I find comfort in this ancient idea that prayer can weave through the fabric of my work life, where I spend the bulk of my time and energy. I can try to make all of my actions a kind of prayer, writes Judith Valente.
By Judith Valente
I write these words from a small Medieval town in south-central Italy called Guardiagrele. There are ten Catholic churches in the town center. Daily Mass is offered morning and evening. One of the joys for me of being Catholic is to be able to participate in the Mass, no matter the language. The vocabulary will differ, but the prayers are the same. When I step inside a Catholic church anywhere in the world, I am home.
I have never excelled at praying. That’s a sad admission from someone who is a Benedictine Oblate, and thus steeped in the tradition of the Psalms and other prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. Like many busy people, I struggle to carve out time to meditate on Scripture, much less write down any reflections on what I read.
That is one reason I so much appreciate being able to attend daily Mass. The prayers are ready-made. They also express many of the sentiments in my heart:
“I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in my thoughts, in my words, in my deeds, in what I have done and what I have failed to do…
Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed…
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy…”
Whatever other activities are pulling at my attention, I know that for the half hour to 45 minutes of the day that I am at Mass, my sole focus is on something larger than myself – the will of God in my life.
I believe with all my heart that Mass is the place where a coin-sized wafer and ordinary table wine are transformed into the real presence of Jesus Christ. A friend of mine who is a convert once observed that few Catholics seem to attend weekday Masses. “What we are seeing every day at communion time is a miracle,” he said. “Wouldn’t you want to see a miracle occur every day of the week?” Good question.
The monastic Liturgy of the Hours is another important part of my prayer life. One of the reasons I love staying at monasteries is that distinct times for prayer build a rhythm into the day. It reinforces that each hour of the day is in its own way sacred. No wonder, then, that St Benedict devoted 12 chapters of his Rule to the times for prayer, the type of prayer to be said, the order of prayer, and the demeanor a person is to exhibit when praying.
Another name for monastic prayer is the Divine Office. The word ‘office’ implies daily work. To call prayer an office suggests we ought to pay attention to our prayer life in the same way we faithfully carry out our work duties.
The first time I spent an extended period at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani outside of Louisville, Kentucky, I wondered if I would make it to Vigils – the first prayers of the day. They begin, after all, at 3:15am. But when the bells rang at 2:45am, I bolted out of bed and walked down a hill from the guest house to the monastery church. There to illuminate my path was a full moon, and in the southern sky, a swathe of stars like a carpet of white Christmas lights: the Milky Way. Waking at that hour, surrounded so vividly by the vast mystery of the cosmos, I felt as though I was living the words of the Psalmist:
“When I see the heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you arranged,
what are we humans that you keep us in mind,
mortal creatures that you care for us …
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic your works
In all the world” (Psalm 8)
There is something deeply humbling about interrupting our sleep to stand with others in prayer. We become part of a mystery that is larger than ourselves. We realise we are but a small part of the universe, not the centre of it.
As a married, professional woman, and like most people, I can’t live full-time in a monastery. In the course of my busy work days, I don’t have the luxury of regularly stopping to pray the Psalms. So how can I – and other harried people – nurture a meaningful prayer life?
The early monastics who lived in the Egyptian desert offer some guidance. They wove their baskets and prayed. They ate their dinner and prayed. They received guests and prayed. They went to bed and prayed. And in the silence of their hearts, they prayed.
I find comfort in this ancient idea that prayer can weave through the fabric of my work life, where I spend the bulk of my time and energy. I can try to make all of my actions a kind of prayer.
The great spiritual teacher Thomas Merton understood this about prayer. As he wrote so beautifully in his essay, Day of a Stranger, “What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.”
When I look upon my work as a form of prayer, I am less tempted to argue with my colleagues or complain. I better manage my temper, my need to criticise, and my impulse to gossip.
Because my work life is an endless stream of distractions and demands, I try to take short pauses during the course of my day. It is my way of practicing a personal Liturgy of the Hours.
One simple discipline I’ve adopted is to write a daily three-line poem – a Japanese haiku. I learned this contemplative practice from my friend Brother Paul Quenon of the Abbey of Gethsemani.
“In meditation, I aim for a simple awareness of the present moment,” he once told me. “My haiku is an articulation of the gift of that moment, a brief conclusion to time spent in silence.” It is an idea straight out of the Benedictine Rule: “Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.” (RB, 20)
Throughout the day, I look and listen for what might become my three lines. Writing those lines turns into a form of prayer. It gives me a greater sense of having lived my day.
Prayer need not involve a riot of words. “Watch and pray” was a common counsel in the early Church. For those of us embroiled in the busy world of work, sometimes the best prayer of all is silence.