Back in November, I had the opportunity to visit one of my seminary alma maters, Conception Seminary College in Conception, Missouri. My purpose was to make a retreat and visit the Benedictine Abbey to which the seminary is attached. This meant praying with the monastic community five times each day for the chanted Divine Office.
During my two years in the seminary, I prayed with the monks from time to time, but to do so for an entire week deepened my appreciation for their monastic way of life. All people will benefit from a monastery experience, even if it’s a few hours, a weekend, or a whole week.
Summoned by the Bell
The bells ring daily before all prayer times and for Mass. As I walked to Vigils at 6am, the sound of the bell reminded me to pray the Angelus along the way. But it also served as a reminder throughout the day that I was being summoned to prayer every time I heard it.
Does your church ring its bells before Mass or can they be heard ringing at 6, 12, and 6 to signal it’s time to pray the angelus? If you don’t know, next time you are at Mass, be sure to listen and see if the bells are summoning you to prayer. You might also consider setting alarms on your phone if you wish to be reminded to pray daily at certain times, whether it’s the Angelus or 3pm for the hour of mercy.
At Conception Abbey, their Divine Office begins with hymns. Given our familiarity with the hymns we sing at Mass, these hymns were different and unfamiliar to me. Contained within the lyrics were beautiful images and prayers to God.
Chanting the hymns with the monks fostered in me a deeper appreciation for the lyrics. Now, when I sing any hymn I try to be more attentive to the words and what they might be saying to me.
Greater Appreciation for the Psalms
The Divine Office is comprised mostly of Psalms. Often the monastic hours contain more psalms than the Liturgy of the Hours (or breviary) that most people pray. Because the monks [plain] chant the psalms, it means the pace is a bit slower, giving brief moments to reflect on the words just prayed. Sometimes those words can strike the heart or soul and move us to deeper prayer.
Praying with the monks will enhance how you pray any text because you too will want to slow down and see what God is trying to say in the words you read and pray.
Remembering the Dead
I was struck by the devotion of praying for the dead at the monastery. During my five-day visit, two monks died which intensified their prayer for their beloved dead by reciting the Office of the Dead. At Conception Abbey they pray at the end of their hours, “May the divine assistance remain always with us and with our absent brethren.” And their vesper prayer often contained a petition for the dead of their community.
How often do you remember and pray for the beloved dead that you know? For me, the daily remembrance of the monks encouraged me to pray more fervently for my absent brethren.
Giving Thanks to God
For those who pray Daytime Prayer, the conclusion we are most familiar with is “let us bless the Lord, and give him thanks.” At Conception Abbey, the response is similar, “let us bless the Lord, thanks be to God.” While I pray that versicle and response on a daily basis, it took on new meaning during my visit. It was an invitation for me to consider God’s blessings and for what I am thankful.
Every time we go to Mass, we say “thanks be to God” at the end of the first and second readings. Again, I paused, and began to consider, how am I thankful for the words God has just spoken to me through the scripture readings I heard? Visiting the monastery fostered a deeper spirit of thanksgiving within my heart and soul.
Night Prayer and Blessing with Holy Water
Every night the monks end their day with compline, a hymn to Mary, and a blessing with holy water. The abbot or another superior sprinkles the gathered community with holy water, beseeching God’s blessing upon the community during the nighttime. The nightly routine of the monastic community could become a routine for you as well. End your night with a family prayer, pray a prayer asking the Blessed Virgin’s intercession, and then sprinkle your family with holy water. This beautiful ritual will enrich your family’s prayer and wrap them in God’s love and protection.
Learning to Get Along
As I sat in the pews of the abbey church, I could only fathom what that communal life must be like. A monastery is a pretty established community. The Benedictines vow themselves to a life of stability and will stay at the monastery for the entirety of their lives with few exceptions. Monks come from all places and walks of life. They have their own personalities. Yet they all strive to get along and pray together each day. A similar construct occurs in our families, workplaces, and communities, when we strive to put aside differences and choose to cooperate for the good of the other.
Marvel at the Years of Service and Prayer
I watched the monks process in for prayer each day. Some of the monks have been in the monastery for over 50 years. Looking at them all, I cannot fathom all the graces God has given to the world through their daily prayer, service, and dedication.
Whether it is spiritual or secular, we can be filled with the same wonder at the years of dedicated service of ourselves, family members, or friends. Marvel at 50 years of married bliss of people you know. Be amazed by the 30 years of teaching or police work of someone you know.
Go Visit a Monastery
If you haven’t visited a monastery. Consider doing so sometime soon. You will be exposed to a different way of life and prayer than you are used to and your spiritual senses will be awakened. A visit to a monastery might be what you need in 2020, whether it is to jumpstart begin, or deepen your relationship with God. Search for Benedictine, Cistercian, or Trappist monasteries. Or visit any religious community for that matter and pray with them. Plan your visit, whether its for Mass, prayer times, or to make a personal retreat. And when you visit, be attentive to what God is doing in your heart and soul. Once you visit a monastery, your spiritual life will never be the same.