Thursday, October 11, 2007

Reading for Feb 10, June 11, Oct 11

Today's reading from the Rule of St. Benedict

February 10, June 11, October 11
Chapter 8: On the Divine Office During the Night

In the winter time,
that is from the Calends of November until Easter,
the sisters shall rise
at what is calculated to be the eighth hour of the night,
so that they may sleep somewhat longer than half the night
and rise with their rest completed.
And the time that remains after the Night Office
should be spent in study
by those sisters who need a better knowledge of the Psalter
or the lessons.

From Easter to the aforesaid Calends of November,
the hour of rising should be so arranged that the Morning Office,
which is to be said at daybreak,
will follow the Night Office after a very short interval,
during which they may go out for the necessities of nature.

Some thoughts:

I am grateful for the historical information Sr Joan provides in her commentary on today's reading. What she doesn't say and I feel it should be noted is that in his prescribed hours of rest, Benedict is in sharp contrast to what had been the norm in earlier centuries of Christian monasticism. Eight hours of sleep a night!! The Desert Christians would call that sloth as it is clear from reading the Sayings that they considered sleep a waste of time. In our crazymaker world, do you get enough sleep?

Unlike previous centuries of monasticism, Benedict does not despise the body. He not only provides for an adequate amount of sleep, he also provides the opportunity to go to the bathroom. In his Rule, here is no hint of the body/soul, body/spirit Hellenistic dualism that we find in the Desert Christians and has plagued God's people for centuries. Benedict is concerned with the proper health of the whole, returning to the Hebraic and Pauline concept that body, mind, soul, spirit are all synonyms for the same thing. Does knowing this have any effect on your view of yourself?

With chapter 8, we move into Benedict's teaching about prayer. Prayer is certainly central to the Benedictine life. As we read through the Rule we will discover that Benedict's Rule has his monks praying first and then going about the daily work of the monastery. Pray first, then work. I like this model. How do you feel about it?

Insight for the Ages: A Commentary by Sr Joan Chittister

Among the Sayings of the Desert Monastics there is a story that may explain best Benedict's terse, clear instructions on prayer:

Once upon a time the disciples asked Abba Agathon, "Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?" Abba Agathon answered, "I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. What ever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath."

There are three dimensions of the treatment of prayer in the Rule of Benedict that deserve special attention. In the first place, it is presented immediately after the chapter on humility. In the second place, it is not a treatise on private prayer. In the third place, it is scriptural rather than personal. Prayer is, then, the natural response of people who know their place in the universe. It is not designed to be a psychological comfort zone though surely comfort it must. And lastly, it is an act of community and an act of awareness.

Prayer, as Abba Agathon implies, is hard and taxing and demanding work. It breaks us open to the designs of God for life. It brings great insights and it demands great responses. It is based on the psalms, the very prayers that formed Jesus himself. And, most of all, it is unceasing. Day and night, Benedict says, day and night we must present ourselves before the face of God and beg for the insight and the courage it will take to go the next step.

There are volumes written on the structure and the history of the Divine Office: psalms, scripture readings and prayers that are identified as the official prayer of the church. What is most noteworthy here is not so much the ordering of the parts of the Office which Benedict himself says in another place is not absolute but the demonstration of humanity that undergirds the place of the Divine Office in the life of the monastic. The way Benedict deals with prayer says a great deal about the place of prayer in the life of us all even fifteen centuries later.

At first reading, the prayer life of Benedict's communities seems to be inhumanly rigorous and totally incompatible with modern life, either religious or lay. The monks are "to arise at the eighth hour of the night," the Rule says and that is at least impossible for most people if not downright fanatical or destructive. It is important for a modern reader to realize, however, that the Roman night in a world without electric lights was computed from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am, from sundown to sunup. In this culture, in other words, the monks went naturally to bed at about 6:00 pm. To wake at the eighth hour, then, was to wake at about 2:00 am, after eight full hours of sleep and the natural restoration of the body, to use the remaining hours before the beginning of the workday in prayer and study. The difference between us and the early monastic communities is that we extend our days at the end of them. We go to bed hours after sundown. They extended their days at the beginning of them; they got up hours before sunrise. The only question, given the fact that we both extend the workday hours, is what we do with the time. We stay up and watch television or go to parties or prolong our office hours. We fill our lives with the mundane. They got up to pray and to study the scriptures. They filled their souls with the sacred.

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