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Saint Benedict on personal prayer

30 November, 1999

Andrew Nugent OSB explores the Rule of St Benedict for what it might teach us about personal prayer. At a time when many people are exploring spirituality, first-time readers of Rule of Benedict (RB) are sometimes disappointed to find so little about personal prayer and nothing at all about contemplation or mysticism. No mention is […]

Andrew Nugent OSB explores the Rule of St Benedict for what it might teach us about personal prayer.

At a time when many people are exploring spirituality, first-time readers of Rule of Benedict (RB) are sometimes disappointed to find so little about personal prayer and nothing at all about contemplation or mysticism. No mention is made of different stages or degrees of prayer. No techniques are suggested for meditation, nor is there any advice about coping with dryness or distractions. Most surprising of all in a rule where everything is minutely timetabled, apart from the periods of lectio, no explicit provision at all is made for private prayer. By reference to traditional monastic practice, Benedict seems less convinced about uninterrupted solitary prayer as the principal occupation of monks. He permits potentially distracting work which his forerunners would have disallowed (41:1; 57:1), and he downgrades the traditional preference given to asceticism over labour.

Prayer in the course of work
An inventory of what RB says passim about personal prayer reveals nonetheless a more copious treatment than one might at first sight have suspected. At the very outset comes the recommendation ‘First, when you set out to do some good work, beg (God) with most insistent prayer to bring it to completion’ (Prol. 4). Several of the tools of good works refer to prayer more or less directly. One should ‘prostrate oneself frequently in prayer.’ ‘With tears and sighing one should daily confess one’s past sins to God in prayer.’ We are urged ‘to love God from a full heart’, ‘to put nothing above the love of Christ’, to ‘entrust one’s hope to God’, and ‘to yearn for eternal life with all spiritual longing.’ Particularly during Lent we are encouraged to devote ourselves to ‘prayer with tears’, and specifically to private prayer, orationes peculiares (49:4).

One faith-inspired form of prayer that Benedict recommends is that we should praise and thank God precisely for those things and in situations when we might feel tempted to do the opposite. ‘Let him who needs less thank God and not be saddened’ (34:3). If the regulation hemina of wine is not available ‘but much less or none at all, those who live there should bless God and not complain’ (40:8). The arrival of guests in a monastery does not always occasion spontaneous rejoicing. Nevertheless ‘all guests who appear shall be welcomed as Christ…the abbot and the whole community shall wash the feet of the guests.…and sing this verse: “we have received, O God, your mercy in the midst of your temple”’ (53:1, 13-14). Even in very difficult situations the monk obeys ‘out of love, trusting in God’s help’ (68:5), ‘embracing patience silently and consciously’, knowing that ‘in all this we are more than conquerors because of him who loved us’ (7:35,39). There is no distinction to be made at such times between deep faith and continuous prayer, they are one and the same thing.

Obedience to God’s will

Benedict is very sensitive to the differences between people and how uniquely the Spirit acts in each individual soul. If he hesitates to legislate for other people’s eating and drinking (40:1-2), how much more reticent will he be about quantifying or measuring their personal prayer. Chapter 20, on reverence in prayer, is a model of this discretion. Benedict recommends ‘humility and pure devotion.’ He continues ‘let us realise that we shall be heard not in much speaking, but in purity of heart and in compunction and tears.’ His conclusion is equally forthright, ‘and that is why prayer should be brief and pure, unless it be prolonged by an inspiration of divine grace.’ Benedict repeats frequently his advice that prayer should be simple and heartfelt. ‘If at other times he wishes to pray more secretly by himself, let him in all simplicity go in (to the oratory) and pray, not with a loud voice but with tears and an attentive heart’ (52:4). Prayer with tears is a recurring theme (4:57; 49: 4). The emphasis is never on methods or techniques in prayer, always on sincerity, attentiveness, spontaneity, and quality rather than quantity.

Continuous prayer

Even the verse of the psalm which Augustine uses to make his point about spiritual desire, ante te est omne desiderium meum, is understood by Benedict as referring to carnal desires (7:23). In two cases, however, RB uses the expression spiritual desire in a way entirely consonant with Augustine’s idea (4:46; 49:7). In both cases spiritual desire is clearly a state of soul which persists irrespective of external circumstances. It is ceaseless prayer.

A monastic rule of its nature is more likely to stress duties than aspirations. This may explain the rather different register of expressions which Benedict more habitually uses to situate the monk continuously in God’s presence. The disciple and, even more so, the abbot are repeatedly admonished to remember, to think, to consider, to say to themselves, to pay heed, to listen, to hear. Each of these expressions is a call to awareness of God’s presence. This is both a summons to duty and an invitation to prayer. To know oneself in God’s presence, to act accordingly, this is to pray, without any further ‘pious’ thought, and even in the presence of extraneous thoughts. The more habitual the realization of God’s presence, and of our presence to him in all our activities, the more constant is our prayer.

Contemplative vision of all creation

Christ is everywhere present in others: in the abbot (2:2; 63:13), in the sick (36:1), in guests (53:1,7), in the poor and pilgrims (53:15). Those who are responsible for others must, therefore, be filled with the fear of God. This is especially true of the abbot (3:11), the cellarer (31:2), the infirmarian (36:7), the guestmaster (53:21) and the porter (66:4) To live thus in God’s presence is also a necessary characteristic of wise counsellors (65:15). To be possessed of such sentiments, to be consistently motivated by them, is to be a truly prayerful person.

Portraits of prayer

Similar portraits appear elsewhere in the Rule: the humble cellarer who does not sadden even the unreasonable brother but gives him a friendly reply (31:7,13), the young monk who soothes the upset of an elder by throwing himself at his feet (71:6-8), the porter, too old to move far, who nevertheless hastens to greet whoever comes, ‘filled with the gentleness of the fear of God’ (66:4), the senpectae, those wise and kindly old men who act out a little charade to console an erring brother, ‘lest he be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow’ (27:3).

We have in all this, not theory, but an invaluable phenomenology of the interior life, not in the melodramatic images of naive hagiography, but in cameo portraits as convincing as they are attractive. Here we sense the gentle strength of sanctity. ‘By their fruits you shall know them’ (Mt 7:20). Here we almost see and touch the reality of union with God. This is how Benedict teaches prayer. It is worth a thousand manuals.

This article first appeared in Spirituality , a publication of the Irish Dominicans

.Benedict does not theorize about prayer. Instead he gives vivid word-pictures of prayerful people. There are the tears and sighs so frequently mentioned which betoken a heart repentant and full of love. Images of running and hastening evoke the cheerful generosity of those who ‘with the unspeakable sweetness of love race along the way of God’s commandments (Prol. 49). Chapter seven, on humility, starts with the inner dispositions of a soul but concludes with a detailed physical description of a man possessed by God, gentle, serious, humble in demeanour, free of arrogance and aggressiveness. ‘By the Holy Spirit the Lord will deign to demonstrate (demonstrare) these things in his workman, clean from vices and sins’ (7:70).When Benedict says that the pots and pans of the monastery are to be treated like ‘the consecrated vessels of the altar’ (31:10), he is not engaging in domestic hyperbole or in pretty piety. He is sharing his own contemplative vision of all creation in the divine light. His insistence on cleanliness, order, and careful handling of material things goes deeper than a tyrannical super-ego or Roman fastidiousness. It is all of a piece with the reverence that has become second nature to him. It is an habitual attitude of soul which persists even without explicit thought. These are ideas that could resonate today.Reflecting on Saint Paul’s instruction to pray without ceasing, Saint Augustine says: ‘If your desire is continual, your prayer is continual too’ (on Ps 37 et pass.). In this way he shows that continual prayer is not inconsistent with external occupations. Ceaseless prayer is a disposition of heart and soul rather than a consciously sustained activity. Benedict most often uses the word desire in a negative sense referring to our evil desires. RB sometimes evokes our presence to God in the context of evil thoughts and temptations (Prol. 28; 4:50; 5:17-19; 7:14-18). At such times, and perhaps for long periods, a person may experience no other prayer than laborious obedience to God’s will (Prol. 2) or the embrace of suffering (7:35). Such prayer may indeed be unceasing and may render quite impossible all well-crafted aesthetically pleasing prayer of one’s own devising. ‘I was like a brute beast in your presence; yet with you I shall always be’ (7:50).