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10-MONK

Plugged in to the power station of prayer

A week in a monastery on silent retreat is a reminder that the praying of the Divine Office powers the life of the Church, by Fr Jamie McMorrin

THIS past week, I haven’t been in Edinburgh. Last Wednesday, I tidied my desk, cleared my in-tray and set up an ‘out of office’ response to my emails.

I even—horror of 21st century horrors! — switched off my mobile phone and left it in a drawer. I was heading to the monastery for my annual silent retreat.

It was glorious! I caught up on some spiritual books that I’d been meaning to get around to for ages, took long walks in the countryside, wrote some letters to long-neglected friends and sought the advice of one of the wise monks who’d been assigned to look after me.

But above all, I prayed. For this past week prayer was, as it really always should be, the number one priority that dominated my diary.

 

Stations of prayer

Monasteries are built for prayer. They’re the Church’s power stations of prayer, the silent spiritual engine room that keeps the Church moving through history.

The whole monastic day is structured around the prayer of the Divine Office, which is the monks’ primary occupation and to which St Benedict instructs them to ‘prefer absolutely nothing.’

The Liturgy of the Hours, as it’s also known, is made up of psalms, hymns and readings from Scripture and from the writings of the saints.

Every day, seven times, from the early morning until last thing at night, the monks and their guests gather together in the abbey church to chant the praises of God in words that go back many centuries.

Although they dedicate their lives to it in a special way, the Divine Office is not the exclusive property of monks and nuns—far from it! It’s the prayer of the Church, and it’s open to anyone.

In fact, the Church obliges all priests, by solemn promise on the day of their ordination, to pray the Divine Office every day.

 

Prayer without ending

Although the nature of our ministry means that we have to be a little more flexible than the monks when it comes to the exact times of prayer, this commitment obliges priests to make regular prayer a part of the structure of our day.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t usually have a choir—or even a congregation!—on hand when it comes time for me to pray the Office, so I usually say it on my own.

Except that I don’t pray alone: precisely because this is the prayer of the Church, I know that I’m praying in union with all priests, everywhere in the world, as well as with countless thousands of my Christian brothers and sisters.

In this way, the whole Church ‘prays without ceasing’: I know that when I finish Night Prayer and get ready to switch off my light for bed, another priest on the other side of the world is picking his own breviary and asking God to ‘open his lips.’

 

Divine Office

This is the beauty of the liturgy. It’s something in which I participate—fully, consciously and actively, as the Second Vatican Council puts it—but when I do so, I’m being caught up in something that’s much bigger than me in my bedroom.

When I pray the Divine Office, I’m adding my own voice—tiny, wavering and often out of tune—to the great, thundering chorus of the praying Church, throughout the world and in Heaven too. What a thought!

It’s also a great way to pray for the Church. This helps me especially when the tone of the psalm doesn’t exactly fit my current mood: when the psalmist is desperately asking God for help against the dreadful enemies attacking him, or rejoicing at the fruitful abundance of the harvest, I know that somewhere in the Church of which I’m a part, these words are striking exactly the right note.

As it happens, if I’m listening carefully, there’s almost always something that the Lord could have put there just for me, some little word or phrase that jumps off the page and tells me just what I needed to hear from God in that moment.

 

‘A gym for the soul’

St Augustine says that the Psalms are like a gym for the soul, and sooner or later every spiritual muscle is given a workout! Like regular physical exercise, I don’t always feel like it—sometimes, to be honest, my heart isn’t in it at all.

But Mother Church, the best of all personal trainers, knows exactly what I need to keep me fit and healthy and makes me promise to stick to the programme she lays down.

In that sense, last week in the monastery was, spiritually, a bit like going running with the Royal Marines! But I feel so much the better for it. It’s reminded me how important prayer is in my priestly life: not just for special times of the year, or when I feel like it, but regularly, each and every day.

Anyway, I’d better hurry up and send this article off to the editor: it’s almost time for Vespers. I’ll be praying for you…

 

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