Pray Like St. Benedict: Short, Sharp and From the Heart

Through prayer we will find the power to obey, the roots to be stable and the fire of God’s love that will convert every aspect of our lives.

Anna Ancher, “Evening Prayer”, 1888
Anna Ancher, “Evening Prayer”, 1888 (photo: Public Domain)

The six weeks of Lent have accommodated nicely the six aspects of Benedictine spirituality. There are three vows and three tools to put Benedict’s wisdom into practice.

The three vows are for the monk to observe obedience, stability and conversion of life. Like a rope of three strands, the three vows are intertwined and interdependent. Obedience requires stability and together they lead to a conversion or transformation of life. 

To make the vows real the life of the Benedictine community revolves around three tools of the daily routine: reading, work and prayer. As the three vows are intertwined, so the three tools are interdependent: holy reading is serious work and becomes part of the prayer life while prayer and work contribute to the open mind required for good reading.

On this final week we focus on Benedict’s instructions on prayer. Firstly, he expects the monk’s prayer life to be liturgical. He sets out clear and detailed instructions on how they should sing the Divine Office. Rules vary from monastery to monastery, but in every place the liturgical life of the monastery still turns on the two hinges of Lauds and Vespers—Morning and Evening Prayer. In between are the “Little Hours” and daily Mass. The day closes with Compline or Night Prayer.

While most of us cannot observe a monastic routine of prayer we can all keep as a cornerstone of our prayer life an observance of regular, liturgical prayer. As we join in with the readings, psalms and prayers we join our prayer with the prayer of the whole church. 

The full Divine Office runs to four volumes and it is expected that priests and deacons and other religious will participate in this prayer of the church daily. Lay people can join through shorter forms of Morning and Evening prayer, the Magnificat publication or smartphone apps and websites like iBreviary and Universalis which facilitate liturgical prayer.

Benedict does not expect prayer to be limited to liturgical prayer. He also says that the oratory should be kept open so the monk can go there at any time and cry out to the Lord the longings of his heart. In addition, Benedict says prayers should be short, sharp and from the heart. In other words, informal, passionate prayer is to complement the more formal and structured liturgical prayer.

Furthermore, in the Benedictine life prayer is integrated into every aspect of life. The monks are to memorize the psalms so they might pray without ceasing. Prayers and praise are offered as monks exchange kitchen duties, as they process into church, as they begin work and as they bless their food.

As we approach the great celebration of the Lord’s resurrection we can take the opportunity to pray again that our lights might be lit in the darkness, that we might know again the power of our baptism and be drawn once more to a renewed commitment to prayer—knowing that through prayer everything else is sanctified. Through prayer we will find the power to obey, the roots to be stable and the fire of God’s love that will convert every aspect of our lives.