin the journey into the chapel which is usually dark with little light except what the sun offers.  Then I sit and wait for the bell to announce the beginning of the Morning Office of Vigils and Lauds. 

What I am keenly aware of is my tiredness and my listlessness in the morning watch.  The morning liturgy lasts about 40 minutes and ends in silence.  I then sit for 30 minutes in silence as I wait for the beginning of the Conventual Mass to begin which starts at 6:45 every morning except for major Feast Days.  Monks get to sleep in an extra hour on Solemn Feast Days.  It amounts to about 10 days a year perhaps plus Sundays.  Sometimes I fall into drowsiness as I sit in that silence.  Sometimes my mind wonders.  It is a time of trying to get my energy up to it’s normal level.  It takes a while.  It is this vulnerability and tiredness that is really a kind of spiritual state (somewhere between zombie-drowsy-angel-and somnambulant.) It is that weakness and tiredness that makes one susceptible to the inklings of the Spirit.  When one is broken down and weak, one depends upon God’s mercy and gentle kindness.  Our author tells us, “The night watch that begins each day is a reminder of the need for continually renewed vigilance.”

All of this has a spiritual purpose and focus.  It is not only about esthetic practices.  It is about learning to sit in the present moment and allow God, not ourselves to act and move.  “The monastic night watch is good practice in the art of waiting, as we patient look for the coming of dawn.  Monks and nuns wait in the dark night, longing for the light of dawn but babe to hasten its coming  No one can force the dawn or bring it about in any way.  It dawns in its own good time on those who wait for it.  the ability to wait is characteristic of those who have learned to slow down and live in the fullness of the present moment.  The night watch, repeated again and again, forms in me the habit of patient waiting and of calm abiding in the situation where God has placed me.” C Cummings

NO one likes to wait.  We live in a hurried up and busy world.  Traffic Jams, lines and queues in super markets, waiting for bank tellers and tables in a restaurant.  But waiting brings expectation and desire.  These are the things that we want to have increase as we watch and wait for we know something important or good will come out of it.  Getting home, being able to eat a good meal, having finished bagging our groceries ready to return home.  These are all the good things worth waiting for.  God too, has so many good things in store for those who are willing to watch and wait for them. 

The twinkling of an eye

One of the great gifts of Monasticism to the modern and contemporary world is a keen sense of “time”.  The monastics use time completely to their advantage.  The day is divided into balanced time for prayer, work and mindful eating.  There is time for the body to rest.  There is balance and order to daily routines. This is something that each and every person on the planet could learn from no matter what their personal “circumstance” or “limitations”. 

Watching and Waiting in the Monastic Practice is learning to sit and be present to the here and now! St Ignatius of Loyola put it in exact Spanish, “Mira! Mira!”  Look! Look!  We are to look for moments of surprise and grace.  To recognize the footprints in the sand and the bird on the limb of a tree. 

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This morning after Vigils and Lauds I walked out in front of the great Monastic Church to look out over the countryside.  From one corner one can look out over and into the Austrian Alps that were gleaming this morning over the horizon.  Then there are the fields ripening in the early morning sun.  The monastic garden was being watered and one could see the summer growth of the cabbages, lettuce, cauliflower, beets, radishes, and carrots.  There was a wonderful calm as the morning breeze swept in the light smell of fresh morning mixed with sounds of cows, chickens, and geese (along with their wonderful smells of my childhood.)  For just a few moments all time stopped for all eternity.  There was only goodness.  There was only peace.  There was only God. 

“The whole space through which the age of this world speeds by is but… ‘a little while’.  This ‘little while’… seems long to us because it is still going on, but when it is over, we shall feel how little it has been.”  St. Augustine

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