“Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.”
— St. Ephrem of Syria
In this series I am explaining the many lessons the faithful can learn from monks and nuns (the religious/consecrated) of the Church. In the spirit of the Year of the Consecrated I will be describing monastic practices and give some examples of what people living in the world can learn from the lives of those lived in monasteries.
If we are going to talk about monasteries we must start with prayer. Of all the things a monastery is, it is first and foremost a place of prayer. Prayer is so vital because through prayer a Christian comes to know God and himself. Through prayer, love grows and the kingdom which is within is uncovered. In part one of this series I explained that discovering the kingdom, and knowing God and one’s self was the goal of the Christian life. It is through these actions that we are able to fulfill the two great commandments: Love God above all else and thy neighbor as thyself.
Religious orders and monasteries have different prayer routines. Some are more contemplative, others more active, but in both cases, prayer is the heart of monastic life. At Holy Resurrection Monastery (where my family and I attend services) the Divine Office is prayed throughout the day and the Divine Liturgy (Mass) is said three days a week and on special Feast days for most of the year. There are times of silence every day in order to practice the Jesus prayer and draw nearer to God. The monks also participate in other work: hospitality, spiritual direction, and running a bakery, to name a few examples. However, “The first and most important work of the Monastery is the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries and the Divine Praises of the Byzantine Church.” (H.R.M., 2000)
So, what can the rest of us not living in monasteries learn from all of this? How can we apply this lesson in our own daily lives? I have learned the value of prayer by seeing these men dedicate their lives to living out this daily routine of prayer and work. Of course, I have had to learn how to follow that example in my own life and in my own family. As Abbot Nicholas has explained, it is unreasonable to think most Christians living in the world could ever spend as much time in prayer as monks and nuns do. He recently told me, “However, this is only a matter of quantity and not quality.”
The Abbot speaks of Christian prayer regularly. He tells people “all Christians must be mystics.” He often reminds people that Christianity is about more than keeping rules, fulfilling obligations, and being a good moral person. The Christian life is about encountering God, communing with the Holy Trinity. It is about a radical change of who we are; a dying of the old man and the putting on of the new. Christianity is about the new life we now share with Christ; it’s about the union our souls have with God. And that is what a mystic is; a person whose soul communes with God.
We all know famous stories of popular mystics like St. Teresa of Avila or St. Seraphim of Sarov. We know of saints who levitated, and saints who saw the uncreated light of Christ. Yes, these saints were mystics and signs to us of how deeply the partaking in God’s life can transform us human beings. Mysticism is for all Christians. More than likely it will be in a less dramatic way and in the very ordinary acts of daily life, but in order to really be Christian, the life of Christ must shine through us. The communion with God that mystics have is the same communion we must all strive after. Prayer is essential to this communion.
St. Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” was given to all Christians and we can follow the example of monastics in obeying this command even if we will need to adjust things to suit our own lives.
It would be very hard to keep all of the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours every day for most people living in the world. However, it is a good idea to make a prayer rule for yourself and family. Starting and ending the day with some kind of prayer is a good place to start if you have never established any kind of routine. Small steps with guidance from a priest or spiritual director is very important. Jumping into a prayer routine and burning oneself out is a real danger.
At times my family has been able to pray more often throughout the day then other times of our lives. With pregnancy, small children, school demands, and just the ups and downs of family life, keeping the same routine for more than several months has never been possible. We change and do the best we can as the seasons of our lives change. The most important thing we do is center our lives around the liturgical calendar of the Church. Keeping the liturgical seasons, the major feasts of the Church, and participating in the life of the Church in this way is a constant for us and helps to keep us on track and focused. Every year can be different from the last but living our lives according to the liturgical life of the Church is our priority.
Practicing the Jesus prayer and teaching my children to do the same helps to have prayer mingled throughout our days. I have also told my children to imagine if we went about our day and never or rarely spoke to one another, this would mean we didn’t have a relationship with each other and we wouldn’t be showing our love for one another. Then I tell them to think of prayer in this way. If we go about our days rarely speaking to God then we do not have a relationship with Him and are not showing Him we love Him.
Practicing a simple prayer like the Jesus prayer or saying Hail Marys and seeking prayer from the saints can be done by all of us no matter what obligations and responsibilities we have in our day. We can make our daily work acts of prayer. We can stop what we are doing and say formal prayers. We can simply speak to God from the heart as we go about our day. Either way, understanding the need and value of prayer is the first step, asking God to help us and seeking the Holy Spirit to teach us to pray is the next. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
God is with us at all times. There is nowhere He isn’t and no place where we could possibly hide from Him. He is always ready to respond to our invitation to conversation. He is always worthy of our worship and thanksgiving. He is always eager to accept our love and return it. Practicing prayer—honest, real prayer, is essential to our growth in holiness. It is how we answer God’s invitation to follow Him. We follow Him to the depths of our hearts and uncover Him within.
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a weekly series, “Lessons from a Monastery,” focusing on bringing the lessons of monks and nuns to our everyday life for Lent and The Year of Consecrated Life. Check back at CE each Wednesday or sign up for our free, daily email newsletter.