This weekend is my third visit to a monastery. We are here for our men's retreat from church. We gather together in their guest house on our own, leading our own discussions, gathering in prayer, etc. But we also walk over to the Abbey Church and join the monks for their daily prayers: 7 am, 11:30am, 5pm, and 7pm. We don't have to; it's optional. But I've come to appreciate the richness and depth of time with God available in those monastic gatherings.
It is an unusual place for an Evangelical to be found. We tend to shy away from the Catholic traditions. Often we've been taught that they just aren't "Christian." They're almost cult-like or heretical at best. But I've found that most of the traditions are almost as old as Christ Himself (at least the incarnational Christ). Some of the practices date back to ancient Judaism which birthed the Christian church. There are plenty of things that the larger Protestant church as a whole needs to reclaim that we missed out on when we separated ourselves from the first 1600 years of Christian history.
A monastery is an unusual place for most Evangelicals to go it seems. But I am enriched by my time here. As we joined in prayer times with the monks I became aware of the things I was learning from them:
Reverence for Christ. As we enter the choir stalls, as we leave the choir stalls, whenever we pray the Gloria Patri, anytime you sing a verse that praises the Trinity you bow. Anytime a monk approaches the altar, they bow. Of course, some people just do it because they're supposed to. But if you keep before you the Lordship of Christ, the act of bowing is a humbling, worshipful act of acknowledgment of who Jesus is.
The Centrality of the Cross. For whose who follow Jesus, the cross was a turning point in history. It changed everything. I don't know if I'll ever understand churches that avoid using symbols of the cross in worship spaces. When the monks gather to pray, the cross is at the center (hanging above the altar at St. John's). Several times during prayers they make the sign of the cross over themselves. I admit to not being comfortable doing it for most of my life. I grew up with the impression that it wasn't a ritual fitting for Evangelical Christians. We couldn't be further from the truth. Marking myself with the cross reminds me that I have submitted myself to Christ. I have died. It is no longer me who lives, but Christ who lives in me.
All Scripture Matters. In many churches, we tend to avoid the parts of Scripture that aren't pleasant to read. There are many Psalms that deal with anger, vengeance, sorrow, bitterness, doubt, and other emotions we don't like to talk with. The monks hear every Psalm several times each year.
The Need to Slow Down. It took me a while to get used to the rhythm of reading the first time I visited a monastery and prayed with the sisters. The Psalms and other readings are laid out line by line--not sentence by sentence. And after each line there is a short pause. Very short. But noticeable. And not natural. It forces you to slow down and focus.
Silence is Golden. It is in being silent that we can hear God and hear ourselves. We don't take those opportunities to be silent enough. When I get in the car, I like to turn on the radio. When I'm alone I distract myself with the computer, television, or phone. We miss moments to hear God and hear ourselves. These happen for the monks each time they gather in prayer.
Everyone has a Voice. Each side of the choir where the monks gather takes a turn reading at times in the Psalms. Our side reads. Then we sit and listen to the other side chant. Scripture is participatory.
Worship Works Best in Community. We cannot worship God alone the same way we can in community. That is not to say we should not worship Him by ourselves. We should. Be we need the deep intimacy of a community that knows, understands, accepts, and forgives you.
Ritual has Meaning. We all know plenty examples of places where ritual has replaced worship--where the tradition has to be done for the sake of being done. Ritual done meaningfully, however, takes the participant before God--even if they are unable to get there on their own. We all have times when our emotions, circumstances, or other outside forces block us from wanting, or even being able to, come to God in worship. Meaningful ritual is able to take us before Him in those times--again, when we do it in community. Ritual has the negative connotation of just going through the motions. This isn't all bad (as long as there are times you enter into it purposefully). Sometimes we need the repetition of the motions to help us enter into holy spaces when we're feeling unholy. And when we are able to purposefully enter into good rituals, they help to connect us more deeply to God, as long as we are able to focus on the reason for the ritual itself and not just the act.
The Importance of Living Well. One of the monks came and talked to our group this morning about the journey of faith and life; we were able to ask questions. It's a blessing to get to hear their stories. He shared about some anger he had at one point in his life when he was reassigned to a job he didn't want to do in a place he didn't want to be. But he recognized in a few older monks how holding on to anger had twisted them. He didn't want to end up that way, so he prayed through it. Each day. For a few years. And God delivered him. As the monks gather, it is evident which ones are living well--making those life choices that keep them focused on Christ rather than becoming bent and twisted. We all have those choices to make each day.
(I also learned that staying up talking with a friend or playing games until well after 11pm and being up for 7am prayers with the monks does not make a restful weekend. Good, but not restful.)