Focus on what’s important
I was on retreat this week, a guest of the monks of St. Anselm Abbey in Manchester NH. I was allowed to become, in a sense, a temporary member of their community of prayer, and found myself falling into the rhythm of the monastic hours of prayer. The first day or so, I found myself caught up in more of the how of prayer and the distractions of all that was going on around me. In the chapel I was given a prayer stall next to the prior who helpfully laid out the hymns and texts for me before each prayer. Given the option of processing in and out of the chapel with the monks I declined, choosing to sit in quiet contemplation before each hour of prayer.
The community has a particular pace to their singing and recitation. Much is accompanied by various moments of standing, kneeling, and bowing. I tried to take my cue from the monks around me and was careful to hold back and follow their lead as to tempo and tone. In spite of the fact that there was often 15-20 men in choir singing and praying, the prayer was softly muted, sung so that no one voice could easily be heard above the other.
At first I was distracted. I found my eyes wandering around, gazing at and listening to so many unfamiliar things: the monks in choir, the chapel itself, the way the light caught different angles, the sound of the chant, the airy pitch of the pipe organ, the patterns in the wood and the places where the floor and the kneeler were worn from the years of the monks’ kneeling, walking, sitting, and standing. The monks themselves were a wide spectrum of ages and types. The old brother to my right used a walker to quietly shuffle in and out of the chapel. I knew many of the monks already as the abbey sends them to St. John’s Seminary in Brighton for further study so they were either my contemporaries from my student days at the seminary or students that I had taught when I was on faculty there. It was good to see them all again.
At various times during the prayer, we would either stand or kneel. When this happened, the wooden seat would be folded up as we stood or the kneeler would be folded up or down as need be. The monks seemed to be able to do so without any noise or effort whatsoever. I, on the other hand, no matter how much I tried to be quiet, always seemed to make some kind of noise as the kneeler or seat was placed. I never did it gracefully.
Still as the week unfolded, I found myself being able to turn away from my distractions and into the prayer of the psalms, canticles, and readings themselves. There is a shelf in front of each seat on which one places the text to be used, remaining there as one stands or sits, only reaching over to turn the page as need be. I used the trick of focusing on the words on the page in front of me as we sang. By keeping my head down, I was able to avoid distractions and really center on what we were praying. Or so I thought until Wednesday morning.
At the abbey, prayer begins each day at 6:00 AM with Vigils and Lauds, what in the Liturgy of the Hours we refer to as the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer, one right after the other. That morning, as prayer began, we silently knelt on the hard wooden floor and then sat and commenced the recitation of the assigned psalms for that day. I kept my head down, focusing on the text of Psalm 103, “My soul, give thanks to the Lord, all my being, bless his holy name…,” but there was this strange little pointed shadow hanging down on my book. It seemed that the monk in front of me had put up his hood in a way that the back point of the hood was sticking out, casting a kind of dark pointer. As he slightly moved his head while reciting the texts, the pointer in turn moved from word to word like the bouncing ball over the lyrics in the old “sing-a-longs.” I found it very distracting and funny. I tried moving the book from side to side on the shelf but to no avail. Perversely, no matter where I put the book, the shadow followed. So, I gave up and gave in to “bouncing ball’ and the distractions around me and allowed them to just become part of the prayer.
Later on I was thinking about this. I was reminded that, no matter what, our faith and our prayer is always embodied, embodied in myself, embodied in those around me, and embodied in the Church. I might want to become like one of the angels, unencumbered by material form, hence undistracted by the natural order of things around me, but I can’t. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing because then I’m reminded that faith is matter of living, not just a matter of intending or idealizing or thinking. I simply can’t live my faith in the chapel or the church, seeing the people around me as a distraction to my prayer, but I have to live my faith among humanity, not just in the chapel but elsewhere. So a little distraction in prayer is not a bad thing – it so human – although next time, I think I’ll move my seat.