Donald P. Richmond:
In one of his most profound writings, “Four Quartets,” T. S. Eliot tells us that the answer to our “disaffection” (alienation) is to “descend lower, descend only/ Into the deeper world of perpetual solitude.” Only this can help us to escape from being “distracted from distraction by distraction” (Burnt Norton III). But the price for many people may appear to be too austere, too demanding. The sensual in all its expressions must be answered with what Eliot calls “deprivation.”
The very first word in the Rule of St. Benedict is an austere and demanding word. Its expectation is severe and its experience is deprivation. “LISTEN,” is St. Benedict’s first and foremost rule. Intensifying this word, however, are other words that make even the heartiest of souls to hesitate. We must listen to our “master,” as we “receive”, “carry out”, and “labor” to “fulfill” God’s expectations. We must “renounce” our own will and “pray earnestly” to perfect God’s will.
The cultivation of a listening heart is not an easy task. In fact, listening requires that we “dig” our ears. A great deal of clutter must be cleared, including the clutter of our (at times) resistance. Some of this clutter may be sin, the outrageous cacophony of our “disordered passions” staging riots. At other times the clutter may not be sinful but it may be of secondary (at best) importance. There are other occasions when we must abandon the clutter of the good in order to acquire the best. As an example, Martha was not wrong in her desire to serve Jesus; it was just that Mary had chosen “the better way.” In order to embrace the better way we will need to sink down into silence. We must “descend lower.”
How can we do this? How can we attain and maintain a listening ear?
There are several means for achieving this, some of which were hinted at in previous articles. Seeking solitude, using the Jesus Prayer, and securing a spiritual director are crucial. But there is another means of achieving stillness, silence. It is the way of patterned prayer using the process of Lectio Divina as a guide.
What is patterned prayer? What is Lectio Divina? The desire of every Christian is to speak with God. If we do not have such a desire we are either not Christian or there is some other impediment that must be swiftly addressed. Often, however, when we do pray our prayers are often undisciplined and they have very little connection to the historic church or its life. Our prayers may be of either longer or shorter duration, and are not inherently wrong, but must be more thoroughly grounded in God’s word and in the history of the Church.
The answer to this lack of discipline, or, in many cases, lack of breadth and depth, is to embrace some form of patterned prayer that has been historically tested. At its mos
t simple level this pattern of prayer must include readings from the Daily Lectionary and include reflective reading of the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles. The careful and prayerful recitation of both the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, along with silent listening, will be included. So as not to be overwhelmed, especially for novices on patterned prayer, maybe readings exclusively from the Psalms and the Gospels should be capitalized upon.
For a person who is a bit more disciplined, or has more time afforded them, purchasing a Prayer Book might be of use. Several texts immediately come to mind. The Episcopal Church publishes The Daily Office Book which is very easy to use and incorporates patterned prayer with readings from the Lectionary. Similarly, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod produces A Treasury of Daily Prayer. Much like the Episcopal Prayer Book, it differs in its size (one larger volume in contrast to two smaller volumes), text (ESV instead of NRSV), content (no Apocrypha for Lutherans), and price (about one-half the price of the Episcopal text). Apart from these, and although it does not include the daily readings, Dr. Robert E. Webber has compiled a couple of wonderful little prayer books that are useful for beginners: The Book of Daily Prayer and The Prymer. For those who might be inclined toward Benedictine Spirituality, the form of spirituality encouraged by St. Benedict and his followers, the most recently released Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book is very accessible, as are The Glenstal Book of Prayer and The Glenstal Book of Daily Prayer. And finally, for those intrigued by the spirituality of our Orthodox family (often overlooked), Father John McGuckin’s newly released Prayer Book of the Early Christians is a delight — although it too offers no Lectionary readings. All of this, of course, is to encourage a more robust life of prayer — prayer rooted in, moving toward, and cultivating, silence. The first two texts, Episcopal and Lutheran, are far more expansive and will require far more time. As such, for Evangelicals who may not be familiar with patterned prayer, I would encourage them to use one of Webber’s texts (for those who simply want to make a beginning) or the Lutheran Treasury of Daily Prayer (for those who want complete Lectionary readings and want to spend more time in patterned prayer).
These texts all include some form of what monasticism calls the Daily Offices, patterned prayer we pray with the Church. Nevertheless, it is not so much WHAT we pray (within certain guidelines) but HOW we pray. The idea is to create and maintain a contemplative pattern and process of prayer. This is where Lectio Divina comes into play. Father Luke Dysinger, a monastic scholar, has said that Lectio is the prayerful reading and praying of Holy Scripture. This is critical for any Christian of any age to learn. I have highlighted the website in which Fr. Luke outlines this process http://www.saintandrewsabbey.com/SearchResults.asp?Cat=35 and I encourage the reader to access Father Luke’s reflections on Lectio.
The cultivation of a listening ear, of attaining stillness, is vital to a robust faith. These keys will, I hope, encourage waiting upon God with a listening ear and a still heart.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.