March 22, July 22, November 21
On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine office, the monk will immediately set aside what they have in hand and go with utmost speed, yet with gravity and without giving occasion for frivolity. Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.
If at Vigils monastics come after the “Glory be to the Father” of Psalm 94, which we wish, therefore, to be said quite deliberately and slowly, they are not to stand in their regular place in choir. They must take the last place of all, or one set apart by the abbot for such offenders, that they may be seen by them and by all, until they do penance by public satisfaction at the end of the Work of God. We have decided, therefore, that they ought to stand either in the last place or apart from the others so that the attention they attract will shame them into amending. Should they remain outside the oratory, there may be those who would return to bed and sleep, or, worse yet, settle down outside and engage in idle talk, thereby “giving occasion to the Evil One” (Eph. 4:27; 1 Tim. 5:14). They should come inside so that they will not lose everything and may amend in the future.
At the day hours the same rule applies to anyone who comes after the opening verse and the “Glory be to the Father” of the first psalm following it: they are to stand in the last place. Until they have made satisfaction, they are not to presume to join the choir of those praying the psalms, unless perhaps the abbot pardons them and grants them an exception. Even in this case, the one at fault is still bound to satisfaction.
With the words “nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God”, Benedict challenges us to value first our daily times of prayer and meditation. If these times are not the priority, what then might be getting in the way? Is there resistance? Forgetfulness? Perhaps we would prefer to read a book? Maybe there is housework to be done? Is it a challenge to walk away from the TV or the phone? Perhaps we acquiesce too readily to the routine of others? When we are committed to growing past egoism, subtleties of distraction and avoidance running through each day will seek influence. A commitment to the rhythm of a prayer routine, both communally and personally, helps us to move past these moments of impulse and avoidance that would have us, if followed, distracted, attending to God less.
The importance of regular meditation done at the same time each day cannot be underestimated. This rhythm is not only external, but also internal. The use of rhythm and routine serves the focusing and settling of the mind; they also help us to remain faithful as we grow in faith. The Work of God is done as we pray.
Here we see Benedict being kind while also, once again, asking for accountability. There are times when we slip from routine and that is okay. During these times too, there can be some acknowledgment of a slip, done kindly and consistently. This is easier done together as we hold each other accountable in the life of community. Personally, accountability might happen when we notice that, because we missed prayer and meditation, we just don’t seem to be ourselves. Maybe there is more impatience, perhaps a sense of disconnect from the now and people of the day. Whatever it might be, separateness lurks, distracting us from the reality of unity. In moments like these, grace can draw us back into a renewed commitment to a contemplative rhythm.
A practice of the WCCM that is like what the rule recommends is, if we are late for meditation, we do not enter the prayer space once meditation has begun. Why would we do this? A late arrival is a distraction to others. Remaining outside is a practice in other-centredness. Being late however, is not a reason to not meditate. Where possible, a chair or two is placed near the entrance. This chair is for those who are late, enabling them to meditate with those inside and not miss out.
In each moment, the gravity of grace works to draw the whole of us into the divine life, the treasure of our hearts. Our daily prayer, as a practice of openness to this gravity, is where grace can work most powerfully in us. In the absence of this openness, we can become diffused, with attention scattered. We risk losing everything – our prayer rhythm and consciousness of divinity in each moment. We must always be practicing lest we lose what we have become via the practice, what has been done in and with grace. The question in this chapter is a question that runs through the rule and all life: where is your heart?
‘Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moth and woodworm destroy and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures for yourselves in heaven, where neither moth nor woodworm destroys and thieves do not break in and steal. For wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be too.’ (Matthew 6:19-21, RNJB).