For Benedictines, daily, communal liturgical prayer is central to their commitment. They pray together because that is their work, writes Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill.
BY Catherine McCahill SGS
What do you do? I wonder what we mean when we ask this question? I wonder about my own answer. Do I describe my role as a member of the leadership team of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, or what might I say?
Five years ago, at the 2011 Chapter Gathering of my congregation, together with all other Good Samaritan Sisters, I proclaimed:
As Sisters of the Good Samaritan, we seek God who impels us to be neighbour. We commit ourselves to:
• The Work of God
These commitments are sharply stated but require much reflection for full understanding. At first glance, we might think that the “Work of God” is the work of Christian discipleship, the effort of missionary zeal. Can it be measured by productivity or creativity?
For those who live by the Rule of St Benedict, as I do, the Work of God (Opus Dei) is essentially the Divine Liturgy, the prayer of the community. As Sisters of the Good Samaritan, this is our first ‘work’; all else flows from it, and is energised by it.
Of course, for all Christians, prayer is an essential component of a Gospel-life. Many Christian women and men pray the official Prayer of the Church daily (at least two or three times during the day). For Benedictines, however, daily, communal liturgical prayer is central to their commitment. They pray together because that is their work. Their purpose is not to sustain their other works or to grow in their life of discipleship. These may be consequences, but never the reason.
So for me, this is the “Work of God”. It is what I DO, what we DO. Firstly, and primarily, we pray together. Morning and evening, at dawn and dusk, we gather as a community for prayer. Day after day, week after week, one year after another, we pray the Prayer of the Church.
The Constitutions of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan remind us that the Work of God is “a necessary framework for a life of sustained prayerfulness and a practical schooling in Gospel values”. This daily practice of communal prayer forms us and sustains us in our life of discipleship. We become what we pray.
Central to this liturgical prayer are the Psalms, the ancient prayers of the Hebrew people, prayed by Jesus and his disciples, and continually prayed by the community that followed. As our congregation’s Book of Hours so beautifully states, the Psalms: “express every emotion and mood of the human heart; praise and thanksgiving, hope and longing, lament and complaint, and at times, even rage. They give us words to bless God, to repent, to cry for mercy, to bear affliction with courage, and to rejoice and lament together”.
The Psalms teach us how to listen in every dimension of our lives. We listen for each others’ voice, for the voice of our God, for the voice of our world and of the entire cosmos. We become the “cantors of the universe”, to use the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel.
We become one with all creation as we sing:
The sky tells the glory of God,
tells the genius of God’s work.
Day carries the news to day,
night brings the message to night,
without a word, without a sound,
without a voice being heard,
yet their message fills the world,
their news reaches its rim. (Psalm 19)
Let heaven and earth be glad,
the sea and sea creatures roar,
the field and its beasts exult.
Then let the trees of the forest sing
before the coming of the Lord… (Psalm 96)
Our immersion in the great cosmic hymn of praise helps us to pray. With all of creation we lift our hearts to God. When we join our fellow creatures, notes the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, “in their own clapping and singing, we come to understand that their value for God is not based on their usefulness for us, an awareness with enormous ethical implications for how we exercise ecological responsibility”. Conversion becomes possible.
We learn to voice our laments and the laments of the community. How poignant is this call in a world of war and terrorism, a world where we know daily of slavery and abuse, a world where 65 million people are refugees. We learn to cry out against the political and nationalist structures that degrade humanity, including in our own country, and in those places where we detain people seeking asylum.
God, my God,
why have you abandoned me –
far from my cry, my words of pain?
I call by day, you do not answer;
I call by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22)
We learn to give voice to hope. We give thanks for all that is good amongst us and between the peoples of this planet.
I know I will see
how good God is
while I am still alive.
Trust in the Lord. Be strong.
Be brave. Trust in the Lord. (Psalm 27)
So for Sisters of the Good Samaritan, the Work of God is foremost. We gather for community prayer because that is our life and that is our commitment. Not because we are better pray-ers, or because we have more need of prayer, but simply because we have made this commitment and we know that prayer is our ‘work’.
As we pray we are changed; we become what we pray. We are impelled to discipleship, to be neighbour. We learn to notice those who are battered and bruised, those left by the side of the road – in reality or existentially. We discover new energy for ecological conversion, we know our oneness with all creation.
Jesus claimed, “The Father goes on working and so do I” (John 5:17). Further, he commissions his disciples to participate in this work. So we know that our work – our prayer and our activity – continues God’s creative work. The cosmos is being completed through our hands, by God’s initiative.
This is what I DO, what we DO. Intentionally and deliberately, we pray the Liturgy of the Hours with and on behalf of the entire cosmos. In the words of a great twentieth century Benedictine, Columba Marmion:
“Before beginning the Diving Office, [we] cast a glance over the whole world: leaders of Churches and world religions, …leaders of nations, the sick, the dying, prisoners, the poor, the homeless, the lonely and discouraged, all who are suffering in mind or body, children of the world, sinners … for at this moment we are the mouth of the whole church.”