Every morning at Matins (morning prayer) our monastery prays Psalm 148. Seven times a week we pray
“Give praise to the Lord from out of the earth,
you monsters, and all you depths!
Fire and hail, snow and ice,
Tempestuous wind, who obey his word;”
(Psalm 148 7:8)
Recently, however, I think all of us in the community individually prayed these two psalm verses at Vespers (evening prayer).
Why at Vespers?
Well, we had just started Vespers and Fr. Paiisi was reading Psalms. At this point he was audible. In a few minutes, he went from being audible to being completely drowned out by the hail outside. Hail was pounding against the sides and roof of the Church and making the declaration that it was giving praise to the Lord as it says in Psalm 148. A few seconds later the village tornado siren decided to partner up with the hail in a duet. (The siren may have been loud, but the hail still maintained its position of singing lead.)
The overwhelming noise of the hail, the siren announcing a tornado warning, combined with the history of the building we live in made us realize that we should take cover. In 2000, before we had moved into the building we are in, the village had been hit by a tornado. Part of the monastery roof had decided to run away with the whirlwind; we knew it was a possibility again.
We headed to the basement for safety. Fr. Paiisi kept reading the Psalms as he processed to the basement. Other monks brought all the books necessary for the rest of Vespers. If the hail and tempestuous winds were going to give praise to the Lord, so were we. As it turned out, there was an old crucifix on one of the walls which our Abbot turned towards to lead us in prayer. We even found an extra light to turn on during the Lamp-Lighting Hymn.
While we were still listening to the hail slam into the monastery, albeit muffled since we were in the basement, we sang an ancient hymn dating back to the third or fourth century. St. Basil the Great, Doctor of the Church, who lived from 330-379 spoke of it and was unaware of its origins due to it already being considered an old hymn.
“O joyful light of the holy glory of the Father Immortal; heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ! Since we have come to the setting of the sun and have seen the evening light, we praise God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is proper for You to be praised at all times by fitting melodies. O Son of God, Giver of Life, therefore the world glorifies You!”
We finished Vespers in the basement.
It was beautiful!
Sure, the aesthetic of the Church with the icons, iconostasis, candles and so forth is more inviting than the basement with shipping materials and other signs of our newly embarked upon venture of selling coffee. Being reminded by the elements, of just a tiny bit of God’s power, helped to lift one’s mind up in prayer. There was a palpable beauty in that.
It was a memorable Vespers.
One of the monks told me that he had heard that a tornado had formed over St. Nazianz but did not touch down. The village had survived, and the monastery building survived. There was a good amount of damage to windows, cars, roofs, and a few trees in the village even fell over. Everyone’s roof, even if damaged, was still connected!
In the days after this event, I started reflecting on the storm. It got me thinking about the different ways we react to the storms in our life.
The community here reacted to the storm by continuing our prayer. We moved down into the basement for safety, but we did not give up our prayer. The storm did not cause us to run away from prayer for our safety. In some ways, it led us deeper into our prayer. It made us aware of the elements of the earth obeying the Lord and giving Him praise. This allowed us to enter more deeply into prayer. It reminded us of God’s power which caused us to enter more deeply into our prayer. It moved our location which caused us to break out of any routine we were in calling to mind and putting the emphasis on our prayer.
Is this what happens when we encounter storms?
Do I react the same way?
The honest answer is, unfortunately, sometimes. Sometimes though, I run away from the storms. When storms confront us, whether/weather (pun) they are storms of anger, frustration, anxiety, lust, loneliness, pride, covetousness, physical sickness, or anything else that can throw us around, where do we take shelter?
Often we take shelter in unhealthy ways. Shelter can be taken in the form of watching television mindlessly, being a busy body, gossip, self-pity, abuse of alcohol, drugs, sex, and many other unhealthy ways. These ways may shelter us from the immediate storm, but in reality, they leave us more open to being damaged by the elements. They are self-defeating. Instead of running towards God, we run towards the immediate ‘safety’ of not dealing with things. We are running away from God. I’m as guilty as anyone of doing it.
During my life, I’ve probably tested all possible ways to run away from the storms besetting me. In the monastery, I’ve noticed that I usually fall into one of two unhealthy ways of taking shelter from the storm. One way is by talking out loud. This usually happens when I’m feeling uncomfortable and scared to confront the storm. I will just say a random phrase out loud hoping that it leads me to not thinking about what is bothering me. It usually ends up with me laughing myself because I realize the ridiculousness of blurting out something about doorknobs or some random thing. The second is more harmful. I will find myself complaining as a way of not dealing with the storm. Complaining turns my attention away from the issue and focuses negatively on something or someone else. This negativity separates me from God and makes the storm worse.
How then should we react?
We should react just like the monks of the monastery reacted during Vespers. Instead of going down into the basement we should go down into our hearts. We should enter deep into the center of our hearts and begin to pray from there. The deep heart is where we are both the most vulnerable and the safest.
We are the most vulnerable because the prayer leaves us open to change. It is this change, the confronting and rooting out of our ‘false-selves’ that is scary and makes us vulnerable. In ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ Lucy asks if Aslan is safe. Mr. Beaver replies, “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Of course he isn’t safe, but, he’s good.” Calling on Christ and entering into our hearts puts us face to face with He who will move us away from our comfortable stubbornness and out from our pseudo-shelters.
At the same time, however, we are the safest in our deep heart meeting with Christ because we then depend on God. We are there calling on and depending on the God who wills our salvation. We are calling on and depending on the God who desires what is good for us even if we do not in any way understand it. Paradoxically, our safety is dangerous.
Storms allow us to cling to God. They call us to grow closer to the God who loves mankind. With God, even the darkest of places, and the most violent winds may serve to blow us closer to Him. That is how we respond. We run and cling to God. We grow in love towards Him. We allow Him to transform us. We praise Him.
“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6)
Pray for me that I run to God instead of away from Him when storms beset me.
Pray for me.
I’ll pray for you.