Yesterday we led you into the image of the monastic cell to discover the paths to the deeper self. Today, we will deepen this path by walking out of the solitude of our cell and into the monastery church, the sacred community space. Or more specifically, into the choir of the Church, where we will find the monastics singing psalms and praying. Then we will look for some parallels in how we can create sacred space in our life and how we can share it with others.
For the monastic, the church is at the center of the spiritual life. It is to the monastery church that visitors are first brought after they are welcomed. It is designed to be both open to the public and a place of quiet retreat. It is the place where God-seekers from outside the monastery can join with the community of monastics in a common search for the transcendent. For instance, even in the closely private community of St Walburga monastery in Eichstätt Germany, which we visited some summers ago, one can sit underneath the choir where the sisters are hidden and pray along with them. If you let them know ahead of time, they will set out the books for prayer so that you can join, even though you can only hear their song coming through the cloister grate in the balcony above.
The choir where monastics pray helps to make space for the transcendent to break through, slowly, imperceptibly – in the way flowing water shapes stone. Psalms are sung and prayers are said multiple times a day, at least morning, noon, and evening. So much so that life in the monastery can indeed be said to be life in the sacred space of the choir.
Let’s look into the choir area as the monks or the nuns sing the psalms. It is morning prayer. They sit in rows chanting the verses in low tones with graceful modulation. There is not much expression in the voice, it is muted and meditative. Except for the occasional soloist or leader, all is done in unison, or trading stanzas, first one half of the choir, then the other. Long pauses come between the Psalms, with some small shuffling of books. The design allows the feeling of meditation in unison with others, and the pace and volume help each person meditate on meaning without distraction by theatrics that may not fit. All is quiet and contemplative. When one enters in all earnestness into this daily activity, it can be deeply inspirational. Prayer together with others is profoundly motivating in a way that solitary prayer cannot be.
But if each monastic had a little thought bubble above their head, where we might see the innermost movements of the heart, the scene would change. One would be irritated about how loud someone sings, another would be worrying about the bills that had not been paid by the treasurer, another would be holding hostage a grudge against the liturgist for omitting verses from the last Psalm. Someone would be worrying about their thought bubble, and wondering if others could read it. And on and further. Some indeed, would manage contemplative silence, and some even for most of the prayer. But there would be a constant background chatter of all the tensions and distractions, small and large, that run in a group of people who must live together. In this way, prayer together with others is also profoundly irritating in a way that solitary prayer cannot be. Both are grist for the mill of silent meditation. Thus we have to learn how to welcome and let go of the same distractions we find during practicing meditation.
Prayer together with others is profoundly motivating in a way that solitary prayer cannot be … It is also irritating in a way that solitary prayer cannot be. Both are grist for the mill of silent meditation.
But when monastics are away from the monastery, they do not have the comfort and support of choir to hold their search for God. Still, St. Benedict gently urges the absent monastic, whether she is in the fields working or he is on a journey, to maintain the rhythm of the prayer life of their monastery, and to return as soon as possible to the monastery church to continue their search for God among the community that is their home.
Framing a space for prayer together
This suggestion from St. Benedict offers those of us living outside the monastery longing for a contemplative life a way into the this shared search for God. Prayer together clearly does not require a church. Nor, really, does it require the physical presence of other people. The monastic alone in a field can participate in the prayer of her community simply by sharing the same time for prayer, or when that fails, simply sharing the same intention to seek God. So, even when we are alone, we might in this way pray together with others we know are praying. We are praying together with you in this 12 days of Christmas. You might pray together with your family or a beloved friend, even if all you can do today is imagine their presence and prayer.
Where can we find such such space for prayer, where we can search for deeper meaning, for the Divine in our lives? It does require some things: First, an orientation and commitment of the heart to the search. When Benedict lists the characteristics of who might be admitted to the monastery, he does not require that the aspirant have already found God. Few would qualify. He asks only that we be committed to the search for God. Even this commitment will be imperfect. “Bring your dry, agnostic prayer – God, in his mercy, accepts bad coin” says the Sufi poet Rumi. This orientation is the beginning of building a place in the heart, an inner sacred space, for prayer.
Second, prayer together requires time, and within time, rhythm. The times should be regular and anticipated. In this way they are integrated into the day in a way that occasional meditations would not. They do not have to be long. Take 3 or 5 minutes to pray the Lord’s prayer rather than 20 minutes to do the entirety of noon prayer. Take 7 minutes to read a scripture slowly rather that 30 minutes to do evening prayer. Take 2 minutes simply to breathe. But do this often and regularly.
When we pray regularly, we create an architecture in time that allows the transcendent to break through, slowly, imperceptibly – in the way flowing water shapes stone.
In addition, some minor accommodation in physical space is helpful, though not necessary. It can be a single candle in the living room, or a simple altar, or a familiar walk. As we walk through our life, a physical marker of space can remind us of the need for prayer, of the things to which one’s heart is committed, and of gratitude. As we walk through these 12 Days of Christmas here at home instead of as guests of the monastery, one of the first things we did was to agree on a prayer life we could share and a space in the home to use as our church. Thus we gather in the morning and evenings right in our living room in front of the Christmas angel on our house altar. We pray the brief daily prayers from Give Us This Day thus sharing the same prayers with a large community of people around the world. Our choir consists of simply two people and our child growing in the womb. Still we enjoy singing the psalms in turns and ringing the bell ringing into and out of our prayer practice. Creating a sacred space throughout the day reminds us of the deeper meaning in Christmas: that the Divine child is being born within us, daily. The Christmas angel and its manger scene reminds us that the stable can become our chapel. And still, we are only practicing.
Finally, prayer together needs the wisdom and grace to keep working at prayer in times of inspiration and of irritation (for instance, we still have not managed to keep up a consistent prayer schedule). The humility and courage to maintain some physical space, but most importantly, to maintain regular times and rhythms. The search for the transcendent does not come easy, instead it is a practice we only grow in by practicing. And by forgiveness when we somehow cannot manage to be faithful.
The sacred places we create might look very different. For some it is a regular meditation practice, a walk in the woods, shared prayers at a meal. And these places will change shape over time: We both, for instance, look in anticipation of how our routines will change when we welcome our child into the place. May be you are still wondering how to incorporate a sacred place in your life or how to share it with the people with whom you live. Keep searching. Do not give up.
May God grant us, and you, the perseverance, wisdom, and grace these days to do so.
Questions for sustaining A sacred space
What physical spaces and spaces in time can you find for prayer and meditation? Is there space for both time alone and time with others? How might you invite others?
Who – or what – gives my life meaning? How can I give it sacred space?
For what am I thankful? How can I give this sacred space?
What boundaries do I need to set so that I do not lose my vision of life in the busyness of life?
May you find space to seek the trascendent
When you cannot find space, may you stumble upon it
When your space is in disrepair, may God come to you even in a stable
When you cannot find time, may it break in upon you as you clean or cook or converse
And may you know, in fleeting glimpses,
that what you seek is also seeking you.