Whenever we want to ask a favour of someone powerful, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the God of all with the upmost humility and sincere devotion. We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, prayer should always be brief; and when the prioress or abbot gives the signal, all should rise together.
This chapter formally concludes the chapters on community prayer. As this is done, Benedict recalls us to humility. Humility was the subject of chapter 7, before the turn to community prayer in chapters 8 through 20. Here, in this final chapter, community prayer and humility unite. A fruit of this union is reverence.
Reverence shows when we are humbly in touch with created reality, that is, when we are not caught in the illusion of separation and independence from each other, creation, and the divine life. As humility grows, egocentricity fades. With fading egocentricity comes the embrace of our conditional and vulnerable created life, as well as our mutuality with and in God. The experience of this conditionality, vulnerability, and divine mutuality fills us with awe and wonder, amazement and respect. Reverence ripens in contemplation and is embodied and expressed in creation, for creation.
Compunction, that healing and heartfelt mix of sorrow, remorse, self-knowledge and faith, is a sure sign that someone is humble before our loving and mysterious God. From this comes a reverence not in need of words, a reverence that shuns words for words sake. Reverence is at home in silence.
Like any grounded spirituality, the Rule is always practical. Benedict invites a practical reverence. If we are in the oratory too long, this can undermine not only what grace can do there, but also what a loving God could be doing for all in the kitchen or the garden – unless, of course, grace has moved us to remain in the meditation room after formal prayers. Here, once again, the Rule shows its flexibility.
The reverence engendered during communal prayer extends and flows into all action, both inside and outside the meditation room. How attentive, for example, are we to the leader of prayer; are we praying at the pace and volume they set? Do we leave the room tidy; are we straightening cushions and chairs, returning books to their place? What of our body language while together; a still body during meditation, bowing to the altar, as well as our practice of waiting for the community leader to leave first? These are all a sign and a practice of reverence. This reverence has its origin in silence shared, and continues beyond the oratory, expressed simply and consciously in whatever aspects of ordinary life we attend to. With reverence everything is prayer.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29, NRSV)