However, praying the Liturgy of the Hours with the monks in community is something else again. It is not even so much the words, it’s the presence of others praying together, the timing, the rhythm.
And the chant. The chant of the monks. In harmony. Praising God.
Too beautiful for words.
At the monastery where we recently went on retreat, the monks sat in the monastic choir stalls nearest the altar and we retreatants sat in the choir stalls behind them. The books to use for the prayers and songs were open and set on the right page for each prayer time. A few of the monks had that job of fixing the books for everyone, including us. Especially us, since most of us did not know what we were doing.
Once we understood what books to use and when to use them, we could stop worrying and really immerse ourselves in the prayer. And once we got the tune and rhythm of the chant, we could join in. Quietly. We did not want to throw them off key! (Have you ever tried to “whisper-sing”?)
The schedule for prayer:
4 am - Vigils
7 am - Lauds (morning prayer) and Mass
12:15 pm - Midday prayer
5:20 pm - Vespers (evening prayer)
7:30 pm - Compline (night prayer)
We did not go to the 4 am Vigils that first morning. Actually we really had no intention of ever going to Vigils. Too early! But then we heard that the monks usually pray for about 30 minutes and then turn off all the lights and leave for 30 minutes and then come back to pray some more. And we retreatants can just stay there and pray in the dark. And the silence.
I was intrigued. I mentioned to my husband that I might set the alarm and go to Vigils. Wake me up if you go, he told me as he turned in for the night.
Now mind you, we were only about 60 seconds from our seats in the church. Our rooms were near the door at the end of the hall. We just needed to walk through that doorway, down about 6 steps and there was the door to the church. Several steps later and we were in our seats.
So at 3:30 am, my alarm went off. I quickly got dressed, woke up my husband, washed my hands and face and we slipped quietly down the dark hall into the dark church and found the choir stalls. When the prayer started, some of the lights came on, just enough so we could read.
When the lights turned off for that 30 minutes in the middle of the prayer time, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. So quiet. So peaceful. And I sat and listened to the Lord speak to my heart. That 30 minutes just flew by. I was so surprised when the monks returned and the lights came back on.
I decided then and there that whenever I was in a monastery where they prayed the vigils, I would go. 4 am or not. It didn’t matter. It was such a blessing to both of us, and so difficult to explain.
David Stendl-Rast (author with Sharon Lebell of “The Music of Silence”) wrote that the hour of vigils is “… the night watch hour, the time for learning to trust the darkness.”
Learning to trust the darkness. A darkness that gives light.
“The light shines in the darkness,Ever since we came home, I have been trying to pray in the darkness in the morning. I cannot recapture the vigils with the monks. But I can take that time to start the day. I can take that time to learn to trust the darkness.
and the darkness has not overcome it. “ - John 1:5
And to listen to the silence.
This is the third in a series of posts on the retreat that my husband, Rich, and I attended at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, in Georgia.