One of the most readily recognizable passages in the Rule of Saint Benedict concerns the public prayer of the monastic community: “Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the work of God” (Chapter 43, first paragraph). When Benedict uses such an unusual expression as “work of God” for the public prayer of the monastery, he is drawing on monastic tradition, where the term probably refers to God’s prior claim on human activity as opposed to merely human projects or ambitions.
In any case, Benedict emphasizes the importance of this public prayer by devoting no less than twelve chapters of the Rule to his description of how the “work of God” is to be structured. He is also very concerned about the timetable for public prayer, as he sets aside seven distinct periods during the day when the monks are to drop whatever work may be engaging their attention in order to gather for prayerful recognition of God’s claim on their lives.
Time is one of the most precious gifts that we humans receive from God. It is clear that Benedict wants his monks to acknowledge this gift by returning choice portions of their time each day to God. In this way, they will practice the most basic form of hospitality, which is to make room in their schedules for the entertainment of God’s real but mysterious presence. All other forms of hospitality, whether it is welcoming guests or respecting nature, derive from this profound respect for the mystery of God. Thus, the apparent folly of “wasting” time on God becomes the wisest possible use of this precious gift.
This public prayer of the monastic community is made up primarily of biblical psalms, but there are also readings from other parts of Scripture, as well as special prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer. The constant chanting of the psalms is intended to immerse the monk in a world where God’s presence is felt and where God’s goodness is praised. This world is made accessible to the monk through personal faith, which finds the gift of God at the center of all reality, in spite of much evil and violence on the surface of human life.
For the purpose of achieving this prayerful immersion, Benedict prescribed that his monks should memorize the entire Psalter. This must have been a daunting task for the younger members of the monastery. But they would have been greatly assisted and encouraged by the older members, for we can well imagine that they were carried along, as it were, on the waves of biblical words provided by their elders. Over the years, the effect would be that the minds and memories of all the monks would be filled more and more with expressions of praise and gratitude.
Living with the psalms in this way would become like a second nature and would color the consciousness of the monks in every circumstance of life. This would in turn gradually realize the ideal of monastic holiness, namely, a constant, loving awareness of the reality and presence of God in all of human life. With this awareness would also come a deep inner sense of peace and harmony, regardless of external chaos or even the final disruption we call death.
These unvarying and regular periods of praise and thanksgiving were thus intended to bring about that spiritual conversion which Benedict valued so highly. Such a transformation finds expression ultimately in liberation from self-centred preoccupation and anxiety, as the monk commits himself to unselfish love and service. The inner peace and calm realized through prayer will then permit greater awareness of the needs of others and the freedom to respond to those needs.
Such generosity is made possible through an ever-deeper trust in God’s goodness as reflected in the reality of divine promises. The future will accordingly be changed from a time of threat and darkness to an illuminated horizon producing invincible hope and joyful expectation. The monastic tradition has recognized this dimension of Benedictine spirituality by making Benedict the patron of a happy death.
It is well worth noting that Benedict, in spite of his meticulous concern for the structure of this public prayer of the community, makes explicit provision for the right of future abbots to modify the timetable and structure of this prayer. This makes it quite clear that Benedict did not believe that an exact, much less a scrupulous, observance of the “work of God” would produce the salvation of monks in some magical or mechanical way. Such prayerful attention to God will greatly assist them, however, in the painful conversion demanded by unselfish and sensitive behavior in all areas of their lives.
This public monastic prayer is not to be understood, therefore, as scheduled moments of explicit prayers totally divorced from the rest of the monks’ lives. They are to be understood rather as times when God’s loving presence is at center stage, as it were, while at other times of the day God is not totally forgotten but is allowed to recede to the wings. From there his presence can be recalled at any moment, especially when there is that atmosphere of silence and recollection that Benedict wishes his monks to foster in the cloister.
We know that Benedict’s spiritual wisdom is valid for all Christians. Many lay people would like to share in that wisdom and they can do so even when they are prevented from regular participation in the public prayer of the monastery. There are breviaries available, which contain prayers very similar to those used in monasteries. By saying these prayers, lay people will also be able to consecrate each day to God and to enter into that same loving awareness of the divine presence in their lives.
—Father Demetrius Dumm O.S.B.