Benedict states in his rule: “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere…above all let us believe this without any doubt when we stand for the divine work” [RB 19:1-2]. Praying the Divine Office is so important that eagerness for this prayer is one of three signs of a monastic vocation [RB 58.7]. Listening to the voice of God in the psalmody, scriptural readings, the hymns, antiphons, and canticles is the primary way to start and end each day, because one is in contact with God’s presence spoken in the scripture in the community. The psalms are divided into two choirs as the sisters face each other in the oratory (chapel). The understanding is that as one choir voices God’s message through the psalm verses, the other choir listens to God’s word. Then they reverse the process, so each side speaks God’s word and, in turn, listens to that word.
We pray in this way mindful that God’s word can affect a change of heart slowly, gradually over a lifetime of fidelity to this form of prayer. Communal prayer is like a simmering crock pot, according to the monk Demetrius Dumm in his book, Cherish Christ Above All:
“I have tried to think of an image that would illustrate this subtle but effective action of the psalms on the minds and hearts of those who are faithful to them. The image I have found most apt to express this mysterious action is that of the crock-pot. It cooks by a process that is very slow, quiet and unobtrusive, but it tenderizes the toughest cuts of meat in a way that is so subtle that one is invariably surprised at the result. Some may prefer the noisy, hissing pressure cooker, and it is no doubt effective too — and certainly takes less time. But that is not the Benedictine way. Benedictines have always been very patient in matters of conversion, for they are convinced that haste is not fruitful in the long run. And I suspect that many a tough-willed monastic (or other Christian) has been made docile and gentle before God by faithful praying of the psalms.”*
Some who come to pray with us have asked, “How can you pray the psalms that have so much violence in them?” My response is that we can pray in solidarity with all those who experience violence and harm and ask God to bring healing and hope. Or one can pray a curse on cancer, on oppression, on human trafficking, and other systems that perpetuate evil on the vulnerable, while also asking forgiveness on the perpetrators of such violence.
A part of Divine Office is the silent pauses between psalms and the longer silence after the reading, which allow the listeners to reflect on the particular phrase or word that touches their hearts, in order to take it to heart and call it up throughout the day. In the Benedictine tradition, this process is called meditatio, that is, chewing on the word of God throughout the day that is part of lectio divina, which since the middle ages was understood as lectio — the reading of scripture, meditatio — pondering what one reads by memorizing it, oratio — prayer, and contemplatio — presence of the one praying to God. However, in ancient monasticism lectio divina was “the desire to allow oneself to be challenged and transformed by the fire of the Word of God,” in such a way that one embodied that word; in other words, the word of scripture became flesh in the way one lived it.**
During the month of January the sisters at St. Gertrude’s concentrated their lectio discussions on Wednesday evenings by sharing their insights on articles devoted to lectio divina. Then during Lent they could choose to offer their half-hour of lectio between 4:15 and 4:45 p.m. with the intention of sending peace out into our nation and the world, wherever peace is needed. In this way, the fruit from engaging in lectio was intended to deepen in our own hearts the need for peace and to be in solidarity with so many peoples who need peace.
Our prayer board in the chapel hall is often filled with requests for prayer, most of them personal intentions for loved ones. Recently, we received a request from a colleague, Weldon Nisly, who asked for prayers for his peace-keeping mission in Iraq. Weldon and his companions will be engaged in the Christian Peacemaker Team working among the Kurdistan people from April 19 to June 7. Will you join us in praying for the Spirit to bring good fruits from their efforts? As I walk from my office to chapel several times a day, I often see our sisters, oblates, volunteers, employees, and friends stopping by the prayer board to read the many requests there and, no doubt, to offer prayer on behalf of so many people in need. Carrying these requests to chapel, when we pray the Divine Office, is our way of praying the psalms on behalf of the wider community of God’s people. Ξ
*Demetrius Dumm, OSB, Cherish Christ Above All: The Bible in the Rule of Benedict (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1996) 124-25.
**Armand Veilleux, “Lectio Divina as school of prayer among the Fathers of the Desert”; this is the translation of a talk given at the Centre Saint-Louis-des-Français in Rome, in November 1995, p. 5.