May 2011

An integrated life

St Gregory the Great used to pray “Give me the grace to see life whole”. We all long for this and it is possible to experience this wholeness, writes Good Samaritan Sister Margaret Malone.

BY Margaret Malone SGS

It is not unusual to hear people express a concern that their lives can seem unbalanced at times. We can be overwhelmed with busyness at times and wonder how we can ensure that we give enough time to family, friends, leisure, rest, our spiritual lives as well as to our work.

St Benedict gives attention to what we might call the spiritual dimensions of our lives – silence, obedience, humility, prayer in the early chapters of his Rule. But Benedict is indeed a practical man and of the 73 chapters of the Rule about 50 chapters concern the details of the monks’ lives. Such things as sleeping arrangements, meals, guests, work all receive due attention.

One chapter of the Rule in particular holds a key to how he sees our lives as an integrated whole. This is chapter 48 which is headed “The Daily Manual Labour”. In fact the chapter is a description of a whole balanced lifestyle. Periods of manual labour are specified as well as being interspersed with times of prayerful reading. But our lives are more than just lives of work and prayer.

Benedict knows this and what he is really describing is that the monks’ day is a pattern of work, prayer together, prayerful reading, rest, meals. It is a wonderful description of a completely integrated life. We do not find balance through weighing up the time given to each activity and setting these times one against another. Rather one flows into the other. Prayer or holy reading (lectio divina) and the prayer in common – the divine office, become the hinges around which everything else turns. Thus there is a rhythm and balance to the days.

It is in this chapter of the Rule that the term holy reading or lectio divina occurs and this careful reading of scripture is central to the pattern of the day. In the later monastic tradition it was expressed that when one reads the scripture with great attention we can hear God speaking a word to us and we are moved to respond in our own prayer.

Cistercian monk, Andre Louf, in his book Teach us to Pray, speaks of the image of a lute. Prayer flows from our hearts when we pluck the strings of our heart with the plectrum which is the word of God. None of us can spend the amount of time Benedict suggests at this holy reading but in even short moments of quiet with scripture we can hear God speak. Then we remember these moments later in the day as we walk, drive, reflect, move from one activity to the next. In this way we can give even momentary attention to God.

In another section of the Rule, the main chapters on prayer, chapters 8-20, Benedict speaks in detail about the Divine Office or what he calls the Work of God. The central aspect of the structure of this prayer is the psalms. So the prayer in common is also scripturally based. The psalms are a rich source of prayer and also show clearly the connection of prayer and all aspects of our lives. When we use the psalms in our prayer, our own particular needs and desires are expressed and the sorrows, joys, concerns of the world are made our own.

The phrase so familiar to all Benedictines “so that in everything God may be glorified” shows the connection between prayer and all other aspects of our lives. St Gregory the Great used to pray “Give me the grace to see life whole”. We all long for this and it is possible to experience this wholeness through finding even some short time of quiet each day for a prayerful reading of the scripture. Thus our prayer weaves all aspects of our lives into a rich and integrated fabric.

Margaret Malone

Good Samaritan Sister Margaret Malone trained as a teacher and taught at all levels; her last appointment was as a lecturer at Australian Catholic University where she taught sacraments, liturgy, and social justice. Since then, her main work has been in developing formation programs throughout her own order, and in giving retreats internationally and nationally.

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