I have never been very adept at prayer. I’m probably one of the only people ever to flunk a retreat on praying in daily life. I couldn’t seem to carve out regular meetings with my spiritual director, much less time to write a prayer journal. Which is why I love staying at monasteries.
Monasteries provide a welcome respite from the daily chaos. They offer distinct times for prayer, woven into the rhythm of the day.
The first time I spent an extended period at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani outside of Louisville, I wondered if I would make it to Vigils, the first prayers of the morning. They begin, after all, at 3:15 a.m. But when the bells rang at 2:45 a.m., inviting the guests to wake, I bolted out of bed.
It took about 10 minutes to walk down a hill from the guest house to the abbey church. There to light my path was a full moon. In the southern sky hung a swath of stars like a carpet of white Christmas lights: the Milky Way. Waking at that hour, surrounded so vividly by the vast mystery of the cosmos, I felt as though I was living the words of the Psalmist:
When I see the heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you arranged,
what are we humans that you keep us in mind,
mortal creatures that you care for us …
Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic
Is your name in all the earth. (Psalm 8)
There is something deeply humbling about interrupting our sleep to stand with others in prayer. We become part of a mystery that is larger than ourselves. We realize we are but a small part of the universe, not the center of it.
As a married, professional woman, I can’t live full-time in a monastery. In the course of a busy workday, I don’t have the luxury of stopping for prayer. I do, however, need a daily prayer rhythm. So how can I — and other harried people like me — nurture a meaningful prayer life?
The experience of the early desert monastics offers some insight. Living in a hut or grotto, they wove their baskets and prayed. They grew vegetables and prayed. They ate their meals and prayed. They went to bed and prayed. And in the silence of their hearts, they prayed.
In his fascinating book, The Day to Day Life of the Desert Fathers in Fourth Century Egypt, Lucien Regnault notes that prayer isn’t mentioned specifically in many written accounts of the lives of early desert monks. That’s because it was “part of the hidden, intimate, and personal activities” of the monk’s routine life. “It was the exception to find a monk who only prayed and did no work.”
I find comfort in this ancient idea that prayer can weave through the fabric of my work life, where I spend the bulk of my time and energy. I can try to make all of my actions a kind of prayer.
The great spiritual teacher Thomas Merton understood that prayer is life itself. As he wrote so beautifully in “Day of a Stranger,” one of his essays, “What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.”
When I look upon my work as a form of prayer, I am less tempted to argue with others, gossip, or complain. I better manage my sometimes hot Sicilian temper.
I do also try to take short pauses in the course of my workday. It is one means of practicing a personal Liturgy of the Hours. In her book, Seven Sacred Pauses, the Benedictine writer Macrina Wiederkehr suggests our pauses can be as brief as stopping to observe a bird or a flower bed, or as simple as breathing attentively.
“Breathe in gratitude and compassion for yourself,” she writes. “Breathe out love and encouragement for your coworkers, friends, family members . . . Your pause may be an awakening stretch, or sitting quietly remembering your name.” Taking brief pauses gives me a greater sense of having lived the day.
As St. Benedict notes in his Rule for monastic life, prayer need not involve a riot of words. “Watch and pray” was a common counsel in the early church. For those of us embroiled in the busy world of work, sometimes the best prayer of all is silence.