Holy Thursday, April 1, 2010, 2:35 PM
I want to Confession yesterday, to a kindly, older monk, who was a little hard of hearing. I chose the new form of celebrating the rite face-to-face rather than kneeling behind a curtained divider. Our knees were nearly touching in the small room. Still, I had to lean in toward the ear he cupped. This made the always fearful procedure even more daunting.
In the end, our celebration of this sacrament was more than satisfactory, as the good priest absolved me and gave me wise advice. I was asked to hear these words from Psalm 37:
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
So you will dwell in the land, and be
nourished in safety.
Take delight in the Lord,
And he will give you the desires of your heart.
I am looking forward to the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper tonight. The monks are making special preparations. The handfuls of guests at the retreat house are being joined by many others.
For the daily offices retreatants are allowed to sit in choir stalls adjacent to the monks’ own and enjoy the antiphonal singing of the Psalms: one side of the church answering the other.
After three days I’m beginning to know my way around the three books and special sheets that have to be coordinated to chant along. I like the way the singing makes the Psalms strange and new, as if I’d never read them before. It must be the slowness of the chant that allows their beauty to register. The moment when we sing the “Hail, Holy Queen,” at the end of Compline has become a favorite, as the chant is more complex and difficult and affective. All the day’s praying and work has been done and we place ourselves in Jesus’ hands through Mary.
Now there are rows of folding chairs up in the transept—that’s where the guests are to sit for the Mass tonight, I think. And the monks will be circled about the altar. The change brings a sense of anticipation, even of excitement.
“This is my body.” “This is my blood.” As I look forward to the evening’s celebration, I’m also thinking of how Jesus must have felt.
We’ve all had the experience of trying to maintain our poise in a situation where we know circumstances have taken a tragic turn. Jesus knew his death waited outside the door.
When Jesus said, “This is my body,” he was anticipating the cost and, I imagine, feeling the weight of what was to come. In this moment he shows himself supremely the Master, because, instead of withdrawing in fear, He extends himself to his disciples and to all his followers throughout the ages. He begins using the great evil that will be done to him for our benefit.
Yesterday, in my meeting with my spiritual director, Fr. Ambrose, he said that if I were to make progress in my life and in my prayer, I needed to have concentrated times of prayer throughout the day, particularly in the morning and evening. I couldn’t just put a jolt in during the morning, as has been my habit. I had to find a way to carry the thread of prayer throughout the day — in something other than a panicked, “Help me!”
I can see that well enough, but I also know that for years I’ve cultivated work habits that will make this difficult. For almost my entire adult life I’ve been writing one book or another. There was always the daily allotment of 1,500 to 2,000 words to get in.
No matter how long you write, the blank screen is intimidating. If you write day after day, you learn that there are only so many good hours of concentration available. It’s like taking final exams every day.
So once I get on a roll, I don’t want to stop — I’m afraid of stopping. Who knows when the words will start to come once more?
These compulsive work habits have transferred over into my current life, even though now I’m doing a variety of things, some of which don’t demand the same level of concentration. Still, I often go to “lunch” in mid-afternoon.
I work in the morning and then keep working until I feel my concentration going and I know that whatever else I do, it’s not going to be much good anyway. Then, I stop, exhausted.
Prayer requires concentration, though. It’s not exactly like being in the same frame of mind as writing, but there are affinities. For this reason I’ve always found evening prayer difficult. At the end of the day, I want to turn my mind off, not tune it into God.
Father Ambrose advised me that taking breaks for a short time of prayer or two during the day and then toward its end is non-negotiable. I can’t let my compulsive work habits rule. I have to take a break here and there for God; and I must go to God toward the end of the day. I need to find a way of modifying and transposing the hours of prayer the monks celebrate into my own schedule.
My spiritual advisor suggested that I put a crucifix by my computer or a prayer card and just close the door for a few moments, put my hand on the crucifix, and remember that I am always in God’s presence.
The Holy Spirit would guide me, Fr. Ambrose assured. The Spirit and I would work it out if I let the Spirit direct.
I believe that.
I’d better get with it.
Toward the end of the session I told Father Ambrose that I had a better session of being quiet before the Lord last evening. I said I was praying that if the Lord wanted me to have the gift of contemplation, He would give it to me.
“No, Harold,” he said. “The Lord wants you to have this gift. He wants this for everyone. Just pray He will assist you in your practice.”