Why Worship is Not a Practice: Benedictine Prayer

There is a truth always takes me by surprise on retreat. I normally retreat at Benedictine monasteries, as you have probably figured out by now.  For a week or so my life takes on the hidden habits of the monastery, the rhythms of prayer, work, meals, fasts, and feasts. This has been my habit for well over a dozen years, yet still I sit in the first hours of prayers and hurry.

Living my life as a priest and pastor, I pray daily and lead prayer multiple times every week. And in leading prayer and worship, I have developed and fought an awareness of how time is being used. I want the rhythm to move quick enough to keep people engaged and slow enough to allow God to engage us people. But the paranoia of leadership accumulates around the quick, not the slow.

You feel the uncomfortable shuffle when the service takes a little too long or drags in the middle. If you were to ask I suspect most of my parishioners would tell you that I tend toward the slow liturgy, pausing a little too long for some, patient with the pace of readers, willing to make the full point of the sermon, something always blamed on my Baptist roots. But I feel the pressure under my poker face. I want the boat to pick up and run on the Spirit’s wave and surf the whole congregation into God’s shore, even the lawyer who always gave me the length of sermon and service for five years in even tone.

But I sit there on retreat every time and get in a hurry.

Now, in the monastery I am not in charge of anything. I have no authority or useful knowledge. I am useless for anything but prayer and praise and waiting. I am only a human being, and I sincerely relish that freedom, except that I don’t.

I worry about the pauses and the pace. I want the whole thing to hurry up. Just last year I sat in one of the most beautiful sanctuaries in the world, nestled in a quirky community of lay and monastics of the Arizona desert. It was holy place lit by late dawn sun on adobe and tile and wood, handmade, and real.

And the organist took a few minutes in the pause of the morning service to find her music, or I think it was to find her music. Or it was just the natural breath of the pause or the abbot’s patience. And I started in, “Should I help?” “Maybe she should try the plug.” “What is taking so long?”

Every time. And then it hits me. As it originally occurred to me in a blizzard at St. Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan, more than a decade before for the first of many times. This is going to go on forever.

The worship of the church is perpetual. We forget that in the moment to moment work of trying to keep everyone in the boat, engaged, and happy. We focus on the worshipper or the leader, or the pace or the pause or the comment that will come later. And we forget what the monastery remembers: it will always go on as it has always gone on.

Worship is not a practice. It is the breathing of the body of Christ. It is the very breath of creation, the Spirit’s inspiration of the cosmos itself being brought to sound by the voices of this particular congregation, community, or individual at prayer. And if we were silent, “the rocks would cry out.”

Worship should not be a practice anymore that breathing is. It is life and cannot reasonably be stopped. We only join in or not.

We may learn to do it better or worse, I suppose, but the judgement is not really ours. Worship is for God. It is the lifting up of the created thanks and praise to the Creator. It is the putting of ourselves in right relationship with God in joy and thanksgiving, and sometimes in brokenness and sorrow. But in all things, we worship God.

So I know this. I really do. But, every time I sit in retreat, I seem to forget. And the Psalms and their pauses, the monks and their patience remind me that tomorrow we will keep doing this, so relax and breathe.

A story. In the time of the collapse of the empire, the emperor brought in the capitol bishop and monk to tell them that the church’s prayers were failing to keep the barbarians at bay. The bishop cowered. But the old monk laughed.

“The tides of history may wash the empire away or not. But either way, when the sun comes up tomorrow, on whatever shore we blown up on, we will take our Psalters and praise God.”



One thought on “Why Worship is Not a Practice: Benedictine Prayer

  1. I particularly enjoyed reading this one. Eloquently written as it put pictures in my mind as well as emotions in my heart as I read it; reminding me that at times I regrettably get lost in the “mechanics” of the worship and when I catch myself doing so, I pause….then get back in the moment to be with God.

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