Prayer in the Monastery

After the tenth assertion of God’s unfailing generosity, my companion couldn’t help leaning over to me and murmuring, “Do you get the message?”

After all that repetition, how could I avoid it? It stuck with me, too. All the next day, the steady chant haunted my thoughts. Even in subsequent weeks, the good news of God’s mercy, written centuries ago and proclaimed in the context of formal, liturgical prayer continued to creep into my consciousness, comforting me in difficult, confusing times.

And to tell you the truth, at the time I was a bit surprised. Being a Vatican II baby, my religious formation took place, for the most part, in the years when young people were taught every conceivable form of prayer except formal prayer. As teens we were seated in circles and instructed to breathe … find our centers … focus on our mantras… and visualize.

We were exposed to charismatic prayer, spontaneous prayer, imaginative praying, centering prayer and even, as one young nun breathlessly explained to us behind closed doors, out of earshot of the priest who was our principal, a touch of transcendental meditation.

The whole thing could seem kind of nutty sometimes — expecting 15 year-old kids to snap into high contemplative mode merely at the opening strains of “You’ve Got a Friend,” but I suppose we can be generous and see it as a heartfelt attempt to expand our notion of prayer beyond rote recitation and expose us to the richness of spirituality.

Unfortunately, most well-intentioned innovations have an awkward yet inevitable byproduct called the law of unintended consequences. For me and many of my contemporaries who were formed in the church of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the result of all of that spiritual window-shopping was that we got the message that we were only really praying when we were deep in meditation. Anything else was childish, immature, and akin to reciting the alphabet when you could be pondering Wordsworth.

The result for many of us was the opposite of what was hoped for by those who so earnestly taught us. I think we actually ended up praying less frequently because we had such high expectations of what “real” prayer was, and for heaven’s sake, who has time to do that with your job, kids and everything else that crowds your day? Since the only formal prayers we know are the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, and not many of us can put those together into a coherent rosary, this leaves our formless chats with God, which are all well and good, but can render us unattached to tradition and any community greater than ourselves.

I was in that chatty, ultimately self-referential spiritual space a few years ago when a friend suggested that we pray together. In my mind, I imagined some spontaneous prayer offered for various needs and causes. No, he said, why don’t we pray the rosary?

The rosary? Like what those old people race through before daily Mass? Sure, he said. And when we can’t pray together, we could pray it wherever we are, for the needs of the other.

In the back of my mind, I know I wondered what good that could possibly do. I understood, theoretically that the rosary was a valuable aid to meditation, but my fine religious training was still preventing me from accepting repetition of prayers as … real prayer.

But I agreed, and of course, I learned.

I found that it was actually easier to let go in the context of formal prayer than it had been in my attempts at meditation, which had been marked, I saw now, by a “works” mentality. What with all the emphasis on techniques and stages, prayer had become one more area of life in which I felt driven to achieve, rather than just be.

I learned that when things got bad and my own words were incapable of expressing what I felt, deep solace could be found in a prayer that someone else wrote a long time ago and had been handed down to me like a gift. It was one that I, a cradle Catholic, didn’t learn until the ripe old age of thirty-two — “…To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears…”

Real prayer? You better believe it.

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